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Forty Years Later, Sisters Judy & Carlie Geer Reflect On Lessons Learned From The 1980 Olympic Boycott

By Peggy Shinn | July 19, 2020, 10 a.m. (ET)

Carlie Geer (front) and Judy Geer (back) row together for Dartmouth College.

 

Forty years ago, Judy and Carlie Geer should have been walking into the Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Games Moscow 1980—the first sisters to ever row together in a double scull for Team USA. 

It would have been the second Olympiad for Judy, the first for Carlie, who had never even seen crew until she had begged for time off from her camp counselor job so she could watch Judy compete in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. In those Games, Judy had rowed in the coxed four, finishing sixth, and Carlie—wanting to keep up with her big sister—said to their dad, “I’m going to row in the next Olympics with Judy.”

Instead, they stayed home. They did not know at the time that they would stick with competitive rowing through the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where Carlie would win a silver medal in the single sculls. 

“I probably could not have told you right away that I was definitely going to keep training and racing for another four years,” said Carlie by Zoom from a cabin at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in northern Vermont. “All I knew was I didn’t want to stop because I was loving what I was doing.”

Judy echoed Carlie’s thoughts. She has loved rowing ever since setting foot in a practice barge at Smith College in the early 1970s.

This realization—that they were rowing because they enjoyed it, not because they coveted Olympic or world championship medals—made the devastation of the 1980 Olympic boycott easier to digest. And the lessons learned have helped Judy guide her children in their athletic pursuits. Hannah and Emily Dreissigacker competed in the 2014 and 2018 Olympic Winter Games in biathlon, respectively, and brother Ethan also competed internationally in biathlon.

* * *

Judy Geer first rowed at Smith, where “proper rowing for young ladies” was part of physical education. She had grown up swimming and sailing, and she liked rowing, even if it wasn’t yet a competitive endeavor at Smith.

Her junior year, she transferred up the Connecticut River to Dartmouth College. The college had recently gone co-ed and, with Title IX legislation opening up women’s collegiate sports offerings, had just started a women’s varsity crew. She liked rowing so much that when she graduated from Dartmouth in 1975, she stayed in Hanover, working for an ecology professor and rowing in a single scull she had purchased herself.

“I realized that I wasn’t going to graduate and grow up and stop doing sports, no way,” she Judy. “This is way too much fun.”

In early spring of 1976, her coach suggested that she train in Boston. Women’s rowing would make its Olympic debut at the 1976 Games, and Harvard coach Harry Parker would be the women’s Olympic coach, with the selection camp in Boston. Judy made the coxed four for the Montreal Games. And Carlie, 18 at the time, caught the rowing bug simply by watching.

Back at Dartmouth in the fall, Carlie soon fell in love with rowing. After a stint teaching math and coaching at a New Hampshire prep school, Judy was back at Dartmouth too, coaching the women, Carlie included. Around her coaching responsibilities, she rowed in her scull and made world championship teams in 1977 and 1979. 

In February 1980, the Geer sisters moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where national team coach Kris Korzeniowski invited Olympic hopefuls. 

As training progressed through the spring, Carlie’s speed was improving. Although they had never competed together in a double before, the sisters wanted to give it a try, and Korzeniowski was supportive.

“It put fresh energy into our goals and our rowing,” said Judy. “We wanted to be the fastest double in the U.S.”

* * *

But their path to the Olympic Games had already begun to veer off-course. Less than two months earlier when, the Soviet Union deployed its army to Afghanistan to intervene in a war between the insurgent mujahedeen and Afghanistan’s communist party. President Jimmy Carter, also dealing with the Iranian hostage crisis at the time, knew the United States needed to respond.

On January 4, 1980, President Carter addressed the nation on the situation in Afghanistan. After detailing trade restrictions that the U.S. would impose on the Soviets, he stated: “Although the United States would prefer not to withdraw from the Olympic Games scheduled in Moscow this summer, the Soviet Union must realize that its continued aggressive actions will endanger both the participation of athletes and the travel to Moscow by spectators who would normally wish to attend the Olympic Games.” 

Ten days later, the Carter Administration set a deadline by which the Soviet Union had to pull out of Afghanistan: Withdraw by February 20, 1980, or face consequences. One such consequence was an international boycott of the 1980 Games. 

While holding a hard line against the Soviets, Carter was sympathetic with the athletes. He called on the International Olympic Committee to move the Olympic Games to Greece. It was still January.

"It wasn't too late to do that," Carter told a group of journalists before the start of the 1996 Olympic Games in his home state of Georgia.

The U.S. Olympic Committee also urged the IOC to move the Games. But the IOC declined. The 1980 Olympic Games would remain in Moscow. 

The February 20 deadline for Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan came and went. 

Two days later, the U.S. beat the Soviets in the semifinals of the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament in Lake Placid—the Miracle on Ice. 

But there was no such miracle in diplomacy. With no change to the situation, Carter pushed U.S. allies to pull their Olympic teams from the Moscow Games. 

