UCLA Rowing Alumnae Attempting Pacific Ocean World-Record Row
Former UCLA rowers Libby Costello and Sophia Denison-Johnston and two other teammates have entered the final stretch of a month-long rowing expedition, from San Francisco Bay to Hawai'i, and are seeking to break a world record for an all-female crew.
Costello and Denison-Johnston, along with Adrienne Smith (from Santa Barbara, Calif.) and Brooke Downes, who rowed at USC, departed from San Francisco Bay on June 21. The quartet is attempting to break the all-female crew record – from San Francisco to Hawai'i – of 35 days, 14 hours and 23 minutes. Costello and Downes were high school rowing teammates at Mountain Lakes High School in New Jersey.
The direct distance from San Francisco to Hawai'i is approximately 2,400 nautical miles, which translates to nearly 2,760 miles by land. Ocean and wind conditions have prompted the four-person crew to navigate a route in a more southwest direction, rather than simply heading due west.
The quartet rows throughout the day and the night, with each crew member taking a two-hour shift – essentially two hours on, and two hours off. They packed enough food to sustain for nearly 60 days (primarily freeze-dried food), with nearly 5,000 calories per person, per day, in their supply.
Costello, who arrived at UCLA in the fall of 2015 from Madison, N.J., rowed in the Bruins' program for four seasons – 2015-16 through 2018-19. She rowed in UCLA's second varsity eight crew (2V8+) as a senior in the spring of 2019.
Denison-Johnston, who arrived at UCLA in the fall of 2014 from Berkeley, Calif., competed in the Bruins' rowing program for four years. She rowed primarily in the 2V8+ crew during her sophomore, junior and senior seasons before graduating in 2018.
Such expeditions across oceans are not unprecedented. In 2021, a group of four women in the "Great Pacific Race" set the female world record for rowing from San Francisco to Hawai'i in 35 days. Dubbed "Team Ocean Sheroes," the group shattered the previous Pacific record by 14 days.
The current quartet, featuring two Bruins, has been racing under the name of Lat 35, short for Latitude 35, which is a leadership development company that trains global 500 companies in leadership and high-performance.
Prior to the quartet's departure from the San Francisco Bay, UCLA head coach Previn Chandraratna spoke to Costello and Denison-Johnston about the evolution of their San Francisco to Hawai'i rowing idea and several of the challenges involved.
Below is an excerpt of their discussion (the Q-and-A format has been edited for brevity).
Previn: What can you tell us about this expedition, from a logistical standpoint?
Sophia Denison-Johnston (nicknamed DJ): "We are going to row from San Francisco-ish to Hawaii, and we are going to do that at the end of the spring – leaving in June in a four-person boat, all women. That's the project. It's four women and we're going to go as fast as we possibly can. The world record is 35 days, for women, and 30 days for men. Whatever is 'as fast as we can' means is – how long it's going to take. The distance is 2,400 nautical miles. That's a little over 2,700 regular miles, but we use nautical miles when we're out there. Logistically, we already have a boat because we are going to be racing under the team of "Lat 35" – Latitude 35. They're owned by Jason Caldwell. He's an adventure racer and leadership development professional. He has done three ocean crossings – the Atlantic twice and he did the Pacific last year in this same boat. He set records in the Atlantic crossing and in the Pacific crossing. When he is not rowing, he's talking to business schools and companies and applying his philosophies on leadership and teamwork and adventure to those companies. He is kind of like our team owner. He is our go-to guy, and he has helped us a lot with understanding what we are undertaking. Obviously, it's his boat that we are going to be rowing to Hawaii. We are in good hands, in terms of that."
"The Atlantic crossing is 3,000 miles and this is 2,400. One of the main differences is the weather patterns. With the Atlantic crossings, such as the Talisker Whisky [rowing challenge], you are pretty much following trade winds all the way across. Whereas to leave the United States, you have to get off the continental shelf. There is an onshore current that goes a couple hundred miles, and it's pushing against you. You have a larger battle right out of the gate, to get out of the continental shelf before you can get into the trade winds. A lot fewer people have done the Pacific row – it's a smaller percentage who have attempted it who are successful. And it seems to take a similar amount of time as the Atlantic, despite it being the same for shorter periods."
Libby Costello: "Kind of like 600 miles shorter. You are trying to push Southwest, and you are just being pushed south. And you have to fight that, to get into the pattern. So it's 2,400 nautical miles, within a 100 or so depending upon if you get pushed far south. That can take longer than just a smoother curve."
