When the U.S. women’s four goes to the line on Sunday for its first heat at the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Linz, Austria, fans of the sport might do a double take when they look at the crew.
Stroking the four is Caryn Davies, who stroked the U.S. women’s eight to two consecutive Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012. She was also part of the crew that won silver at the Olympic Games Athens 2004 — the first Olympic medal for the U.S. women’s eight in 20 years. When she retired in 2012, Davies was the most decorated female rower in U.S. history.
At the time, Davies thought the final at the London 2012 Games was her final regatta as an elite oarswoman.
“I figured I’d had a good run and everything ended well, and it was time to do other things,” Davies said by phone this week from Austria.
But now, after seven years of doing those other things, the 37-year-old has decided to try for a fourth and final Olympic Games.
So what prompted the comeback? And how did she spend the past seven years? (Hint: Once a rower, always a rower.)
First, there was law school. After London, Davies returned to Columbia University for her final year of law school. That spring, she did a study abroad at Oxford University in England. The history of modern competitive rowing is rooted in Oxford, particularly the bumps races, which started in 1815. In bumps racing, boats chase each other single file on the River Thames, with each crew trying to bump the boat in front without being bumped from the boat behind. For rowers, it’s too fun to pass up. Davies rowed on the men’s team for Pembroke College, one of Oxford’s 39 colleges, and together she and her crew won the race.
After graduating from law school, Davies spent the following year in Honolulu as a judicial clerk for Judge Richard Clifton of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A colleague who had previously held the same clerkship suggested to Davies that she try outrigger canoeing. The Outrigger Canoe Club was a mile from her apartment, and she was thrilled to be part of a team again.
“That’s what I was missing most after leaving rowing,” said Davies.
In August 2014, Davies and her five outrigger canoe teammates won the women’s novice division at the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association state championship, beating the Waikiki Beach Boys by over five seconds.
The following year, Davies went back to Oxford, this time to earn an MBA. Again, she stayed near the water. That April (2015), she stroked the Oxford women’s eight in The Boat Race, a famed annual regatta held on the London Tideway between crews from Oxford and Cambridge. It was first held in 1829, with a women’s event first included in 1927. But that women’s race was held separately from the men’s and on a shorter course (and in the early years, the women were judged on style as well as speed). In 2015, the men’s and women’s boats competed on the same course for the first time. Davies was therefore stroking the women’s eight in a historic race.
The Oxford crew beat Cambridge by six and a half lengths.
“I felt like this was the last major race that I had never experienced,” Davies told TeamUSA.org at the time. Only students at Oxford or Cambridge are eligible to compete.
With her MBA, Davies returned to Boston and took a job in corporate law. She joined the Union Boat Club and rowed occasionally. In August 2016, she watched the U.S. women’s eight win a third consecutive Olympic gold medal on TV, but she didn’t miss it.
Then Davies decided that she wanted to make a career shift.
“One of the best ways to do that would be to develop my network, and rowing is a great network,” she said.
She became a regular at the Union Boathouse, taking out her single on the Charles River every day.
Harvard coach Charley Butt took notice. One day last August, he drove by Davies in his launch, lifted his megaphone and boomed, “Caryn, are you training for 2020? You should. You love rowing, and rowing loves you!”
“That’s what planted the seed,” said Davies.
“It was then that 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),” she recently wrote in a Q&A for the British magazine Row 360. “Once I realized that, the decision was clear.”
Davies was also intrigued by the addition of the women’s four on the Olympic program in 2020. (Women rowed a coxless four at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992, with the U.S. winning a silver medal that year, while the coxed four was part of four Games from 1976 to 1988, but it was subsequently dropped from the program.)
The four, she states, is the hardest boat to row.
“In a pair, you can compensate for differences in technique; you can figure out what your partner is doing and mirror it,” she explained. “In an eight, it’s big enough and stable enough that it can mask all manner of sins. People can have bad habits, and it doesn't really matter. A quad is symmetrical (each rower has two oars), so if someone has a bad habit, it’s less likely to upset the boat."
“In a four, you really have to row well and row together in order to make the boat go. I’ve been in fours with very competent rowers that were just awful. No matter what we did, we couldn’t figure out how to make it better.”
Caryn Davies (second from right) and teammates celebrate during the women's eight medal ceremony at the Olympic Games London 2012 on Aug. 2, 2012 in Windsor, England.
Davies entered the women’s single sculls race in the Head of the Charles last fall, then trained hard on the ergometer last winter. If she could get close to the erg scores that she was pulling in 2012, then she would rejoin the team.
In February, she quit her job and began her own law firm. She is doing contract work — enough right now to pay the bills.
She also contacted USRowing’s coaches and laid out a plan. Laurel Korholz, the assistant women’s coach, gave her benchmark workouts to shoot for, and she asked head coach Tom Terhaar, “If I want to make the 2019 team, when is the latest I can show up [at team headquarters] in Princeton?” She wanted as much time as possible to regain form and fitness.
Asked if the coaches welcomed her back, Davies laughed, then said, “The coaches don’t show much emotion. I think just by inviting me to come back, that shows that they were glad to see me. If they didn’t think I could make a positive contribution, then they wouldn't have invited me back.”
In June 2019, she arrived at the team selection camp in Princeton, New Jersey. She knew hardly any of the rowers.
“I felt like the new kid in kindergarten,” Davies said. “I showed up on day one and said, ‘Hi guys, can I join you?’”
The women competing for the national team, she found, are physically stronger than when she last competed in 2012 — back when she was one of the strongest on the team. They are also more outwardly supportive, willing to provide and receive feedback. It’s a new culture, and she is hesitant to speak up until she has earned her place on the team. In her previous tenure with the national team, Davies only received feedback from the coaches.
“I’ve noticed on this team feedback is just something that happens organically,” she said. “I’m trying to absorb that. I haven’t been very vocal yet.”
At the camp, Davies was selected to compete in the four at world championships. It’s her seventh trip to worlds, and she is rowing the four with three veterans: Madeleine Wanamaker and Molly Bruggeman, who were part of the four that won the world championship in 2018 (Bruggeman also rowed the four at 2016 and 2017 worlds, taking the silver medal in 2016 and finishing fourth in 2017); and Vicky Opitz, who competed in the four at two world cups this season and has won four world championship titles in the eight (2013-2015 and 2018).
The stakes are high. Not only are they attempting to defend the world title in the four, but the U.S. women’s four has only finished off the podium once at worlds in the past decade.
But Davies does not list world championship or Olympic medals as a goal. Her goals are: 1) To learn something new — perhaps to master the coxless four, and 2) To be the best teammate that she can be.
Davies is known for her sound technique, and she hopes to help her teammates learn to move a boat more efficiently.
“In fact, if in the next year I teach someone to row better and then she turns around and beats me for the last spot on the Olympic team,” Davies wrote in the Row 360 Q&A, “I will retire satisfied that I’ve achieved the goal I set out to achieve.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.