Up until last weekend, alumnae from the UC Berkeley women's rowing team who graduated nearly two decades ago hadn't gathered at the Briones Reservoir since their time practicing as undergrads.
The former teammates reunited at the reservoir on Saturday (March 25) and were joined by the university's current women's rowing team, as well as family and friends of Shawn O'Donnell -- a Danville-raised woman who was killed upon being struck by a truck on July 20, 2022, while bicycling to her job in Washington D.C. as a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department shortly after her 40th birthday -- to celebrate a major milestone towards efforts to carry on her legacy in the sport.
The Shawn's Boat fundraiser, organized by O'Donnell's former rowing teammates, reached its $50,000 goal by late January, just months after it was swiftly launched by alumnae who reconnected and set to work on memorializing their late teammate after learning about her death last summer.
With the funding secured, the Shawn Kelly O'Donnell racing shell was christened and made its maiden voyage on a sunny Saturday morning, piloted by current rowers at UC Berkeley who were joined by Mary O'Donnell, a Danville resident and mother of the late rower and U.S. diplomat.
"The friendships Shawn made with her rowing team are the same kind of friendships you're all going to have … it's been 20 years, and the sisterhood that these girls had … to make our lives a little less painful, a little less missing Shawn, is invaluable," Mary O'Donnell told current rowers at the March 25 boat christening ceremony. "You can't even put (it) into words. I hope all of you treasure the relationships you have, because they will last literally a lifetime."
"She lives in you," she added.
Shawn O'Donnell's death hit her former teammates hard, with news spreading amongst the far-flung group of Berkeley alumnae in the days after her death and close to 20 years after their time together in college, spurring not just the fundraiser, but a teamwide reunion and appreciation for each other -- as well as O'Donnell, who remains present in their conversations and anecdotes about their adventures rowing together.
"It was a worldwide effort pretty much," former teammate Anita Sarrett said. "The network really came through. For some of you that don't know much about Shawn, she was a Danville native…she had that laugh, that friend who had that laugh, that just ingrains in your memory."
In addition to bringing the former and current Berkeley rowers together to carry on O'Donnell's legacy, family members emphasized the importance of the memorial efforts and sense of support and community that Shawn's Boat had provided them in the aftermath of her death.
"You have made our family feel like part of the team, and for that I can't ever repay you," Shawn O'Donnell's sister Shannon O'Donnell said at the ceremony. "So this is a small token of something that you've done, but as a whole, I'm just so grateful for Shawn's village for making my life and my family's life easier these past few months."
O'Donnell's stepfather Claes Elfving emphasized that the project overall was a symbol of never-ending love and support his stepdaughter had garnered over the course of her lifetime.
"This whole journey of trying to get this racing shell to become a reality has been a journey of love for Shawn and the University of California Berkeley," Elfving said. "Shawn was killed eight months and five days ago, and there is not a day that goes by that we don't think of her and miss her. This shell is a beautiful and wonderful way to remember and memorialize Shawn."
Shannon and Mary O'Donnell both emphasized that the legacy represented by Shawn's Boat was twofold for the family, with Shawn O'Donnell's and her sister's late father Brian O'Donnell also having been a rower, with a boat dedicated to him after his death in 2011 from multiple sclerosis.
Sarrett noted that in addition to O'Donnell's memory being carried on by the former teammates, the next step of their memorial effort following the debut of the racing shell in her name was for O'Donnell to continue living on in the water, spurred on by current and future Berkeley rowers.
"It's really amazing to know that we have this boat and these bears and our future bears are going to be rowing (in it) and it's a legacy that she can continue to be here on Briones," Sarrett said. "And I think something that we're really looking forward to is seeing it race."
The racing shell christened with O'Donnell's name is set to be in action with the UC Berkeley women's rowing team in San Diego on April 1 and April 2 for the San Diego Crew Classic, followed by a race closer to home against the Stanford team on April 15 in Redwood City.
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