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Rowing captain

She used to cox the boat for cops. Now she leads the national governing body of her favorite sport.

Erin O’Connell, the athletics director at Seattle Pacific, is USRowing’s first woman president since it formed in 1982. She formerly worked as chair of the Division II Rowing Committee and as a member of the Division II Membership Committee and Management Council.

"My dad was a policeman in the San Francisco Police Department, and they had a rowing team around the time that I was in sixth grade. They needed a coxswain every now and then, so he would bring me down to the lake on Saturdays and I would cox the boat, steer it around and tell the men what to do. I decided when I was entering high school that I wanted to row at the local club. I rowed for about six weeks when they pulled me aside and said, ‘Well, you’re too small to row, but we know you’ve coxed a boat before, so you can be a coxswain.’

I would probably have never ended up in Seattle – at the University of Washington, where I came to pursue my coxswain career – had I not had that opportunity. I was recruited out of high school, and I was lucky to come up to the University of Washington. After two conference championships and a bronze medal at the collegiate national championships, I had the opportunity to coach there for seven years as the No. 5 on the staff. I learned how to be disciplined, how to teach athletes to be disciplined, and how to be tough and not accept excuses moving forward.  You have to put the hours in. Success doesn’t just happen because you wake up and decide it’s going to happen. 

Things I Learned Along the Way

  • Don’t bother with a five-year plan. “When you work hard and opportunities are out there, opportunities are going to present themselves, and you have to decide whether that’s the right course of action to take.”
  • Value your experiences as student-athletes. “Realize the opportunity you have in front of you is rare. A lot of your college friends do not have the same opportunity that you do, and so make the most of it.”
  • Say “yes” to the dirty work, “whether it’s driving the boat trailer from Seattle to Georgia, or if it’s being out in the hail coaching your boats, or whether you’re picking up the bagels for your entire men’s and women’s teams on Saturday mornings.”

In the spring of 2003, Jan Harville decided to retire as the Huskies coach. So that seemed like a pretty good time to make a transition, and I was hired as an assistant athletics director for compliance at Seattle Pacific.

Once somebody figured out that I’d been on the administration side, I was quickly asked to serve on the Division II Rowing Committee, and I did that for five years. Three of those years I was the chair of the group. That was a great experience. I got to work with Tina Krah – she was heading up the Division I championships at the national office. I termed out, and as that was happening, my opportunity to become athletics director here happened. 

My opportunity to get involved in USRowing would not have happened if it had not been for Tina Krah, who got a call from USRowing folks. They said, ‘We have this at-large position on our board, and we’d like someone with a different kind of experience.’ She said, ‘You need to call Erin O’Connell.’ So I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to give it a year and see if I can assist in making some positive change.’ I decided to continue on and was sort of balancing the Management Council, Membership Committee responsibilities and then the USRowing. As I was preparing to rotate off those committees, I was approached about the president’s position. 

Rowing has been a huge part of my life. I’m excited that I’m able to give back in this capacity. I’m excited about that, but it is a huge responsibility."