Head down to Boathouse Row any day of the week, and you’ll see teams of female rowers, sculls hoisted on their shoulders, heading toward the Schuylkill River for training. The best among them no doubt dream of one day bringing home an Olympic medal.
If they do, they’ll have Joanne Iverson to thank for the thrill.
Iverson, who grew up on the river in Miquon, fell in love with rowing as a teen and was flabbergasted to learn that women were excluded from the sport at the Olympic level. She spent the next 20 years trying to change that, challenging every stereotype about women, athletics and organized sports along the way.
Thanks to Iverson’s obsession with leveling the playing field – or would that be stilling the choppy waters? - between men and women on the river, women’s rowing became an Olympic sport in 1976.
By then, Iverson had stopped rowing competitively, but she went to the XXI Olympiad in Montreal anyway, as manager of the first-ever U.S. Women’s Olympic Rowing Team. The women brought home the silver medal in the Single, the bronze in the Eight, and they've been first-class citizens on the water ever since.
Iverson, who lives in Fairmount and still rows daily on the same river where she learned to “row to exhaustion in pursuit of the perfect stroke,” has just published a memoir of her efforts, An Obsession With Rings: How Rowing Became an Olympic Sport for Women in the United states. Culling from her personal diaries and a trove of correspondence and other documents chronicling the slow but steady progression of her beloved sport from “girl’s crew” to “women’s rowing,” she offers this wonderful observation about why an adolescent’s dreams must never be dismissed:
“I realized that you cannot discount the efforts or aspirations of young people just because they giggle, they party, they act like airheads," she notes.
"Somewhere, inside all that flightiness, may be tremendous potential to do great things. Because that’s what happened to me. There I was, acting for all intents and purposes like I did not have a care in the world, but all the while pushing and politicking for a very important cause – to get the rowing governing body to realize that we were serious about getting women’s rowing events included in the Olympics.”
Iverson will be signing copies of her book, co-written by Philadelphia writer Margaret O. Kirk, this Sunday at Vesper Club, #10 Boathouse Row, from 5pm to 9pm.
If you love rowing – or simply believe that anyone, regardless of gender, who dips an oar in the water deserves to daydream about competing for the world’s top honor in the sport - stop by and tell Iverson thanks.