Caryn Davies lives by the personal motto of “Arete,” loosely defined as the act of living up to one’s full potential, she believes not a day or talent can be wasted – it is all work and practice in life’s narrative.
Standing at 6′ 4″ Caryn is easy to spot in a crowd – which led her to even be recruited to rowing in the first place as a 12-year-old tagging along behind her father in a local grocery store. A large, weathered-looking man strode up, pointed at her Uncle-Sam style, and intoned gruffly, “I want YOU for rowing!” Born with the physical potential to be a stellar oarswoman, it is her hard work and an unwavering pursuit of excellence that earned her incredible success in the sport over a decades-long career both on and off the water.
Beginning at the age of 15, Caryn rowed competitively on the national and international stage, first as a high-school athlete in both upstate New York and Tasmania, Australia, and then as a collegiate athlete in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she earned a seat on Harvard’s prestigious Radcliffe Varsity Crew.
But it wasn’t until years later, while preparing for her second Olympics, that Caryn was faced with what she refers to as “one of the most interesting challenges in sport and in life: leading when you cannot see what’s behind you.” In rowing, the person leading the crew, also known as the “stroke seat,” is seated at the stern of the boat and facing backward. Caryn’s challenge was to lead a team of women at her back toward a goal none of them could see.
The 2012 US Women’s 8+
Rowing the Thames
The breakthrough came when Caryn realized it was not about her. “The day I went from being a good stroke seat (the oarswoman who sets the pace for the rest of the boat) to a great stroke seat was the day that I realized my job was not to be the fastest oarswoman I can be. Rather, it is about enabling my teammates to be the fastest they can be. I learned that I needed to modulate my stroke to match that of my teammates. If I can set a rhythm that allows the seven women behind me to perform at their best, then my efforts are multiplied by eight–then the boat goes that much faster.”
This practice of pushing others forward by leading from the back proved fruitful as she led the women’s eight-oared boat from an Olympic silver medal in 2004 to back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012. Following the London Games – Caryn retired from elite competition but remained involved in the Olympic movement, including serving as Vice President of the U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Association and volunteering as Team USA’s Athlete Service Coordinator in the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. As Ms. Davies puts it, “when you love something, you do it whether or not you get paid.” During this time she continued her studies earning her MBA from Oxford, becoming a licensed attorney in Massachusetts and New York and starting her own law firm.
As time went by, Caryn’s heart tugged once more to the water (as any rower will tell you, it is the “forever sport”) and in 2018 she began quietly taking her single out on the Charles River from Union Boat Club more and more – striving to compete against her former self in skill and strength. She caught the attention of Harvard head coach Charley Butt and her former coach, Tom Teerhar to which she asked – What exactly would it take to get back to training with the national team? After a victory at the Head of the Charles and CRASH-B’s ergometer competition Caryn left her corporate law firm, began her own, and relocated to train with the USA Women’s National team once more where she competed in the 4+ for the United States at Worlds in 2019.
In a Q&A interview for Row 360, Caryn commented in regards to her comeback: “[I thought] I will never be the best lawyer in the world, but I could still be the best oarswoman in the world’ (or at least one of them, anyway). Once I realized that the decision was clear.”
Expectations of herself were high – her goals were not more titles to her name but 1) To learn something new — perhaps to master the coxless four (arguably, the hardest boat to row), and 2) To be the best teammate that she can be.
Training with Team USA once more proved a harrowing experience, as Caryn vied for seats in boats with athletes half her age and ultimately she did not earn a spot in Tokyo. A difficult and humbling turn of events, this proved to be yet another growth point — learning when to change course, and Caryn cheered on Team USA from afar.
If you ask Caryn about that day in the supermarket all those years ago, she’ll tell you she sometimes wonders what her life would be like had that coach not spotted her. It’s hard for her to imagine life without rowing. And now, after more than 25 years in the sport–it would be hard to imagine rowing without Caryn Davies.
Now fully in retirement from elite competition – Caryn continues to strive for a brand of excellence in practicing law and pursuing motivational speaking and mentorship to help shape Corporate America.