Ginny Gilder is a rower. It’s something you should know about her. It explains a lot.
She brings the ethic of a competitive rower to most aspects of her life. Break it down. Train. Train some more. Persist. Bring the pieces together when it’s time to perform. Compete to win.
So, it’s no surprise, really, that she would be one of four women to buy the Seattle Storm basketball team from the departing owners of the Sonics. In some way, she was training for that her whole life.
And rowing played a big part.
“Almost everything I learned in life I learned from rowing – or my kids.”
It started when, as a junior in high school , Ginny went to Boston to see a rowing race. “I just thought it looked amazing.”
That race was the Head of the Charles, famous enough for this non-rower to know of. Ginny saw it for the first time in 1974.
In 1982, 1983, and 1984 she won it. She set the course record in the women’s elite single in 1982, and that record still has not been broken.
Ginny comes from a family where business acumen is held up as the ultimate trophy. No one in the family had much experience in sports. “I was a complete non-athlete; I was asthmatic.” The summer after Ginny first saw the Head of the Charles, her dad suggested that for her birthday, “he get me some rowing shoes. There is no such thing as rowing shoes – it just shows you how much we knew about the sport.”
She started rowing as a freshman at Yale, training with two Olympic rowers. “So I thought, hmm the Olympics. I want to do that. No one thought I had much of a shot, with my coach at the top of that list.”
Ginny is one of thousands of women in this country who came to sports along with Title 9, who were instrumental in crashing down the doors that opened the field to millions of young women, Ginny’s daughter Sierra among them.
One door to crash – the lack of facilities for the women’s rowing team at Yale. After a month of waiting in wet clothes on the bus while the men showered at the boathouse, Ginny and her teammates held a ‘Strip In’. With ‘Title IX’ written on their backs, they walked in to see the head of women’s athletics, turned their backs to her, and dropped their sweats. The moment was caught by a New York Times stringer and the Yale Daily News and the image went out over the wire. By the following fall, Yale had started an addition to the boathouse.
Too bad the digital archives don’t go back far enough to relive that moment.
With Olympics in mind, she tried out unsuccessfully for the national team in 1977, 1978, and 1979 while still at Yale. After graduating, she moved to Boston and continued to train.
Finally, she made the Olympic team in 1980, the year the Americans stayed home.
After that huge disappointment she retired from rowing. Still in Boston, however, the Charles River lured her back and she learned to scull from one of her former Yale teammates. “By myself, I could practice when I wanted and hold a full-time job. And then I just got manic and good.
“One of the biggest things I learned from rowing was how to structure my life. I loved the rhythm of getting up and going to practice. So I’d get to work at 9:00 and I had been up since 5:30, and I would look around and just feel sorry for everyone because they hadn’t been out on the water; they hadn’t seen the sunrise; they hadn’t gotten to sweat; and all they had was this dumb job. And then I’d go and work out in the afternoons.”
In 1982 she made the national team in the quad (four scullers), racing in the world championships where her boat came in 4th.
And in 1983 she won the singles trials, and was recognized as the fastest sculler in the country. That year she came in 3rd in the World Championships.
Things were going well for Ginny. She was shooting to finally make it to the Olympics as the single in 1984, “but ten days before the trials I broke my rib. I was over-training and I injured myself. It was my own fault.”
The odds-on favorite, she went to the trials anyway, “but then it all came apart and I did really badly.” She went to the doctor the next day, who saw the broken rib on an x-ray. “He said, you’re not alone, some of our best athletes won’t be in the Olympics this year, and I just thought ---- you. I’m going.”
Her recent times combined with the information about her injury convinced the Olympic coach to add her to the quad (quadruple sculls with coxswain). “And I won silver as the stroke of the women’s quad at the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. So, it worked out ok.
“Rowing was the driving force in my life for 10 years. It’s all about testing, figuring out how much pain you can inflict on yourself. Plus, rowing gave me a sense of purpose. On some level at the time I was fighting a battle to know what was meaningful enough to keep me tethered. And I think rowing was it. It gave shape to my life at a time when I was not very solid internally.”
Family is another driving force in Ginny’s life, both the family of her parents and siblings, and the one she has fashioned with her own children and partner.
Ginny rowing the Head of the Charles with her son, Gilder, in a parent/child double in 2008
Her mother, fiercely pro-choice and “her own version of a feminist”, passed those qualities down to Ginny and her two sisters. Her parents divorced when Ginny was a pre-teen and it is her relationship with her father that has endured.
The shadow cast from that divorce still hovered over Ginny into adulthood. In the early 80’s Ginny had been in a relationship with a woman but broke it off because she wanted a family. “This was at a time when I wasn’t very close to my mom and I really needed my dad and I felt like if I came out then I would lose him.
“I met this very lovely guy and we were engaged within about two months. Everything was ok for a while, trying to be happy but not quite understanding why I wasn’t. And then I met Lynn. I had signed my husband and me up for tennis lessons because we needed to do more together and she was our tennis instructor.”
Falling in love with Lynn was “really was like a bomb going off. I knew that everything had changed. It was like walking through a door and not being able to go back.”
Still, facing the idea of divorce seemed impossible because of her kids – Ginny and her husband had their son Gilder then adopted Max and Sierra. “Because when my parents got divorced I resolved I would never get divorced.” Ginny shared her dilemma with a therapist who challenged the notion that she should stay married because of her children, pointing out the unhappiness and resentment that would result.
“One of the promises I made to myself was that this relationship was going to be worth breaking my kids’ hearts for -- each one of my kids to this day remembers when we told them we were separating, and it’s really hard to be the one who breaks your kids’ hearts the first time. I promised myself that I would not turn away from my kids’ pain – and that was the hardest part. Acknowledging when they were struggling and being able to look at them in the eye, hold them and listen. I just said to myself that there would be no question when they left our household as to what love looked like.”
