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No Obstacles

By Jack Copeland

As the end of her senior year, Tori Murden was surprised to be honored with Smith College’s top athletics award, as the student who best represented the ideals of a scholar-athlete.

She had competed in rowing and squash at the prestigious women’s college and served as co-captain of the Smith basketball team, but didn’t consider herself the most valuable member of any of those teams – although she set what were at the time Smith records for average rebounds per game (11.3) and field-goal percentage (44.6 percent).

She also served as a student athletic trainer, and while the premedicine-turned-psychology major excelled at providing treatment – it was fellow student-athletes who had received care from Murden who nominated her for the scholar-athlete award – she didn’t view her efforts as unusual.

After graduation, Murden would earn three advanced degrees in the disciplines of divinity, law and writing. She would gain fame by becoming one of the first two women to ski cross country to the South Pole and then as the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean – an adventure she would write about in the 2009 book A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Atlantic.

But at the end of her senior year at Smith, she considered returning the scholar-athlete award, feeling she wasn’t deserving of the honor. She recalls in the book talking it over with Linda Moulton, associate athletics director at the school.

“Linda didn’t attempt to argue with me,” she writes of Moulton, who later would serve as director of athletics at Clark University and serve on several NCAA committees, including the Division III Management Council. “She thought for a moment and said, ‘Most Valuable Players come and go. Being the best only lasts for a few seasons.’ She reminded me how offended I’d been to see female athletes at other schools treated like second-class citizens. She called me an ‘idealist,’ but the softness in her voice made it clear that she meant it as a compliment. ‘You believe in the ideals of the scholar-athlete. No one can live up to that in four years. That may take a lifetime.’”

Nearly three decades later, she passionately has pursued those ideals not only athletically but academically, ultimately leading to her selection in 2010 as president of Division III member Spalding University after working in a series of service-oriented positions. In January, as part of Division III’s celebration of its 40th anniversary year, she will serve as keynote speaker for the division’s observance of the milestone during the 2014 NCAA Convention in San Diego.

As was the case during her senior year, she remains modest about her most famous but far from only noteworthy feat of her lifetime – the successful 3,333-mile journey across the Atlantic in 1999. She put it in perspective in a 2009 interview with the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, in which she was asked what she had accomplished.

“In the grand scheme of things, nothing,” she replied. “It doesn’t matter at all that a woman has rowed alone across the ocean. What matters is how I translate that experience into my civilized life. What matters are the persistence, the endurance, the passion, the comfort with uncertainty, and the tolerance for adversity that I bring to my day-to-day activities. These are the things required to make a difference in the civilized world.”

Nominated by Lynn Oberbillig, director of athletics and recreation at Smith College.