Featured by David Kiefer

Winds of Change

With every victory, Stanford’s women hope to fix college sailing

A LIGHT NORTHEASTERLY teased Michelle and Vanessa Lahrkamp all morning as they sat under a tent on the pier, wishing for even a ripple of wind to fill their sails on Little Neck Bay at the edge of Long Island Sound.

The sisters were ready to race at the Inter-collegiate Sailing Association’s 2023 Open Fleet Race National Championships, with sunscreen applied, visors on, and lifejackets at the ready. But the winds at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, were not cooperating.

Michelle, a Stanford senior co-terming in management science and engineering, was on the verge of history, for herself and for her team. But as the postponement dragged on, Michelle needed to get her mind off sailing for a while and decided to “check out,” by watching a lecture on stochastic modeling and Markov chains.

Going into this final day of the most important regatta in collegiate sailing, no woman had ever piloted a winner in the A Division, as Michelle was poised to do. And no all-women’s team had ever won the regatta itself. There even was a stretch in the regatta’s long history – it was established in 1937 – when women weren’t allowed to compete at all.

In collegiate sailing, men and women compete together. It’s the only collegiate sport where that happens. But, historically, women are given fewer opportunities.

Yet Stanford, with an all-female lineup of skipper Michelle Lahrkamp and crew Ellie Harned in the A Division boat and skipper Vanessa Lahrkamp and crew Abigail Tindall in the B, was about to become the first all-female team to win what is considered the national championship.

To get an idea of how the sport is geared toward men, 18 boats sailed in the A Division and only two had female skippers: Michelle and a woman from Boston College who was replaced halfway through the competition.  

Among the 18 in the B Division, Vanessa Lahrkamp was among six female skippers and there were five all-female teams.

The buzz around Stanford began the week before, at the Open Team Race Nationals, when the Cardinal first unveiled its all-female lineup.

Women on other teams, especially those bypassed in favor of male teammates to drive boats at nationals, secretly offered encouragement to the Stanford women through social media.

“Don’t tell my team this, but I’m totally rooting for you!”

Moms sent supportive messages.

“Go girls! You’re crushing it! We’re so proud of you no matter how it goes.”

The Lahrkamps’ home yacht club was ecstatic. Stanford alumna Helena Scutt, an Olympian and advocate for women’s sailing, wished Michelle luck.

“It became this mutual respect,” Michelle said. “We’re cheering on the Stanford girls because it’s good for women’s sailing. That says a lot about the community that we have.”

As kids, girls drive boats against boys without a thought. It’s only in college where those paths diverge.


THE LAHRKAMP SISTERS grew up in Rye, New York, on the Long Island Sound. They were introduced to sailing through their parents, German immigrants Elke and Markus, who sailed as a hobby and raced in a Friday night Sunset Series with friends.

The family owned a 35-foot wooden boat and took week-long sailing vacations. The girls, 2 ½ years apart (they also have a younger sister, Melanie), learned to be comfortable on the water. At an early age, they learned to sail Optimists, small single-handed dinghies, at summer camp and eventually progressed to a high-caliber team called LISOT (Long Island Sound Optimist Training).

The sisters spent summers racing in Florida, racing International 420s, with Vanessa even winning the i420 women’s world title in 2021.

Just far enough apart in age to miss each other in age-group racing, except for one overlapping season, Michelle and Vanessa developed as drivers, steering and calling the tactics on their own. They learned to read the wind and currents.

“You pick up patterns,” Vanessa said. “You’ll see friction in the water and it looks darker and moves in different ways. That tells you how the wind is shifting, and allows you to predict how the wind will change, and how you need to position yourself to gain from that change.”

Michelle said she learned by asking the right questions to get the right information.

“I’ve never really relied on a coach,” she said. “What we see on the water is completely different than what the coaches see. I have to make my own decisions.”

Stanford head coach Chris Klevan said, “A good sailor leaves shore with an idea of what’s going to happen, but no expectations. There’s so much out of your control. Imagine basketball, except the court is changing all the time.”

