The 1977 Lightweight 4+ crew of Karen Cunningham Van Adzin '79, Kim Cooke Himmelfarb '77, Eleanor Horrigan Spyropoulos '80, Polly Munts Talen '77 and coxswain Elizabeth Pingchang Chow '79, is the first group of inductees in the team/relay category in Wellesley Hall of Fame history.
The 1977 Lightweight Four captured 1st Place at the Eastern Association of Women's Rowing Colleges Lightweight Sprints, a first in the storied history of Wellesley Crew. "Ping's Angels" went on to the National Women's Rowing Association National Championships, finishing fourth nationally at the open championships that included not only collegiate crews but competitors from many of the top club programs in the nation.
Karen Cunningham Van Adzin:
As I reflect on my Wellesley rowing experiences, multiple memories come to mind. Some are very specific like Ping, leaping from the boat at the finish of the Head of the Charles to prevent our shell being forced into rocks and then needing a tetanus shot, just in case, or Polly, trying to be a lightweight, getting on the scale with a candy bar and deciding that she could eat it!
Other memories are more general like arriving at the boathouse bone-tired for 6:30 practices where Fred and Dave, the boatmen, would already be at work. Dave, especially, liked to tease and play practical jokes, but we, occasionally, scored big by pushing him in the lake.
Fall memories involve rowing in circles on Lake Waban, trying to put in enough miles to practice for the Head. Spring meant cove to cove sprints, which were not as long as the race, so we had to turn quickly to
sprint back! With one squirt bottle for the boat, sometimes I was so thirsty that I would drink straight from
the Lake, hoping that the lead would not get me!
In addition to the water workout, there was the land workout: push ups and sit ups, hills, weights, running around Waban, “jumpies,” and stairs. With no ergometers for the off season, Mayrene and Joe devised a series of other tortures to keep us fit!
There were also no racing eights, so all week, we practiced in fours, but, on race day, we borrowed a shell from the opposing team and then threw a boat together. Occasionally, we did get to compete as a four during the regular season, and, in that, we showed promise. Since the athletic budget was miniscule, we bought our own shorts and t-shirts and made up our uniforms with the help of an artist friend of the crew, who designed the shirts. We raised money for various teams through t-shirt sales and dance marathons. When we went to the Nationals in Philly and Detroit, we drove there (with Dave driving the Pocock on his truck) and stayed at friends of the crew’s homes. It was a real luxury when we were flown out to compete in Seattle, but, again, we stayed at friends’ houses. They probably regretted it because, once we finished racing, having starved ourselves all spring to make an average weight of 125, we ate like locusts! For our victories at the Eastern Sprints, we received medals, first on thick yarn and then, gradually, on actual ribbon! We did not get a trophy to bring back to the College, but we were sometimes mentioned in the campus paper.
Despite the lack of recognition, the hard work and the sacrifice were worth it. From our experience we derived fitness, friendship, and a dedication to something bigger than ourselves. These are well worth striving for and are sufficient rewards unto themselves. However, being recognized in the Wellesley Hall of Fame is an honor that means more to me than I can say, and, for it, I am very grateful!
Kim Cooke Himmelfarb:
Rowing was the best decision I made for my physical and mental health at Wellesley, after a first-semester comment from my father prompted me to do something more strenuous than lift tea cups and cookies on Wednesday afternoons. A runner and average high school athlete, I gladly embraced Wellesley’s physical education requirement, grateful for Henry Durant’s conviction that women needed fresh air and exercise. I took many classes, but wanted more. As a child, I had been mesmerized by a prep school crew race in Delaware. Why not?
Learning to row was painful, with oars in the gut and blisters that burned. I loved the physical challenges, the camaraderie and the discipline. The time and focus that rowing required left some room for fun, but none for frittering. And I loved Lake Waban at sunset and sunrise. Throughout my romance with rowing, I was in awe of Wellesley’s amazing student-athletes, including my classmate, Kim Cole, a Nationals-level swimmer, and our team captain, Peggy O’Neal, who earned a training shell from the US Olympics Committee. I admired their athletic ability and dedication to pursuing their sports at the highest level while meeting the academic demands of a Wellesley education. Never did I imagine that I would ever have the honor of representing Wellesley on a national stage, in any capacity.
