Long-limbed Caryn Davies was 12 years old and tagging along behind her father in a local grocery store when a large, weathered-looking man strode up, pointed at her Uncle-Sam style, and intoned gruffly, “I want YOU for rowing!” Already 6 feet tall, Caryn clearly possessed the physical potential to be a stellar oarswoman, but it was her hard work and unwavering pursuit of excellence that earned her incredible success in the sport.
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 backwards. Caryn’s challenge was to lead a team of women at her back toward a goal none of them could see.
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.
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 20 years in the sport–more than half of them at the elite level–it would be hard to imagine rowing without Caryn Davies.
Caryn retired from elite competition in 2012 but remains 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.”