Sophia: "The boat itself is quite heavy, and then especially when you start you have four to six weeks of food and water and equipment and everything on it."
Previn: Why have you decided to take on this challenge, this expedition?
Sophia: "I had competed at Olympic trials last February , and almost exactly a year ago, and I had a really awesome time. It felt like the first time that I had really truly been able to perform at my best … it was really special. And I felt like, 'Wow, I'm at this amazing point in my career.' I felt like I did a good job of preparing for this and could pat myself on the back, because it was all me. But as an adult, in a more autonomous life, I was also ready for some time away from flat-water rowing sport. I pretty much decided to take a year off, at minimum, just from full-time training and row. I didn't put any pressure on myself to race. I wanted to invest in my career, where I went to massage school, got my career started and I had a really awesome mentor. And a couple months in, this idea of the ocean row had been percolating in my brain. I had read the book "What If" by Jason Caldwell. And I had reached out to him before even going to Olympic trials, just to talk to him. … He had mentioned that he wanted to form an all women's team with his company, and he felt like they hadn't been very representative. He wanted a women's team. That's Lat 35. And after the trials, he said that he thought I could be a really good candidate. The weeks went by. I felt like if there was a time in my life to do this, it was right now. I showed Libby the promo video from the Atlantic crossing from the year before. She turned to me and she was like, 'So when do we start training?' I was kind of sold before Libby was on board, but once Libby said that, I was like, 'Ok, I kind of wanted to do this if it was me and three random girls, but if you're on the team, then I'm so into it.' We were kind of the two initial members. Each person on the boat has their own personal reasons, and they're different for each person. For me, a big part of it was being able to say yes to opportunities. When you are training full-time, you are constantly declining family events or other fun things that you could do. You aren't allowed to go skiing. And I was kind of like, I don't want to wake up and be 40 and have never done the things that I really love to do."
Libby: "I had heard about the book. I had just gone up to visit DJ after a hike or something, after she had gotten back from trials in Florida. She was telling me that she had read this book. And she showed me some of their videos. I thought it looked insanely cool. I was thinking that it was really exciting. So when do we start training? I really wanted to do this, and I'd really like it if you would do this with me. So it was like we were being called up, doing this cool thing together because it's so frightening, right? Neither of us really knew what it would entail. It would kind of say yes to something that you are kind of afraid of, but also very excited about.
"I had known DJ for years and I love her so much, and I'd go into the fire for her and do anything. To have that initial reaction of, 'Wow, this looks like something really epic that we could do.' This was a sign for me to just give it a try, and to use the opportunity to move closer to coming back into myself. I had felt like a shell of my previous self and when you work in this intense environment and you have to trust people and rely on them, and you get to do this motion and you have muscle memory built in, it really helped. You feel everything out there, right? You're physically raw, you are emotionally raw, and with everything it's the most vulnerable stages for weeks at a time. To feel all of those things is kind of what enticed me to do it. To do this with someone who I already trusted my life with and knew from college was great. We figured that we didn't know who the other two people would be, but we knew they'd probably be cool. Anybody who is attracted to this idea is going to be in some similar line of drive as us. It is going to be exciting to see how this unfolds."
Previn: What can you tell us about the two other individuals?
Libby: "Well, DJ and I decided to do this in March, almost one year ago. And then in that April, I went to New Jersey for one week [visiting family]. I happened to overlap for about 24 hours with one of the girls I'd rowed in high school with. Her name is Brooke [Downes] and she had rowed at USC. I'd mentioned it in passing, this new project, told her the gist of it. She thought that was really cool and was asking if I needed a remote training partner or anything like that. She thought it sounded very exciting. At some point in May [of 2021], she told me she had thought a lot about the ocean row and asked me if we'd need an extra teammate. She said she was very interested in doing this. The fourth woman is a former triathlete and a current yoga studio owner and operator. Her name is Adrienne [Smith]. We had met her through the guy who helps run our training program. She lives in Santa Barbara. DJ had met her first. It will be someone from Santa Barbara and then someone who I had rowed with in high school who is now moving to Santa Barbara for training."
Previn: What do you do to prepare for this daunting excursion?
Sophia: "It's interesting because a lot of what will make or break the row does not come down to fitness. One of the things that ocean rowers have been telling us, is that you could do the row right now and that we'd be totally fine. And we're thinking, 'That is not a high-performance mindset.' We wanted to just be as strong as possible."
