Ginny Gilder arrived at Yale in 1975 with serious asthma and no experience in sports. But something called her to the water, and by force of determination she made her way onto the women’s crew team and ultimately to the Olympics, where she won a silver medal. Along the way, she made headlines with a nude demonstration in the university athletics office to protest a lack of adequate showering facilities for women in the early days of their new crew program. Today, thanks to a lead gift from Ginny’s father, investor and major philanthropist Richard Gilder, male and female rowers alike at Yale enjoy a state-of-the-art boat-shaped boathouse.
Ginny has become a philanthropist in her own right. She has helped local women get off welfare and into stable jobs, and offered funding for the exodus of 100 children from a failing public school. Her latest philanthropic exploit is a new community sports center near her home in Puget Sound, focused on promoting health and opportunity for area youngsters. And she has continued to make waves in women’s athletics, becoming one of the first female co-owners of a WNBA team, the Seattle Storm, in 2008.
Q: In your recent memoir Course Correction you describe personal challenges, and attribute much of your ability to overcome them to what you learned from rowing. Based on your experience, how do sports programs complement a college education?
A: The perspective that sports is part of a liberal-arts education has really been lost. There’s so much you can learn through sports.
Because of men’s football and men’s basketball, universities have gotten a little tangled up about the role sports plays in education. There is no minor league for those sports, so the college system ends up serving as an informal farm team. Of course there’s a lot of money in that role. That structural issue leads to the creation of double standards for those athletes compared to everyone else, and undermines the education some of them receive.
One of the reasons it is important to increase accessibility to sports for girls and women is because it’s such a great teaching tool. You learn about pushing yourself, challenging yourself, disappointment and failure, setting goals, getting along with people—so much that’s applicable to the rest of life.
I was not happy during high school, worked really hard academically, and by the time I got to Yale I was looking for other ways to learn. I often joke that I majored in rowing. I learned how to count on myself in a way that I don’t think I could have learned in any class. I got a lot out of my education academically, but I got more wisdom and emotional and psychological sustenance out of my time as a rower.
There is no single pattern for pursuing sports in college, and a lot of athletes even in the big-money sports get a very good education. Without their athletic scholarships many of them wouldn’t go to college at all, and their lives would be much different.
So for a broad swath of the college-going population, sports makes a lot of things possible. In some cases getting them in the door, in many cases enhancing their experience while there.
An under-acknowledged fact about college is that there’s a lot of down time. Students have pretty open-ended schedules. One of the things that sports does is force you to be more organized, and to use your time, rather than squander it.
Q: The importance of determination is a major theme in Course Correction. An inner drive allowed you to overcome medical issues and other hurdles. Can something like drive be inculcated in people, through sports or other teaching?
A: I was talking with a mom the other day who has a ten-year-old madly in love with gymnastics and willing to do anything so she can be engaged in it. And then she has another child who is not focused at all. I do think we are probably endowed with different measures of particular attributes.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t develop more determination. There are things we all can learn that increase our resilience, our ability to overcome failure, and so forth. In some ways, the person who is weak in those areas needs the reinforcement of structured activities and training more than anyone.
One of the aims of expanding participation in sports (or arts training or other forms of non-academic education) is that there are kids out there who may have that drive in them, but don’t have access to the avenues to develop it. I see sports philanthropy as not intended for would-be stars, but to offer every person life lessons, to the point where they can take better care of themselves, better care of their families, and ultimately better care of their communities.
I’ve recently begun to get involved in increasing sports access to young people who are struggling with what we call diabesity—diabetes and obesity. Many of them don’t see themselves as athletes, may never have had exposure to sports, and need help to learn about the importance of physical fitness. It’s the intersection of sports and health.
Most people won’t do things just because it’s good for them. One value of sports is that they can make it fun to do healthy things. I’m interested in supporting the third of our population that’s really struggling with health, to get them more access to sports for both the enjoyment and the health improvements.
Our new community sports center is my starting point. Philanthropically I’m pretty new to this area, but am excited to get more involved. I hope the programming we’re just starting to take from dream to reality can be tested and refined and become a model elsewhere. I like to work at my own community level. It feels more accessible.
Q: What was your involvement in creating the Gilder Boathouse?
A: I was very involved in raising funds for it. A Yale classmate of my father’s asked me to approach the university about building a new boathouse. Margaret Matthews, my best friend from rowing at Yale, went with me to talk with then-president Rick Levin in the mid-1990s. He told us we would never be able to raise the money to build what we wanted. Never a good idea to tell members of the Yale Women’s Crew what they can’t do! We wrote the case for giving, reached out to Yale rowers to help raise funds, and of course donated ourselves. The Yale development office basically ended up chasing us. Nothing felt as good as receiving that letter from President Levin stating that the construction process could go forward. Winning never gets old.
The boathouse project remains one of my best memories of fundraising with my dad. He and I came up with three very particular criteria for our gift: The architect had to be chosen via a design competition among graduates of the Yale architecture school; the boathouse needed to host a new community rowing program to benefit more than just college students; and the funds raised had to include a maintenance endowment so the building would always be taken care of properly. The community rowing program, which is now thriving, turned out to be something the university was able to raise money for independently. We’ve had its participants get into Yale and go on as athletes and college students.
This is one of five sidebars to John Feinstein’s feature article “The Passion and Pitfalls of Giving to College Sports”