Relaxing on the beach at Lopez Island: (left to right: Sierra, Ginny, Max, Lynn; in front, Gilder)
Ginny and Lynn merged their two families, creating a picture that makes the Brady Bunch look simple. Ginny had her three children (Gilder, Max and Sierra) and Lynn had a daughter, Toni and son, Jesse. “We had some very hard times with five kids. Lynn and I have been living together since 1999 and have had teenagers in the house the entire time. We call it ‘teenage hell swamp.’”
That will change soon when “my baby” Sierra heads off to Division One Colorado College with a soccer scholarship in the fall. (at signing day, below)
There’s plenty to fill the void, starting with the family business.
In the years after Ginny left home, Richard Gilder became hugely successful in his investment business, and has shared his success generously with many New York institutions. In addition to plaques and statues that recognize his generous contributions to the Central Park Conservancy and the Rose Planetarium, he has endowed the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and owns one of the biggest collections of original documents from American history, which he is donating to the New York Historical Society. “He is extraordinary.”
Ginny’s tremendous love and respect for her father is a chorus to our interview.
In his late 70’s now, her dad began to wonder what would happen to the family business once he was gone. None of the four siblings were particularly interested in taking over, so Ginny has stepped in to help build a bridge to her family's financial future. She spent the last six years learning the investment business.
“I do it because I love my family and I love my dad. I’m providing for my family. But it doesn’t fuel my competitive fire to make money.”
Rather, Ginny gets her juices going with social justice issues, which she currently impacts through the family foundation she started, the Starfish Group. Focusing on the intersection of climate change and poverty, they “get to fund the issues and organizations we care about, all over the world.”
It’s not the only social justice effort Ginny has taken on. In 1992 she founded Washington Works, after she learned from the birth mother of her adopted children Max and Sierra that she had given up her kids because she couldn’t afford to raise them. Ginny stayed with Washington Works, a non-profit whose goals were to help women get off public assistance and into livable wage jobs, for about six years.
Later she served on the Board of Directors of Seattle Girl’s School (SGS) along with Dawn Trudeau. A private middle school, SGS strives to bolster self-esteem and academic confidence of girls during their critical adolescent years.
Enter the Seattle Storm.
“The world of finance is so heavily dominated by men I was just thinking, I really wanted to do something again with women.”
When her SGS compatriot Dawn Trudeau organized a lunch with Lisa Brummel, Senior VP for Human Resources at Microsoft and a former three sport athlete at Yale, Ginny was happy to meet with them to discuss the possibility of keeping the WNBA franchise in Seattle after the Sonics moved to Oklahoma. “The three of us talked about why we would do this. I think for Dawn and Lisa, they really love basketball. Me? I love women’s sports. I was intrigued by the idea that we could invest in something that would open the doors for women at the highest echelon of sports.
Seattle Storm owners at a game: (left to right) Ginny Gilder, Lisa Brummel, Anne Levinson, Dawn Trudeau (from Seattle Times)
“It was the opportunity to bring together all the things I love about life. I love working collaboratively. I feel really lucky to be part of an ownership group like this. We respect each other, we work well together and we work hard. I love that I’m doing something for the community. I love really getting to roll my sleeves up, to work on the business side. It’s rooted in my own history, and I can take my kids.”
A package deal. All of the things Ginny has been training for, peaking for this performance
Force 10 Hoops, the ownership group, “sees a business model that gets us to profitability and we’re investing to make it happen.” Just like any other professional sports team in America they need a deep fan base, a deep sponsorship base, good ownership and a championship caliber team. “We have the best player in the world – Lauren Jackson who just re-signed, and a great coach – he’s our diversity hire.”
Storm’s Lauren Jackson attempts to block shot of Becky Hammond. Aaron Last/Storm Photos
And that leaves the rest of us, the back-up band to the Force 10 lead singers. The Storm home opener against the National Champion LA Sparks is coming up May 16 at KeyArena. I’ll see you there. Go to www.wnba.com/storm for ticket and schedule information.
- Janet Pelz
Ginny Gilder’s not-so secrets for how she does it:
- I don’t think I do anything particularly extraordinary, I just do what’s there.
- My general policy is to catch whatever ball is falling down fastest
- I do a lot of self care – I usually work out everyday.
- I try to remember, if I die tomorrow a lot of stuff would go undone and no one would care, so I try to deal with what I can handle and not worry about the rest.
- I have really good partners everywhere – nothing that I do I do alone. So I never feel that if I’m struggling, I have to figure out the answer by myself.
- I have a partner who has been really good at making it desirable to be at home. It’s really fun to be in this family.
- I’m a real believer that persistence pays – the darkest moments are before the dawn, so don’t give up.
- I love what I do, and I have a really clear sense of responsibility. I love my family and my work is an expression of who I have to be to support them.
- I think dysfunction occurs when you keep secrets and you don’t tell the truth, because you don’t get to have your assumptions tested.
What books has Ginny read recently?
- The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls (in case you think your family is dysfunctional!)
- The Hours, by Michael Cunningham
- American Pastoral, by Philip Roth (“a great book!)
Whom does Ginny want me to interview next?
- Karen Bryant, CEO of Storm, “she’s been involved in professional women’s basketball since it started in Seattle. She’s really quite an amazing person.”
- Sharon Hammel, a co-founder with Ginny of Seattle Girls School
- Nancy Nordhoff – “oh my God, she is incredible!”
- Leanne Moss – Executive Director of Women’s Funding Alliance, “she’s kick-ass”