Losing a legend: Celebrated Olympian and UW–Madison crew star Carie Graves dead at 68
Graves was the star of the first national championship won by a UW varsity women’s team; a two-time Olympian and five-time national rowing team member. She died Sunday.
In the space of less than 24 hours this weekend, University of Wisconsin women’s varsity athletics gained a national championship and lost a legend.
If any Badger athlete across the past half century could have truly appreciated the grit — the discipline and drive — that propelled the women’s volleyball team to its heart-stopping five-set championship victory over the University of Nebraska, it was Carie Graves.
Graves, 68, died Sunday afternoon in a local hospital after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Graves was the star of the first national championship won by a UW varsity women’s team — the 1975 National Women’s Rowing Association championship in Princeton, New Jersey. Crew was not yet an NCAA sport.
I once had a chance to ask Graves what she most remembered about that national championship, and she said, “Standing on the podium. I just couldn’t believe it. It was wonderful.”
That title — as meaningful as it was — is almost a footnote in Graves’ subsequent career in women’s rowing, which included two appearances in the Olympic Games, where she won a bronze (1976) and gold (1984) medal. She was five times a U.S. National Team member and was the beating heart of the remarkable U.S. women’s eight crew that earned a silver medal at the 1975 World Championships in England — the event that secured U.S. women’s rowing a place on the world stage and was immortalized in Daniel Boyne’s terrific 2000 book, “The Red Rose Crew.”
In 1998, before the book was published, Graves had undertaken another rowing-related challenge, launching a women’s rowing program at the University of Texas in Austin, where she remained head coach for 16 years.
But it’s not just what Graves did. It’s how she did it. Her way — which occasionally made waves, and not just when she was in a boat. That same force of will made her a champion.
When she retired from Texas in 2014, Graves came home to live in the Spring Green area, Wyoming Valley, where she grew up, and we shared a conversation about her life and career.
I was friendly with her late father — Spring Green businessman Robert Graves, who had died a couple years earlier — and Carie Graves recalled how her first exposure to rowing was at the 1956 National Rowing Championships in Syracuse. She was 3 years old. Her dad was captain of the UW men’s crew. He and her mom, Derry, brought their oldest child along.
“I was the only one out of diapers,” Graves said, laughing.
She did not, however, immediately embrace crew. As Graves grew, there was love between father and daughter, but also friction; inevitable, perhaps, between two strong-willed individuals.
Graves wasn’t the first Midwest high school graduate to decide she wanted to see Europe, which she did, hitchhiking, but she was likely the first to call home and learn there was a nascent women’s rowing team forming at the University of Wisconsin.
“Why not try out?” her brother Ross said.
Graves did, coming home and enrolling at UW–Madison. But she didn’t tell her dad.
“I guess I didn’t want him to be disappointed if I ever considered stopping,” she told me.
Robert Graves found out, of course, and eventually helped buy the financially strapped program a boat.
Carie Graves was tall and rangy and knew hard work from her farm background. She told me she was not a natural rower.
“I rowed very poorly at first,” she said. “But I was so crazy I made the boat move fast.”
Technique came with time. And now I am remembering the late fall day in 2000 when Robert Graves called me and invited me to have lunch at the old Tony Frank’s on Seminole Highway.
As we settled into a booth, he pushed a book across the table at me: a new hardcover copy of “The Red Rose Crew.” His pride in his daughter, perhaps the central figure in the book, was palpable.
“Hollywood wants to option it,” he said.
Hollywood being Hollywood, that took a while, but in 2020 it was announced the newly minted Sports Illustrated Studios would make the film.
That day in November 2000, he said, “She’s at the University of Texas now. Coaching the women’s team.”
On Sunday, Carie Graves’ sister, Alison, shared with me an appreciation of Graves sent to the family by Renee Crowell, who rowed at Texas.
“For me,” Crowell wrote, “like I’m sure she was for all her athletes, she was a role model. Carie was the strongest female I had ever met…. Through her coaching, she taught me to dig deep, to find the place inside that could give more, even when my brain was telling me to stop…. Carie didn’t just want her athletes to be the best rowers they could be. She wanted us to be the best people we could be.”
Robert Graves had another book with him that day at lunch. It was a copy of the 2000-2001 American Rower’s Almanac. In honor of the new millennium, they had chosen the Century’s 10 Most Notable People in American Rowing.
One was Carie Graves.
The almanac noted: “She was the first to show that women could be, and were, really tough competitors. The men had their awesome role models. With Carie Graves, the women had their own awesome competitor.”
Those volleyball players in Columbus Saturday night were standing on her shoulders.
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