Previn: Clarify for us, why isn't the high-level fitness as important for this row?
Sophia: "There are just so many mental factors – you could be the most fit person in the world but if you are not prepared for big waves and you're not prepared for being scared and cold, and surviving, it just doesn't matter how fit you are. In my opinion, those are not mutually exclusive. You don't have to sacrifice being fit for being well-prepared mentally. All of us are used to making our training a huge priority. I think that a lot of people who do ocean rows maybe are not as used to that. You have to pick what your focus is. Obviously you can't do everything in a day, but we have the willingness. Brooke is moving to Santa Barbara for this, as an example. We have the willingness to really dive in and try not to cut any corners.
"Our physical training is pretty similar to a college training program, other than we are not on the boat most days since our boat has been stationed in the Bay Area. We have maybe three or four ergs per week and maybe two lifting sessions and a number of cross-training sessions. It's somewhere between 10-20 hours per week of physical training. The erg is very important. Just so that your body understands what muscles to build up, making sure that your ribs are strong and not going to break out there – and things like that. Building muscle is a huge priority. Same thing with injury prevention, but also when your body has metabolized all of the fat, it moves onto burning protein for energy. Given that we will all be rowing 12 hours a day, muscle atrophy can be a huge issue. If you don't have enough muscle to really support you and you're burning through muscle, that can make your body more susceptible to injury. Weightlifting is a really big part of our program, too. Just getting super strong so that we can try and make that no one has to miss a shift due to being injured, and we aren't totally broken by the time that we get to Hawai'i."
Libby: "We have shifts that are about two hours on, two hours off. In our training, during the week runs, which is an hour and a half to two hours, but on the weekends now we have done a couple with like three and four-hour sessions. That could be three hours of erg, or two hours of erg and cross-training just to build up for those longer days. This is kind of those events where you won't do that distance before you get to the start line. It's not like in flat-water rowing where you can practice 1500s and 2Ks and do intervals of them. It's just priming your body to last as long as it can, within that distance once we've started."
Sophia: "The goal is make your body as indestructible as possible and, obviously, strong. We were following last year's Pacific race, and there was a men's boat and women's boat. The men's boat is 50 miles ahead of the women's boat at a certain point, and that's not because they were better prepared. That's because they're super strong. That is where it's like, sure, all of this mental stuff is a number-one priority. If you don't know how to use the water maker or if you aren't prepared, you have to practice your communication with your teammates and you go off on them, that's unacceptable. But also, clearly being stronger and faster is going to help."
Previn: What kind of food will you eat, and how will you be sleeping on this boat?
Sophia: "It's two hours on and two hours off. It's just [rowing] two hours at a time. You clock out. All of your personal admin, which is how we refer to using the bathroom – the bathroom bucket – all of that happens in your two hours off. You get off the oars. You wipe down your body with a wipe so that you don't have salt on you, you'll eat something, sleep as long as you can. And if things need to get fixed or repaired or you want to call someone, that all works into your off time."
Libby: "Checking the chart, at maximum, people will get an hour and 20 or an hour and 30 minutes of sleeping time. There are 10 to 15 minutes before that which goes into undressing from your previous shift, redressing for your next shift and then any other logistical items that have to happen."
Sophia: "We are going to be eating freeze-dried food for pretty much all of it. We packed 5,000 calories per person per day, for like 60 days. So, we will have tons of food onboard. And then we will have little snack packs. The way in which most people do it, you'll have a gallon size bag that you pack in like your favorite snacks – a bar, candy, or whatever it is. You'll have freeze-dried and nutrient dense meals that you're eating, but then you can have the other snacks as things that you really look forward to. It gives you stuff to look forward to and it gives you another texture in your mouth. With cooking food, we'll use the jet boil to heat up the water."
Previn: What are your greatest fears with a pursuit like this?
Sophia: "I have two. My first one, generally, I'm pretty afraid of big waves. And that is a huge part of this row. But actually, that also draws me to it. I'd love to better understand waves and to get comfortable with them. You do that by facing them and you continue to build confidence that you are not going to die when a big wave comes. And you practice. We've been excited to have the boat in Santa Barbara because we have had access to working with swell. If we were to train in the San Francisco Bay, we wouldn't have that experience before launching. That's one. My other fear is the emotional crash after you complete the row. I'm not really afraid that my teammates won't get along. I think the only thing that could ruin the relationship within our team is doubting that we'll have a good relationship. But I am just afraid of that post-event kind of crash. I definitely had a hard time after the Olympic trials when I decided to give myself a break. That had been the longest that I'd ever not touched a boat since I started rowing, like 12 years before. And I really did not understand it for a long time."
