Exclusive Interview: CA Women Bust World Record Rowing S.F. to Hawaii

We spoke with Sophia Denison-Johnston about her team’s world record-breaking 34 days and 14 hours alone on the open ocean

As a big weather swell began to form 11-foot waves in an endless blue around the small, long distance rowing vessel, Sophia Denison-Johnston’s stomach dropped. Denison-Johnston and the three other women on her team were only a couple days out from San Francisco, embarking on a 2,400 nautical mile journey to Waikiki in hopes of crushing the all-women’s world speed record for completing the voyage.

They would eventually do just that, but first the crew had to learn the rhythm of the ocean.

“The waves had a very short eight-second period [between them], which makes them very steep,” Denison-Johnston told LAMag. Having never spent this much time on the open sea, her initial feelings toward the massive waves were clouded by childhood memories. Seeing the waves for the first time, she explained, was similar to “when you’re a kid and you go swimming at the beach and you don’t know how to chime with the waves. And one crashes over you and you get turned around and pushed against the sand and the second you come back up another is crashing.”

But as they began to make their way up and over the rolling waves and their boat proved itself worthy of staying afloat moving from one valley to the next, they quickly learned to ride the waves, even enjoying it to a degree. “It almost feels like a kid in a halfpipe,” Denison-Johnston said. “Where it picks you up and you feel weightless for a moment, until you slide back down” gaining speed.

Denison-Johnston was offered a spot on the Lat35 team by Jason Caldwell, founder and CEO of leadership development company Latitude 35, after she placed fourth in the Olympic lightweight women’s double sculls (rowing) trials in 2021. Put off by the idea of being in a small boat out in the middle of nowhere with little sleep and freeze-dried meals, she first tried to talk herself out of it but the seed had been planted.

“I was definitely in denial for a couple of weeks about wanting to do it, but once I came around to it, I was pretty resolute.”

The rest of the team includes Libby Costello, an ultra-runner, who also attended UCLA with Denison-Johnston; Brooke Downes, who Costello knew from high school; and Adrienne Smith, a yoga Instructor and the wife of the strength coach they had hired to train the team.

Although Denison-Johnston invoked powerful imagery of a Perfect Storm-like experience, the waves, luckily, never actually broke directly on the crew, though the team certainly didn’t stay dry as the wind would sweep over a cresting wave, or a rogue wave would slam the boat from the side, washing over the team and even knocking them off their seats.

Conversely, there were days when the water was a “dead-flat and glassy” mouthwash shade of turquoise, spreading in every direction with no land in sight. Throughout the journey, the four were completely self-supported,with over a million calories and a salt-to-freshwater converting machine stashed away. They did have an emergency chase boat ready during the first 10 days, when Denison-Johnston says the majority of rescues happen. Fortunately, no rescue was needed, but the team had prepared extensively to harden their bodies and strengthen their minds.

“We took our preparation really, really seriously,” she said, “both the physical and the mental.” Once out to sea, the team discovered, “Your body adapts whether you have the willpower or not.”

They managed the labor of rowing 24 hours a day by having two members row for two hours at a time, with short breaks in between, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. To prepare, the women worked closely with physical therapists to address any potential issues, brought in professionals to guide them through group dynamics, communication, and meditation, and even practiced tying knots after dunking their hands in ice water.

After 34 days and 14 hours, nearly a day faster than the previous all-women’s record set last year, the Latitude 35 team arrived at the Waikiki Yacht Club.

“On our way in there were fans lining the break walls,” Denison-Johnston said. “It was really unexpected. We all had family members or significant others or friends who came to Hawaii to greet us, but we were met by a huge crowd of so many happy people—that was really amazing.”

For now, the team will work through post-trip logistics, such as interviews, cleaning their trusty vessel, and spending some time together. Some will stay in Hawaii for longer, and it’s safe to say they’re happy to be on dry land.

@brookedownes04 My team and i made it to Hawaii a few hours ago but wanted to share this video of us seeing knd for the first time! #oceanrowing #lat35 #gpr #pacificocean #rowingtiktok #womeninsports #adventurerace #worldrecord ♬ original sound – Brooke Downes

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