Members of the early 1970s Williams crew team row in a four-boat on Lake Onata. Nancy Storrs, Class of 1973, is second from the left.

A Rower’s Legacy

A Rower’s Legacy

Late in the afternoon, six days per week, the 45 members of the Williams Women’s Crew make their way to Lake Onota. They carefully lift their chosen boats from wall racks and place them on the still water, then lower themselves in to begin their 90-minute workout. Some boats have words inscribed on their sides, like “Briarcliffe III” and “Maverick,” representing avid supporters of the program or a certain cultural theme the team uses to define itself. Next spring, a new boat will join that fleet, one named in honor of Nancy Storrs ’73, one of the school’s–and the world’s–greatest rowers. 

Storrs, who died in September 2023, was a pioneer in many ways. She was on campus at a time when women students were new at Williams. (The college’s first fully coeducational class didn’t graduate until 1975.) Women’s rowing was just as new, but Storrs seized those opportunities to change the world’s concept of what she and her peers could accomplish. 

After finding her passion for rowing at Williams, Storrs competed in the first Women’s World Rowing Championship (“the Worlds”) in 1974. Society was just beginning to loosen its grip on the myth of women as the “weaker sex.” Title IX, a federal civil rights law, was passed in 1972 and prohibited discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities. That included equal opportunities in athletic programs, which helped raise the competitive profile of athletes like Storrs who challenged the idea that female rowers should be judged by grace and elegance alone.  

The tremendous speed and strength of Storrs’ Worlds team propelled the formation of the U.S. National Women’s Rowing Team, for which she soon qualified. That group was dubbed the Red Rose Crew, and their first international race was the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. It was the first Olympics to include women’s rowing. Storrs and her teammates in the quadruple scull with coxswain, or “coxed four,” finished sixth, while the “coxed eight” took home the bronze medal.

 In all, Storrs competed in five Worlds and stunned onlookers by taking home two silver medals (rowing in an “eight” in 1975 and a “four” in 1978). She also qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, but a Western boycott of the games intervened. Speaking to Williams rowers on campus that year, she expressed her disappointment at not being able to compete again at the highest level. “We had our first real chance at a gold medal,” she told them. 

Earlier that year at Worlds, Storrs and her boatmates had beaten the (then) East German team that went on to take the top prize at the Olympics. Despite her obvious drive to win, Storrs also strived for balance. “Rowing has to be fun,” she told the collegiate rowers. “You do it for your own satisfaction and for your teammates.”

Storrs went on to become a coach and team manager. She managed the Junior U.S. National Team at the 1983 World Championships and moved to Canada in 1985. There she coached at Ridley College and the Ridley Graduate Boat Club for the next 40 years. Her dedication, tenacity and holistic coaching style left a lasting impression on many. 

Through the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s, she led multiple Canadian women’s teams to World Championship medals. She assistant coached the men’s national team alongside her life partner, Jack Nicholson, leading in 1985 to their first-ever Canadian gold at the Worlds. Storrs became a competition announcer, lending her powerful voice to four Worlds and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and she was a longtime commentator at the annual Head of the Charles Regatta, where the world’s best crew teams compete. Last spring, she was the first person to enter the Row Ontario Hall of Fame as a builder and coach.

“Nancy was just a powerhouse, there was nothing to stop her, nothing she would not do to be at 100 percent,” says Lyn Krahulec, a longtime friend who was also coached by Storrs. When the two met in 2010, Krahulec told Storrs that she owed her own rowing life to the female pioneers of the sport. “We wouldn’t be here if you all hadn’t done what you did during those years,” says Krahulec who, with Storrs’ help, went on to make the first female solo crossing of Lake Ontario in 2020. “Nancy embodied pushing forward and standing up for ourselves because nobody else is going to do that. She taught us that we don’t have to be men, we just have to be women with a voice.”

Meanwhile, Storrs continued to compete. After a 20-year hiatus, she teamed up with former Red Rose crew mates to win the USRowing Masters National Championships—after just two practices. She raced her last at the Head of the Charles in 2022 with Krahulec. “There was no way Nancy could go to the Charles and not do well, so she trained for a year,” Krahulec says. “I have never felt power like that. She was so strong, and I had the privilege of knowing what it felt like to sit behind her. It doesn’t matter that she was 72.”

Portrait of Storrs wearing a royal blue jacket with a crest and leaning with one arm on a railing in front of a lake

In June 2023, just a few months before her death, Storrs joined a crowd at the Ridley Graduate Boat Club on Henley Island in St. Catharines, Ontario, for a celebration in her honor. “This is huge honor, to be naming a boat for me,” she said in her brief remarks. Storrs then christened the quadruple sculling boat by pouring water over its bow, marking the end of a 50-year career of competitive rowing and coaching.

Acknowledging her influence on countless coaches, Storrs added, “I’ve had a number of people say that my coaching style has impacted their coaching style, which I’m so happy to hear. To me, it’s all about the athletes and making sure that they have a good time, and they keep getting better.”

One person deeply impacted by Storrs is Paula Thoms, head coach of Williams women’s crew, who grew up rowing in St. Catharines and later became friends with Storrs. “Our approach is holistic and humanistic,” Thoms says of her own coaching style at Williams. “We’re seeing you not just as someone holding an oar, sitting in a boat, trying to make it go fast. The reality is when we treat people well and try to understand them and support them in the ways they need, you have a better shot at getting the medals, anyway.”

Thoms cites Storrs as a role model, both for the excellence she inspired in athletes and as a trailblazer in a male-dominated field. “Seeing someone who looks like you in a role, someone so committed and impactful both on a very elite level herself and also in coaching many elite rowers, and being respected so highly in that field, I didn’t think twice that I couldn’t do it myself,” says Thoms. “I’m so lucky to have had someone like that in my environment who took it so seriously and paved the way.”

Starting this spring, a new generation of Williams’ oarswomen will take a seat in the new boat named for Storrs and follow in her wake, cutting powerful strokes through the cool water. 

Photograph at top: Nancy Storrs ’73 (second from left) and the Williams women’s crew on Lake Onota in Pittsfield, Mass., in the early 1970s.

Heather Hansen is an award-winning, independent journalist and author based in Colorado. Her latest books are Walking Great Britain and Wildfire: On the Front Lines With Station 8.