Caryn Davies and 2012 gold medal women eights
Caryn Davies (far right) with the 2012 London Olympic championship women’s eight team.

In 2012, the US women’s eight was the favorite to take the gold medal at that year’s London Olympics. Stroke seat Caryn Davies wasn’t buying it. “Everyone’s bow is even at the start line.  Being the favorite means nothing when we line up to race.”  And Team Canada was nipping at their heels, having nearly beaten Team USA in a World Cup race a couple of months prior to the Summer Games.

But only 500 meters into the finals of the women’s eights in London, coxswain Mary Whipple could see the commanding lead they had built, and she told Davies some years after that at that point in the race she was so certain of victory that she had wanted to stand up in the stern of the boat and shout to the competition behind her, “Bring it!” She didn’t, but the Americans did indeed win gold, leading from start to finish and winning America’s third-ever gold medal in the vaunted eights competition.

This was a significant triumph, important in cementing the American women’s dominance. And yet, for Davies, it was the end of a long road. After winning bronze in Athens and then gold in Beijing and London in the stroke position of the boat, she felt it was time to move on with her life.

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“I had had a good run,” Davies told me. “I won a bunch of medals and ended on a high note. I was almost done with law school. I thought it was time to get a job and start ‘real’ life.” With a law degree from Columbia and an MBA from Oxford, Davies entered the reputable law firm Goodwin Procter in Boston. For three and a half years, she advised clients on finance and M&A. While getting the work done, she wasn’t as fulfilled as she hoped to be. The competitive nature of business was different from the competitive nature of sports, and she was noticing the differences.

Business leaders love to listen to and be around sports champions. They love to hear their stories of preparation, struggle and triumph.  Yet success in sport is generally clear-cut and objective, whereas success in business is often opaque or subjective. The contrast led to the insight that the challenges of leadership and management can be greater in the world of business where goals and metrics are less clear. In such cases, the ability of leaders and managers to motivate individuals and sustain a team mindset becomes more significant.

She shared this insight in a 2017 interview with Forbes magazine.

True teamwork demands a level of bonding at deeper levels. That requires intentional effort to build. The intensity of the workplace, and its consumption of most of our brain power, leaves little reserve for building those bonds. When you’re executing a sport like rowing, even though physically demanding, you aren’t using all of your brain’s processing power, so there is reserve left to invest in relationships with your teammates.

In other words, often in business, managers may have to work harder to strengthen team bonds to improve team performance, particularly if there are perceived stars on the team. Davies experience has informed her that successful rowing teams do not emphasize the star.

In rowing, there is no standout player. On sports teams where you have star players, you see divisiveness. Generally, you know who is faster on your team, but from the outside looking in, there is no star. You see boats where there’s one person trying to win the race alone, and they burn out.   The people behind them can’t follow and there’s a disconnect between them and the rest of the team, just making the boat go slower.

Davies, who was already a member at a couple rowing clubs in Boston, began going down to the boathouse more regularly. She wasn’t there just to get in a good workout in the early mornings, but to learn from the club members who were themselves successful people with lessons for newbies to the world of business. And one day, she learned a lesson from a successful person.

“I was out in the single rowing one morning August last year and the legendary Harvard coach Charley Butt sees me and says through his megaphone, ‘Caryn, are you training for 2020? You should! Rowing loves you, and you love rowing.’”

Reflecting on that, Davies realized she still needs to play to her strengths—that maybe her work in the law firm was not the way to fulfill that drive to be the best.

I was feeling a bit frustrated with my career. I thought, okay, I could double down on law. But I don’t love law enough to be the best in the world. And there is something where I have been the best in the world – rowing -and perhaps I could still be the best in the world. Where is my best contribution? I could slog away at a law firm. But is that my best contribution?  There is this thing I am still good at and in which I still have a lot to learn – why not do it to the fullest before it’s too late?

Davies left Goodwin in February 2019 to focus on her training. Having been away from world-class competition for going on 7 years, she had to lot catching up to do, and is realistic about her chances of making it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But she knows she has a lot to offer.

