After Kirk Shipley arrest at Whitman, area rowing community takes stock

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Annabelle Harbold finds rowing cathartic. “When the boat is really moving together, you feel like you’re almost flying over the water,” she says.

The sport also has served as an avenue for the Jackson-Reed High senior captain. Harbold, who led her team to a Washington Metropolitan Interscholastic Rowing Association title this month, will row at Brown next season.

Featuring fiberglass boats that cost as much as $45,000, the D.C. area regularly produces some of the nation’s fastest teams and dozens of athletes who continue to compete in the Ivy League. But in the wake of troubling news within the community, teams are reevaluating the sport’s insulated culture.

Kirk Shipley, long one of the area’s most accomplished coaches, was arrested last summer following accusations of sexual abuse at Whitman High in Bethesda.

At the boathouses where teams train, coaches, athletes and parents are asking: How did the financial and competitive pressures of rowing, specifically in this community, play a role in enabling a powerful figure?

The spring rowing season is nearing its end, as top teams prepare for this weekend’s Stotesbury Cup on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

For students such as Harbold, it is the culmination of all those 4:30 a.m. alarms and daily practices. For the high school rowing community at large, it is another opportunity to take stock in the sport.

As The Washington Post reported in November, Shipley remained Whitman’s coach through two investigations of his team’s culture. The human resources consultant who led those investigations noted in the second instance that some rowers felt demeaned and disparaged by Shipley and said he had “insufficient respect of boundaries,” though no rowers had alleged sexual misconduct at that time.

While Shipley’s case — he is charged with sexually abusing two former rowers — may be an exception, coaches and athletes are reevaluating the power dynamic in the sport.

They trusted a coach with their girls and Ivy League ambitions. Now he’s accused of sex abuse.

The line between coach and personal confidant is sometimes blurred because coaches’ relationships with the students are often so personal. Many teams practice together for the entire school year. Athletes call their coaches by their first name. Most coaches also teach at the schools.

According to a letter written by members of Whitman’s team in June, Shipley often chatted with the girls in his classroom, confided details of his personal life and developed close relationships with the parents — behavior that is common around the boathouse.

“Time spent together and intensity of some kind … that breeds closeness,” said Chris Rickard, the coach at Jackson-Reed (formerly known as Wilson). “There is good reason as a society that we need to have SafeSport training, we need to have clear guidelines about these relationships, because you end up with adults and children pushed together. It’s also an amazing relationship, and the positive sides of it, it does give me the opportunity to teach lessons that are really hard because the kid is invested. But clearly, this is something that can be abused when you open that level of connection.

“Those are times that I have to keep the kid at arm’s length,” Rickard added. “… It’s important that an adult does create that separation. I think any healthy, respectful coach knows and sees those lines.”

Though SafeSport training was previously required across schools, this year many coaches and athletes are openly discussing the protocols. Multiple rowers noted they’ve become increasingly cognizant of the potential for abuse that stems from the close relationships with their coaches.

Sophie Tursi, a senior coxswain at McLean, called Shipley’s arrest “a wake-up call.”

“Crew is a sport where rowers are very connected to their coach, and it’s kind of a special relationship, and I think people often forget that that relationship can be swayed in ways that are not good,” Tursi said. “It can be kind of normalized for coaches to be too harsh on rowers or get too involved in their personal lives, and I think it’s really important that people remember that, just because it’s a sport where you have to be close with your coach, it doesn’t mean you can be subjected to abuse.”

Members of Whitman’s team did not respond to interview requests for this story. The team’s new coach, Tolsun Waddle, said he was unable to provide comment.

While coaches have long had authority over athletes, parents — particularly in rowing — occupy another tier of influence.

In a sport that’s entirely family-funded, parent boards control programs’ logistics and finances, ranging from the sandwich selection for road trips to which coaches are hired and fired.

Multiple parent board presidents equated their role to running a small business. Some programs can spend up to $400,000 per year on boats, coaching staffs and travel.

The goal of the heavy spending: provide an activity in which students find camaraderie, compete for national championships and, perhaps most significantly, boost their odds of attending a prestigious college.

The Ivy League is an attainable prize around here; in 2022, there were 47 rowers from the D.C. area represented on Ivy rosters.

And in rowing, where there are no individual statistics or highlight tapes, a high school coach’s reputation plays an outsize role in an athlete’s status as a prospect. Tim White, who is on the parent board and the coaching staff at Washington-Liberty, said colleges lean heavily on that.

“It is difficult to ascertain the potential of a rower based on any metrics that you have in front of you, even if you watch them row,” White said.

Heavily invested parents crave college opportunities for their kids, and at Whitman, Shipley seemingly helped deliver them. His teams consistently won championships, and the rowers attracted Ivy League scholarship offers — even if there was an obvious cost.

A 2018 complaint levied by Whitman’s rowers accused their coach of creating a toxic culture. Shipley, who began coaching in 2002, responded in an email to a parent that it was just “the competitive nature of the Women’s program at Whitman.”

Shipley remained as a coach. The following year his team dominated locally and finished second nationally, and he was named All-Met Coach of the Year for the third time.

Whitman’s parent board is now using its power to expand protocols. In an email to The Post, members of the board said they expanded SafeSport training to include athletes, coaches, board members and parents; hired two independent ombudspersons to handle confidential reports of concerns; and offered counseling funding for current and former Whitman crew athletes who request assistance, among other steps.

Preserving the heart of the sport

When Harbold entered high school in 2019, her freshman class began the year with about 30 rowers. It ended with 12.

The pressures of the sport can weed out many and consume others. But for Harbold, who balances it with advanced placement classes and glider pilot lessons, rowing can also carry such purity.

“There’s this sound of the water bubbling under the boat as you’re rushing through the water,” she said. “There’s a certain rhythm to it that you get caught up in. It’s just amazing.”

Rowers call their activity “the ultimate team sport,” and their experiences are formative when handled properly. Rickard, also of Jackson-Reed, said he and other coaches this season have paid particular attention to how they prioritize students’ mental health over competition.

Area rowing this year experienced a “really important shift” toward becoming a friendlier environment, said Tursi, the McLean rower.

“Especially after what happened at Whitman, I think among the girls’ side of DMV rowing, it’s been more of a fun experience. [The community] has been a lot more of a family in the past year,” she said. “If you’ve done club rowing, you know at least one girl who rowed at Whitman. It definitely affected the entire area.”

Parents, coaches and students continue to grapple with these high stakes as Whitman rows out of the same boathouse with unavoidable success: The girls’ team won the Maryland state championship and placed second at the WMIRA regatta this month.

These athletes are more than the tragedy that has followed them.

“That’s something I remind myself of when I see the [Whitman girls] going to launch,” Rickard said. “Not seeing ‘Oh man, this terrible thing’ — those kids are still kids, and they’re still trying to do this sport that they love and not have it all come crumbling down.”

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