My senior year, I was lucky to be in the Lightweight Four with Karen, Polly, Ellie and Ping. Wellesley only owned two racing shells, both Fours, and only practiced on Lake Waban. There were few races for Fours; most were for Eights. We had the “luxury” of practicing together the entire season for our key event, the Eastern Sprints, without really knowing how we would fare against the competition. When Mayrene Earle asked his opinion, the Yale coach put us in 4thplace. We practiced relentlessly, fighting the fickle winds of Spring on Lake Waban, until we could ride the boat out, gliding in silence to a dead stop, oars off the water, in perfect balance, at the end of each day. It was an amazing feeling.
At the Eastern Sprints, we shocked the competition (and maybe ourselves), winning our event by a large margin. It was only afterward that anyone mentioned “Nationals.” At the championships in Philadelphia, it was fun shocking the competition again. No one expected Wellesley to be there, never mind win a Semifinal race and vie for a medal in the Finals. We never would have gotten there without Mayrene Earle and Joe Restuccia, our coaches; Dave Martin, keeper of our boats; the teammates who had rowed with us, and mentored us; and one of Wellesley’s greatest champions, Barbara Barnes Hauptfuhrer ’49, who, with her husband George, hosted us during Nationals. I was always proud that Wellesley had the first women’s rowing program in the country, but I am humbled beyond words to be recognized for my small role in Wellesley’s rowing history, an accomplishment which I feel I owe completely to my teammates and coaches.
Eleanor Horrigan Spyropoulos:
This is the sound at the start of a crew race in the spring of 1977. I am rowing in a lightweight four for Wellesley College. Victorious at Eastern Sprints, we are headed to Nationals for the first time in college history. Practicing on Lake Waban, we race the barely 1,000 meters from Pond Street to Tupelo Point, turn around, and race back again. We hear the cadenced start multiple times a day since we need to replace the more familiar three-part start of: “Are you ready?” Pause. “Ready, all.” Pause. “Row!” with the quicker tempo that will be used at Nationals of: “Etes-vous prêtes?” Short pause. “Partez!” One of our secret weapons is a blisteringly fast start, so we practice our starts with purpose. We also excel at the art of gliding to a stop and gracefully turning around since we do it so often.
I learned to row at Phillips Exeter Academy and was thrilled to be rowing at Wellesley in a four preparing to compete at the national level. We practiced twice a day after finals, working hard, but having so much fun. I was a first-year student living in Munger Hall, and my dorm housed some of the oldest reunion classes. I bartended at their cocktail hours (drinking age was eighteen then), enjoyed lively conversations, and was impressed by the vitality of these grey-haired Wellesley alumnae.
Sunday morning of reunion, munching on an apple and trying not to feel hungry, I watched the Alumnae Parade from the hill next to Beebe. I heard the alumnae before I saw them, marching up the hill and cheering loudly, then parting and lining both sides of the street to stand and honor the older classes. My new friends from the oldest classes arrived triumphantly, lauded as heroes! My nineteen-year-old self was moved to tears. I witnessed the power and interconnectedness of Wellesley women throughout generations, going backwards in history, then pivoting forward towards me as a student and beyond.
One of the boat’s important secret weapons was that our coxswain Ping was an accomplished sailor. She could read the wind and steer expertly. She also was wise. Practicing on Lake Waban on a beautiful June day, the boat was flying. Ping asked us to concentrate on this feeling of being perfectly set up, feathering our oars at the end of the stroke, letting the boat run with all four rowers in sync up the slide, then squaring our oars and pulling hard together at the catch and throughout the stroke, and going fast - seemingly effortlessly. She asked us to bottle this feeling and remember it when we reached Boat House Row on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia for Nationals. Ping and the coaches wanted us to know that we had everything we needed within our boat, that we were ready. It was good advice and we raced to a fourth-place finish.
It is a great honor to receive this award from the Alumnae Hall of Fame Committee along with my lightweight four. Thank you to the crew coaches Mayrene and Joe, the boatmen Fred and Dave, our cox Ping and my fellow rowers Karen, Polly, and Kim for making the spring of 1977 season so memorable. Ping’s Angels! We had the time of our lives.