But it was not President Carter’s decision. The decision to send a team to Moscow rested with the USOC’s 300-member House of Delegates, which would meet on April 12. The USOC encouraged Olympians and Olympic hopefuls to continue training for the Games. 

On March 21, the Carter administration invited over 100 U.S. athletes and coaches to the White House. Some thought it would be a town hall, where the President would listen to their concerns and desires. But others knew where Carter stood. 

After pointing out that the Soviets had already declared that “the decision of the world community to hold the Olympics in Moscow is an acknowledgement of approval of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union,” Carter told the gathering: “I can’t say at this moment what other nations will not go to the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Ours will not go.”

At the reception afterwards, the women’s rowing team refused to shake Carter’s hand. This White House gathering was not a town hall. It was a “substitute event” for the Olympic Games, and it angered many athletes. They had trained so hard, competing in the Olympic Games was a life goal. Now a force out of their control would likely ruin their dreams. 

On Saturday, April 12—exactly 14 weeks before the start of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow—Vice President Mondale addressed the USOC House of Delegates. He cited the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936, when a boycott was rejected. 

“The result in the 1936 Games was that despite the triumphs of Jesse Owens, Hitler scored a propaganda success, thought international animosity toward him was a thing of the past, and before long, the Nazi war machine scarred the face of Europe—and soon the night closed in,” Mondale told the delegates.

Others spoke as well, including rower Anita DeFrantz, who urged the delegates to ignore the pressure put on them by the Carter administration.

In the end, the delegates voted 2-to-1 in favor of the boycott. Many saw it as their patriotic duty; if they voted no, it might appear as if they were supporting the Soviets. 

After the results of vote were announced, Judy watched some of her teammates struggle with the news and realized that she was rowing not because she coveted an Olympic medal, but because she was passionate about the sport.

“I’m so better off than some of the others who are just here to make the Olympics,” she wrote in her journal that day. “I love what I’m doing, it’s a long-term thing. I want to be doing this, I love the training lifestyle.”

There was still a sliver of hope. After the vote, 25 athletes, including DeFrantz, sued the U.S. Government over the boycott seeking permission to compete. They lost their case. 

And on April 24, USOC president Robert Kane said in an IOC executive meeting, “If there were to be a spectacular change in the international situation, the USOC could change its stand and send a team to Moscow.” 

No such change occurred. In the end, 65 countries boycotted the Moscow Games, including the U.S. and Canada. The Soviets did not withdraw from Afghanistan until 1989.

* * *

After the boycott was announced, the Geer sisters continued to row the double, competing in “pre-Olympic” races in Europe that spring and summer.

“My disappointment was tempered by the fact that I had just won the [Olympic] Trials with Judy and that was a dream in itself,” remembered Carlie. 

That fall, Judy was back at Dartmouth pursuing a master’s degree in engineering and again sculling on the Connecticut River.

“I’m lucky,” Judy said, “I had things planned. That was part of what was good for me moving forward.”

As for rowing, she would take it one year at a time—until it wasn’t fun anymore.

Carlie was not sure what to do next. Judy encouraged her to pursue an interest in nutrition. After waiting tables for a couple years, Carlie began pursuing a masters in nutrition at Tufts University, and she continued rowing in Boston.

“I don’t remember saying absolutely I have to make it all the way to [the 1984 Olympic Games],” said Carlie. “I just knew I wanted to at least keep training and try out for upcoming world championship teams.” 

In July 1981, Judy and Carlie were among the first women invited to row at the Royal Henley Regatta in England, and they finished fifth at the world championships that year. They competed at the 1983 world championships as well.

At the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984, Carlie won a silver medal in the single. In the double, Judy’s partner fell ill. They rowed anyway and made the final, but finished sixth. For Judy, it just finally felt like time to retire.

A few months later, Carlie retired from international competition as well. She was no longer having fun. Plus, women would now race 2,000 meters like the men, up from 1,000 meters.

“I never had quite as much confidence in myself for the longer races,” said Carlie. “I wanted to end on a good note.”

* * *

After earning her masters at Tufts, Carlie was a nutritionist at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington for over 32 years. She retired in December 2019.

A year after the LA Games, Judy—who earned her masters from Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering in 1983—married 1972 Olympic rower Dick Dreissigacker, who with his brother Peter had founded Concept2, maker of carbon fiber oars and indoor rowing machines. Judy joined the company, and she and Dick had three children. In 2008, they purchased the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, where they founded the Green Racing Project, an Olympic development program for sculling, cross-country skiing, and biathlon.

As the Dreissigacker kids became serious about biathlon, with Hannah aiming for the 2014 Winter Games and Emily for 2018 (after her 2016 Olympic rowing plans were derailed by injury), Judy shared the lessons learned from the 1980 boycott. She now shares the same insight with Craftsbury Green Racing Project athletes. 

“You have to enjoy the process,” Judy told them. “It’s not something that you just struggle and suffer through because you want to make the Olympic team.Don’t do it if you’re not loving it because in the end, you don’t have complete control. You could get sick, there could be a boycott or even a pandemic.”

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.