"We will have had this experience that nobody else can understand, except for the people who were on the boat with you. Now, there have been tons of documentaries about Olympians and what not who have struggled with mental health, especially after the Olympics. And it just can extend so much beyond just Olympians. It's anyone who has lived their life via their passion or their determination toward something, and they're forced to take a break from it. It's really hard."
Previn: How do you feel that your UCLA rowing career, or other rowing experiences, have prepared you for this moment?
Libby: "The most obvious one is that we had met in the UCLA program. I think that one of the reasons that we became such close friends there, we were two of the smaller people on the team. And we ended up doing a lot of extra work outside of practice hours just to bolster our speed. Our work ethics had really aligned in that way. We enjoyed where we were and we enjoyed putting in the work, and quality efforts. Just by nature of that situation, that's how we became friends outside of rowing. It came within that rowing program, which was awesome. I think back to some of the team aspects that we got to experience at UCLA. While we were building this team, we pulled up a bunch of our old UCLA documents. We were like, 'OK, how did we set up the values for that year? How did we kind of structure how our team will look like?' We pulled from those materials that we were taught when we were part of the team. Now that we had a little freedom to build this team, what aspects of this did we think we liked and what do we want to exercise into this team that's our own? We had some common language that we'd use and the pillars of the values and the priorities – we had used that as a basis for what we ended up building.
"For us to have those great UCLA experiences just with the vocab and the people who came to speak to us, and Sue Enquist and a bunch of the workshops that Ric Coy did, just having the privilege to be a UCLA athlete and then transfer some of those lessons into our blank slate with all of this good history of when we were students in the sport. That was a big part of it. And even since then, we have done a bunch of different and more extreme events together. Around 10 months ago, I ran the Backbone Trail [around Malibu] which is 70 miles. That was about 22 hours straight. DJ came and ran the final 16 [miles] with me. That was during the 9 pm to 1 am shift of the run. At that point, we already kind of had an idea that we were doing this [rowing trip], and people who we running with, we'd told them that in the process of preparing for the Backbone – when you are doing something that's extreme and who do you want there to support you, and she was my first pick of, 'Hey, can you come down on this day?' She said yes. That speaks to the quality of the teamwork and the friendship that we have.
"Also, we were in the dark, running around the mountains of Malibu. We were both in pain. It had been a long day. But we could still laugh at some of the things that we had said. We were thinking that there will be moments in the nighttime shift of this row where all you will see are the stars. You won't exactly know where you are going. And you're just beginning to form that mentality where you've got four hours here of running in the dark. We will have two hours there of rowing in the dark. What are we taking from this? And it was just one step at a time, just like on the water it's one stroke at a time. It has been, yeah, transferring all of those smaller lessons that apply from flat water rowing into more extreme and longer, darker versions of the sport."
Sophia: "The first, most important thing that I got from UCLA was that I got so much faster than I ever thought was possible for me. In high school, I thought that I was small and not very strong, but I'm really good at rowing. Then by my junior year at UCLA, I had realized that I'd actually got pretty strong. I was actually really fast and could do those things. I just kept showing up and doing my best, and I woke up and I was like, 'OK, well I guess the next step is the Olympic trials.' That's amazing. And it doesn't take being born a special person. It just takes showing up every day and doing your best, and I think that's a principle that I learned at UCLA.
"I think that the culture, all of the John Wooden quotes, all of the Sue Enquist mantras, having to rebuild the UCLA rowing team culture my sophomore year – we really got intentional about our language. What are we trying to do here? How are we going to treat each other? How do we conceptualize this? Those kind of mental tools were so important, just going forward to when I was training on my own, I had to re-learn a lot of that. I am so thankful that I had that backbone where I could know that at some point, I got really in my head and I'd question if I wasn't good at rowing. But I could go back and focus on showing up and doing your best every day. It's going to work out. I totally feel like it did. I think that having a team – I mean, UCLA supported us so much, in terms of team doctors and PTs and nutrition. For me, nutrition was a huge component. It's been a huge, huge impact. And we've used our team training documents to form our own contract with our athletes this year and this team. That was really the basis."