Polly Munts Talen:
I fell in love with Wellesley on a tour my junior year. I didn’t worry about the rather aged state of Mary Hemingway Hall or the absence of uniforms because all the facilities were for women, and I wasn’t going to be very athletic at Wellesley anyway. Despite my seven varsity letters in high school, I had convinced myself those days would be a thing of the past because I was going to have to study a lot to make up for my lack of adequate preparation in high school. While I was prepared to be a terrific team player in a variety of sports (basketball, tennis, volleyball, track and field, and softball), I was not prepared to write term papers or study hard.
Initially, I only dabbled in sports. I played field hockey for the first time and tried dorm crew. I quickly sized up the tennis team and saw that my first doubles play in high school wouldn’t even make the team. But that was just as well because I really needed to get to the business of studying.
It wasn’t until the fall of ’75, fresh from a semester off, that I tried out for the crew team. Our first activity was to go for a group run – I thought I was going to die or at least throw up. I was one of the last people to finish which did not impress our new coach. Nor me. I decided I could do better than that and started running regularly and even coached others to run.
And I fell madly in love with rowing. Unlike the barges we used for dorm crew, the racing shells responded to everything everyone did or didn’t do in the boat. It felt to me like a culmination of every team sport I had ever done—we absolutely had to rely on one another. And we did--not only for our technique in the boat but also for hard land workouts and for making weight on race day (not an easy task for me…).
When the Army conducted their study on campus in 1977 about women’s perception of physical exertion and stress, one of the researchers pulled me aside and suggested I consider marathon running—that is until I explained that I would need at least 4-8 others to do it with me. I only thrived as a team player.
And despite my best intentions to focus academically, it didn’t turn out that way. In fact, I was written up in the Wellesley News as majoring in extracurriculars. It seemed that everything except studying really helped me be my best self—and it turned out to be great preparation for my future career in community relations.
I am honored and delighted to be inducted with my ’77 lightweight four. Our win at Eastern Sprints and going on to Nationals was a very big deal for me and at the time for Wellesley. The only other athletic achievement that even comes close was winning a Lightweight Eight event at the Head of the Charles with the Minnesota Boat Club a few years after I graduated. And while not quite as athletic, I did win Hoop Rolling my senior year and was thrown in the lake for my efforts. I understand this has since become a tradition. Perhaps borrowed from rowing?
Now almost 50 years later, I returned to rowing this summer in an Annapolis Wherry my cousin Susie built. I feel like I have come home. I belong in the boat. It is everything I remember—except I miss working as a team with Ping, Karen, Kim and Ellie.
Elizabeth Pingchang Chow:
I consider myself very lucky for attended Wellesley College. In entering Wellesley from a co-ed public high school I had not appreciated the advantages an all women’s college might provide. Having been a rather independent youth, my parents taught me the importance of being one’s self and not to limit expectations for what is possible. Wellesley allowed me to continue playing in that “sandbox”, fostering an environment where one can thrive, gain learning tools and create relationships. That confidence has stayed with me through life and the Wellesley crew team contributed meaningfully to that experience.
I had sailed before college and had only rowed a small dinghy but on arrival at Wellesley, seeing crew shells for the first time, I knew that I wanted to be a part of that sport. Although I expected to row, being “petite”, I soon became a coxswain. With guidance from our fabulous and patient coaches, Mayrene and Joe, and rowers, especially Karen, my stroke for many years (and dear friend even today!), I learned the language of the sport (power 10!) and how to maneuver a boat as wide (with oars out) as it is long! Together, we became a boatful of women able to perform as one. There is little that can compare to a shell moving through the water with rowers in perfect synchrony. I still get shivers when I see that.
Our lightweight four of Spring 1977 which won Eastern Sprints and continued to Nationals that year is representative of all of the crew teams from those early years and induction to the Wellesley College Athletic Hall of Fame is really an honor that belongs to many of the new intercollegiate teams and individual competitors from that era. We hadn’t fully appreciated what a pivotal time it was for women’s sports (Title IX) and we should recognize all those who came before and helped to pave the way. I seem to recall that although there had been women rowers at Wellesley for 100 years (I still have the poster!) that they did not “compete”. Our “family” of rowers enjoyed what we did, together, and, found that competing was possible, achievable and a rush.