Why I Row: ‘A friend of mine talked me into it — she ended up dropping out and I kept going’
By Tanya Perez
Although she took a 28-year break, Alison Merrilees eventually returned to the sport she loved.
“I just never thought I'd go back to rowing — been there, done that,” Merrilees said of her long break. “I did a lot of things to keep active,” she added, taking up running after college, competing in many marathons, including Boston’s.
Her “Why I Row” story begins the way many 18-year-olds’ pursuits do: Your friend says, “Hey, will you come with me to this thing?” and you go. For Merrilees, her friend at UC Berkeley suggested they both attend an information meeting about joining the rowing team.
“She ended up dropping out, and I kept going,” Merrilees said, adding that she rowed for her entire four years at Cal.
Merrilees, an attorney serving as chief counsel for the California State Assembly’s committee on judiciary, noted it was an interesting time to be a female college athlete. “It was kind of the early stages of Title IX,” the federal law prohibiting sexual discrimination in educational programs or activities.
The inequities were glaring in the mid-1980s. “There was no way in anybody’s imagination that our facilities (compared to) what was offered for the men.”
Oddly, the men’s rowing team would semi-brag that they didn’t accept as much money from the university as the women’s team. But that was because the men's team had a sizable endowment from alumni, including the owner of Dreyer's ice cream.
What brought Merrilees back to rowing was her husband and daughter, Mike Paiva and Abby Paiva, who were training for the 2016 Head of the Charles’ parent/child doubles event.
Abby was then on the juniors team, so Merrilees had already become a rowing parent, attending regattas and shuttling her daughter to practices.
When Mike and Abby decided to compete at HOCR, “They were rowing with the Open Women” because they needed a coach out with them.
“They both really enjoyed rowing with the Open Women,” Merrilees added. “I felt like I was missing out, and wanted to figure out what they were up to.” Thus, she joined the team herself that year, with coach Jeff Weaver.
“The fact that I got to row with my daughter was icing on the cake,” Merrilees said.
Ultimately, both of Merrilees kids rowed in college — son Andrew rowed at Stanford University for two years, and Abby at Cal for two years before injuries.
Regarding rowing in general, she laments somewhat that “Historically, it is not easily accessible to segments of the community. It's been regularly elitist, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that — the history, the cost, accessibility. For example, can your parents drive you to practice, pay your club fees, etc.?”
Continued Merrilees, “I admire programs like Community Rowing, Inc. in Boston that make it accessible. Following that model is something River City aspires to.”
And what keeps her rowing? “I love my teammates and think we have a great coach, and I’ve found the club to be really welcoming in general,” she said. “I'm hoping rowing is part of my life for the long-term in the future.”
Also, Merrilees said, “I think rowing keeps me young and challenges me physically and mentally. One of my teammates is a friend of my daughter. I feel like it helps to keep me young, although I feel a little out of it in popular culture” she said with a laugh. In fact, she said, “(Our team) has great relationships I think because of and in spite of the wide range of ages.”
Caption: Holly Hopkins, Laura McLellan, coxswain Becca Henshaw, Alison Merrilees, and Nikki Navta pose with their first-place medals at the 2021 Head of the Charles regatta. “I think the highlight of my rowing career was three years ago in a 4+ that won the HOCR, and I've had two third-place finishes at HOCR,” Merrilees said. “Also, I would say that I've been really lucky to have won a number of gold medals at Nationals with my teammates.”