You are here

An extraordinary journey: How Spalding’s president discovered strength in unexpected places

In a new NCAA podcast episode, Tori Murden McClure opens up about what compelled her to row through two hurricanes and ski in whiteout conditions — and what she learned along the way.

Before Tori Murden McClure became the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean and one of two women to ski to the South Pole, she was a three-sport student-athlete at Smith College. Now the president of Division III Spalding University, Murden McClure sat down with Jack Ford for the NCAA podcast “College Sports Insider With Jack Ford” to recount her extraordinary life journey.

Jack Ford: Let’s start with your academic and athletic experiences in college. What first drew you to Smith?

Tori Murden McClure: I couldn’t afford to go and tour colleges, so I just applied to a number of schools and got into a number of schools. But Smith’s basketball coach wrote me a note saying, “You should think about Smith.” And so, I chose Smith.

JF: Where did your academic journey go from there?

TMM: From my point of view, I’ve been going in the same direction over different terrains. From other people’s points of view, I’ve had an erratic background. At Smith, I studied what now would be called neuroscience. I was a pre-med student and then took a very strange turn and ended up in divinity school at Harvard. When I left there, I went to run a homeless shelter for women in a distressed part of Kentucky. I felt that policies were letting these people end up homeless, and we should fix this. I ended up in law school to learn the language of the enemy.

JF: Where did the idea to row across the Atlantic come from?

TMM: Well I tried out for the Olympic team as a rower, and I was in an automobile accident on the way to the Olympic trials. Broke two ribs, destroyed a disk in my back. I competed anyway and didn’t do very well. I wouldn’t have made the team even if I hadn’t been injured because I just wasn’t fast enough, a real basic problem. But I had the sense of “I could go forever.” I heard about a rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean and thought “Oh, I’ll do that.” The rowing race didn’t work out for me and my teammate, but I was the biggest, strongest woman that showed up in that field. Sector Sports Watches said, “Well, we want to sponsor a woman to row alone across the ocean, would you do that?” And I was like, “I’m crazy, but I’m not that crazy.” Then it turned out, yeah, I was that crazy.

JF: Why did you want to do it?

TMM: The honest answer is complicated. But I grew up with a brother who’s intellectually disabled, and I always had the sense of, “If I could just be bigger or smarter or stronger or faster, I could make the world safe for him.” And then it became about honor and duty and justice and responsibility. I would think of a burnout job, whether it was working with the homeless or working with disturbed teenagers, and I would just get so angry at the injustice in the world that I would just pick up and leave the world from time to time. When I skied to the South Pole, I was in divinity school. There was a sense of “If I could just climb this mountain, I won’t feel helpless anymore. If I can just ski across this continent, I won’t feel helpless anymore. If I can just row across this ocean, I won’t feel helpless anymore.”

JF: You wrote a book titled “A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean.” When you say you found your heart, what exactly did you discover?

TMM: For me, it was giving in to love. Between my unsuccessful row and my successful row, a man wandered into my life and just didn’t seem to take no for an answer. I was well on my way to finishing my second row when I got caught in a terrible storm and wasn’t sure I was going to be able to make it. When that storm passed, I picked up the satellite phone, called up this man and said, “When I get out of this rowboat, will you marry me?” And he said, “Sure, why not?” Because he’s really romantic: “Sure, why not?”

JF: “Sure, I’m not busy. I think we can fit that in.”

TMM: Yeah, and what a blessing that’s been for me. It was letting down my guard. I was rough and tough and had things I needed to do.

JF: So, where you are now on this journey is the president of Spalding University. What got you there and why?

TMM: It’s not just any college, and I’ve had opportunities to move to more prestigious places. It’s a scrappy, under-resourced institution in the heart of downtown Louisville, Kentucky. And Kentucky’s not known for its educational prowess. We have 120 counties in the commonwealth of Kentucky, and in 100 of those counties, the educational retainment rate is lower than Mexico. That’s where the need is, and so that’s where I put down roots.

JF: When you look at these accomplishments: rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, climbing the mountains and skiing, you talk about what you learned from that. What has being the president of a college taught you?

TMM: I think self-awareness is one of those highly underrated leadership skills. If you don’t know who you are and where you’re going, why should anyone else follow you? I ask people, what problem do you want to solve? I don’t care what problem it is, education will improve or alleviate or assist itself in that problem. It seemed like a good place to spend my time. And being surrounded by young people all the time, they improve your self-awareness.

JF: When you look at this pathway that you’ve traveled, how did your experiences as a student-athlete at Smith propel you to the things you have done with your life?

TMM: I remember being a student-athlete and having a sense that I was part of something bigger than myself. Rowing the boat alone across the ocean seems to defy that being part of something larger than yourself. I might have been alone in the boat, but there were lots of folks who helped and lots of folks who prepared me for that journey.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Listen to the full interview here.

After the Game

We are proud of all our former student-athletes, and in recognition of their accomplishments after their playing days, we launched NCAA After the Game.  Our goal is simple: to celebrate the former student-athlete.

Go to the Homepage >