Let’s be honest. I am nowhere near as strong physically as anyone on the team. If you put us on the rowing machine I would not beat another person. My strength has been on the technical side of rowing. That is something you never lose. I still have that. I realize I can contribute to a team by being in a boat and rowing my best and help others row a little bit better. My #1 goal for this year?  Be the best teammate I can be. That means helping everyone get faster. I acknowledge that could help someone beat me out of a spot on the team. If that is the case, so beat it. I will have achieved my goal.

She now believes she has a 50:50 chance of making Team USA for the Olympics. And she’s got one positive sign so far: US Rowing announced the crews that will compete at the 2019 World Rowing Championships to be held in Linz, Austria from August 25 to September 1, 2019, and Davies made the cut. She will compete in the women’s four-person boat with Molly Bruggeman (Dayton, Ohio/University of Notre Dame), Madeline Wanamaker (Neenah, Wis./University of Wisconsin), and Vicky Opitz (Middleton, Wis./University of Wisconsin)

Caryn Davies (Ithaca, N.Y./Harvard University) said “I’m thrilled to be racing in that boat with those teammates.  I think it’s going to be a great regatta!”

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Caryn Davies and 2008 gold medal winning women eights

Caryn Davies (top middle) with the 2008 Olympic championship team

In rowing, the American women are the dominant force in the glamour event, the eights. When the women from Team USA settle in their barracuda-like 9-meter shell in a world final, they do so as winners of 12 of the past 13 world and Olympic championships.

But in 2004, at the Athens Summer Olympics, that was not the case. Caryn Davies was a college student, and many of her teammates on that rowing team were also in their twenties. In the case of rowing, particularly today, experience is highly valued, and teams composed of rowers in their thirties or forties are not uncommon. But the 2004 team had . And a tailwind.

In a dramatic throwing-down-of-the-gauntlet, the crew burst out at the start and held off the Romanian boat in the first heat to set a world record time of 5:56:55 in the 2,000-meter race. Back on the dock, when a reporter informed the boat that they had broken the world record, one of Davies’ teammates blurted out on live television, “Holy shit, we did?”

In the finals, the powerful Romanians were ready for the hard-charging Americans. Despite the Americans holding a narrow lead at the 1000-meter mark, the Romanians pushed past them and held on for gold.

Athens was a learning experience and a launch pad for success. Davies became part of a core group of athletes that stayed intact through the next few years, winning gold at the world championships in 2006 and 2007 before lining up for the finals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“We had more experience as a boat, as the core had been rowing together since 2006,” Davies told me. “It was around that time that we saw a shift in the composition of the national team.  Leading up to 2004, most athletes came directly from college, and there was a lot of turnover.  After 2004, athletes stuck around for years after college. We had more confidence in our ability to respond to competition.”

Determined to win, they dedicated their pursuit of gold to the 1984 women’s eight, which were the last American women to win gold. Channeling the spirit of the women of ’84, the American eight started off with a slight lead, and gradually widened the gap, pulling away from the Romanians. At the halfway point of 1,000 meters, coxswain Mary Whipple called for an extra 20 stroke-long effort, a move dedicated to the team from 1984.

Davies is the stroke, the technically consistent rower who sits in front of the coxswain and sets the tempo for the other seven. She could clearly see how far ahead of the others her boat was. But even in the last few hundred meters, she believed that anything could happen, even the worst.

“In the last 250 meters, a little fear started setting in for me personally,” she said. “By that point in the race, I had driven myself into the ground. My technique was breaking down, and I knew that if it had been me alone in the boat, we would have been going backwards.  Thankfully my teammates were there to carry me across the line. There is a photo of me just as we cross the finish line where I am looking to the side with utter terror in my eyes.  In that moment I was thinking, ‘That had better be the finish line, because one of two things is going to happen in the next few strokes: either we’re going to cross the finish line, or I’m going to pass out.”

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She did not pass out. She and her teammates crossed the finish line first.

Spent, her teammates made efforts to smile and cheer. But Davies’s head was down, bent over exhausted. Whipple crawls over the stroke seat rigger to Davies and embraces her. The women from the US were Olympic champions: the first of three consecutive Olympic championship crews in a row that would cement this team’s dominant place in sports history.