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It took only three years for Lis Lambert to go from a walk-on who never considered herself an athlete to an NCAA Champion.
For the Radcliffe heavyweight crew co-captain, whose high school athletic experience consisted of non-competitive volleyball, college has certainly not been what Lambert expected as she enters her senior year with an NCAA Championship, two Eastern Sprints titles and a fourth-place finish in the international CRASH-B indoor rowing competition.
“Not only is she the captain, but one of the top athletes in the program right now,” says heavyweight coach Liz O’Leary.
Growing up in Whitefish Bay, a suburb of Milwaukee, Wis., Lambert never even considered crew, nor did she have much of an opportunity to do so. “There’s no rowing there,” she says with a laugh, adding “At all!”
However, a lack of experience has never impeded Harvard students from trying rowing, a rarity in Division I athletics.
“One of the things I love about this sport is that you can start as a complete novice and often, without very much athletic experience in high school, pick up the sport in college and become a national contender. And Lis has done exactly that,” O’Leary says.
Lambert first arrived at Harvard intending to devote her time to literary pursuits. She assumed her extracurricular activities would not stray far from campus literary magazines.
That mind set lasted all of one week, when, at the freshman activities fair, Lambert found her match.
Lambert recalls being propositioned by several “tall, impressive-looking women” who insisted she row. Though she had never even considered the sport, she decided to join the Radcliffe novice squad, unsure of what to expect.
Despite her inexperience, Lambert found crew to be a ideal fit. She stands at 6’3, lifts weights three times a week and practices on the water nearly every day. And it shows.
By her sophomore year, Lambert found herself sitting in the Varsity boat, and has never looked back. Now a co-captain in her third and final year rowing for the Black and White, the risk she took at the activities fair seems to have paid off both for Lambert and Radcliffe crew.
“It’s been pretty cool, sort of discovering the latent athlete in me,” Lambert admits with another smile. “It’s made for kind of an identity shift.”
Lambert’s new identity as a Division I varsity athlete has been further defined by the rapport she and her teammates have created both on and off the water.
“I love the training relationship; I love that we go lift weights together and cheer each other on,” Lambert says. “I love that we’re big women and proud of it and proud that we’re strong and we love to eat. I think that the way that we relate to our bodies is really healthy.”
Lambert characterizes her relationship with her team by depicting the carpeted area of the boathouse where the rowers stretch, warm-up and exercise.
“When I think of the team, [I think of the time] before practice every day we just sit around and kind of shoot the breeze as we’re stretching and getting warmed up,’ she says. “It’s just hysterical. If I had to choose one place at Harvard where I feel most at home, [it would be] sitting there.”
That comfort translates into a family environment that was instrumental in winning the national title.
“At sprints and nationals...that trust and camaraderie was rewarded in those big moments,” says junior Heather Schofield. “Lis was a huge part of building that trust.”
Lambert’s competitive spirit has played no small role in her team’s ever-increasing addiction to speed.
“Sometimes Lis would turn around with this huge grin before a piece, and I’d just know that she wanted to go after the other boat,” Schofield says.
“When a boat gets a good rhythm and there is a unity to the motion, you just fly,” Lambert adds.
“That’s the best part of rowing: going so fast and knowing that it’s because you’re completely tuned in to what everyone else is doing.”
Last spring, the entire team seemed tuned in. At May’s Eastern Sprints regatta, the Black and White heavies were primed for success.
Not only did the Radcliffe varsity boat win its race by almost five seconds, but the crew bested Brown by one point for the Willing Trophy, marking the first such team victory since 1989 and securing the team a berth in the NCAAs.
In June, the boat clinched the NCAA team title by winning the varsity race, just Harvard’s third NCAA team title. Critical to that success was Lambert, simply doing what she loves and doing it at the highest-level.
“Lis often says that the feeling she loves most about rowing is when the engine room gets on it together and makes the boat fly,” says senior Caroline Fisher.
“Lis was a key piece of the engine…and she certainly makes us fly.”
Lambert, however, remains modest almost to a fault. Regarding last November’s CRASH-Bs, she insists with a laugh that, “a lot of people who could have beaten me weren’t there.”
In addition to discovering the athlete within, Lambert has also found a mentor in her coach. Lambert bubbles over with anecdotes and praise for O’Leary.
“Liz is amazing. She is so warm, but at the same time so demanding,” she says.
“She’s very nurturing, but also very driven,” Lambert adds. “And she’s one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet.”
Though rowing occupies a significant portion of every day and has come to rest at the forefront of her list of priorities, Lambert has certainly not abandoned her original plans.
She still pursues her love of writing. Lambert is currently drafting her English senior thesis, affectionately describing Pascale as a French philosopher “all shook up by the Copernican revolution.”
Moreover, she is in the process of earning a teaching certificate from UTEP (Harvard’s Undergraduate Teacher Education Program), citing high school English as a possible field which would both interest her and allow her to continue writing.
“I’m kind of maternal,” Lambert says reflectively. “I like kids, and I could see myself being a teacher.”
Lambert is already on her way to teaching, spending much of her precious spare time with children. As both a Harvard Freshman Outdoors Program leader and a summer counselor at Clearwater Camp in her native Wisconsin, she is gaining the necessary experience.
In the meantime, she has a national championship to defend.
Not bad for a girl who never considered herself to be an athlete.
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