Things have changed a lot for women and sports and Sherri thinks she got really lucky. When Sherri was young, there weren’t any competitive opportunities for girls, but when she was in college, Title IX went into effect and her whole world changed. She swam, played volleyball, ran track, power-lifted, and sailed competitively. While at a sailing regatta at Marist College on the Hudson River, she wandered around and came across an odd machine with gears and a big stick. Then, through a door, she saw long, beautiful wooden boats. At first, she had no idea what they were, but then remembered seeing them on the Wide World of Sports as a kid. They were competitive rowing boats! She was smitten on the spot.
She inquired where she might be able to row, but at the time, rowing wasn’t in the NCAA. The USRA didn’t exist yet and the women’s racing organization, the NWRA, wasn’t commonly known, so finding rowing was harder than one might think. Although she was at a school not far from Boston, she couldn’t find rowing. After graduate school, Sherri moved to Seattle and while working early in the morning on the east shore of Lake Union, she heard a megaphone and looked out at the lake. There they were. Rowing shells. She had come to the right place! She started coming to Lake Union early in the morning just to see them go by.
After a lot of inquiry and perseverance, she found LWRC’s floating boathouse (no telephone yet) and immediately joined. There, she met Frank Cunningham and began a decades long tutelage on the Thames Waterman sculling and rowing styles. Soon thereafter, unaware that Bob Ernst was the US Olympic coach, she asked him to take her on in his sculling program. Many of the athletes training with him were members of LWRC, so she assumed this program was available. Silly her. After more perseverance, at the age of 24, she managed to join them and was fortunate to be able to train under Bob with such amazing women athletes. She still continued to meet up on the water with Frank as she could.
She managed to be taken seriously and went on to be on several National and Olympic teams as both a sweep rower and a sculler. At the time, it was inordinately rare to make it onto National Team without coming up through the normal pipeline. Perhaps now it isn’t possible at all. Sherri squeaked in under the wire.
In 1984, she was a member of the US Olympic sweep team. In 1985, she and UW Alum Susan Broome, with Bob Ernst as coach, won the first international medal for USA women in the pair – a silver at Worlds. In 1987, Sherri placed 6th at Worlds in the single. In 1988, she raced in the quadruple sculls as a member of the US Olympic sculling team. In 1989, she was honored to win the first gold medal in the Maccabiah Games in Israel, in an event initiated for her. There had never been a women’s rowing event there before.
Sherri was involved with the Lake Washington Rowing Club since she first joined in 1979. She always appreciated the fact the LWRC allowed her to learn to row. She competed in the Head of the Lake Regatta off and on for more than 3 decades. At the first Head of the Lake Regatta in 1981, Sherri raced in the Open Single. In 1982, really wanting the win badly, she learned the stake turn from Frank Cunningham. In 1982, the final turn was about 150 degrees – not the long, buoyed turn there is today. It was problematic, since rowing shells are designed to go straight; not to turn on a dime, but the stake turn used by the pros did allow rowers to turn on a dime. It involved suddenly bringing the inside oar vertical and spinning the boat around that axis in a few short strokes with the outside oar. It’s a risky endeavor. It turns out it wasn’t really necessary, but she took the risk anyway and stunned her opponent so that she stopped rowing. Sherri won handily.
Sherri focused on sweep rowing in the mid 80’s, then won the HOTL open single again in 1988. Sherri retired from rowing races for a few years. She later returned and won the Masters Single in her age category in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and was a close second in 2012.
In January 2014, Sherri was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer and was given six months to two years to live. She battled the disease with the same dedication that she gave to competitive rowing. Her positive attitude and lifetime commitment to fitness enabled her to keep going. After a two and a half year fight, Sherri passed away on April 29, 2016.
Sherri’s determination continues to inspire people from many generations. The Lake Washington Rowing Club is honored to be able to dedicate the Women’s Masters Single to Sherri Cassuto.