When Michelle arrived at Stanford in the fall of 2019, the program was reeling from the Varsity Blues scandal. Her freshman year was cut off by the COVID-19 pandemic and, a few months later, an announcement came down that sailing was among 11 Stanford varsity sports scheduled to be discontinued after the next academic year.

Michelle’s collegiate career had been so promising. Before COVID hit, she was named National Women’s Sailor of the Year, becoming the first freshman to win and the first from Stanford to receive the honor.

Michelle learned of the announcement while on a lunch break. She was coaching young sailors in Larchmont, New York. The shock of the news left her so bitter, she wasn’t sure if she ever wanted to sail competitively again. 


Lahrkamp spent the fall quarter in Germany, not sure what to do next.

“I was super mad at the sport,” Michelle said. “I didn’t know how else to cope with it.”

With time to think about her future, Michelle realized she didn’t want her sailing career to end.

“I realized that I loved the sport so much,” she said. “I wasn’t finished yet.”

Whether Stanford sailing continued as a varsity or club sport, Lahrkamp was determined to make the most of it. She became involved in just about every aspect of boosting the program – joining steering committees and boards, appearing at rallies, and even reaching out to the rugby coaches to see how they organized their successful club program.

“I wasn’t going to let sailing at Stanford completely vanish,” Michelle said. “Because I still wanted to be a big part of it.”

Even in the apparent death throes of the program, “She kept the enthusiasm going,” said Brian Swingly, Stanford’s head coach in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. “Everyone would ask the team about being cut and Michelle would get interviewed from time to time … ‘This is your last nationals as a varsity team. What does that mean?’ … And she always turned it into a positive. ‘No, we’ll be back next year.’ 

“She was unwilling to allow those questions to distract her or her teammates.”

Swingly and Klevan came from the Coast Guard Academy, where they coached and supported outstanding female skippers. For Swingly, the uncertainty of Stanford’s situation was causing additional stress. During the shutdown, his family returned to the home they owned in Connecticut and when competition resumed in the spring of 2021, Swingly upheld his commitment to Stanford by living out of a suitcase during what was thought to be the program’s final season.

“We had our son, our third kid, in January of 2021,” Swingly said. “And I was out in California for those three months. The team knew how hard it was on me.”

In Annapolis for the national open team championship that spring, Swingly asked the team one morning if anyone wanted to survey the venue and get an idea of the conditions. Michelle was the only sailor to take him up on it.

As Swingly, Klevan, and Lahrkamp sat on the beach watching the Navy team practice and talking informally about the races, Swingly received a call. The program had been reinstated.

There was immediate euphoria – the best possible news! But Lahrkamp immediately realized this decision could cause even more anxiety for Swingly, whose personal future seemed so straightforward.

“What does this mean for you?” Michelle asked.

Swingly smiles at the memory. His feelings were just as important to Lahrkamp as the understanding that they had achieved all they had been fighting for.

“I’ll never forget that,” he said.

To this day, Swingly claims that if Lahrkamp “had not been a part of the program, it would have gone differently.”

Michelle’s commitment to Stanford sailing and behind-the-scenes work alongside classmates Patricia Gerli, Justin Lim, Hallie Schiffman, AnaClare Sole, and Tindall, likely saved it from years of rebuilding.

An extra benefit was Vanessa. When Stanford announced the program would be cut, Vanessa was resigned to go elsewhere, but its restoration changed her mind. This gave Klevan, who replaced Swingly as head coach, cornerstones for the present and future. 

“The fact that we’ve rebuilt from that time, which wasn’t that long ago, to our great success last year is largely attributed to the resilience of that class,” Klevan said. “Michelle represents how we’ve moved beyond that chaotic and uncertain time.”


I realized that I loved the sport so much ... I wasn’t finished yet.

Michelle Larhkamp

WITH A KNOWING eye, it’s not hard to tell the difference on the water between the Lahrkamp sisters.

“Michelle’s sailing is very refined,” Klevan said. “The way she sails a boat is very precise and pretty much perfect. While Vanessa personifies chaos. And that’s part of her brilliance.”

An average weekend regatta consists of fleet racing, with 14 races per division and 28 races overall. Points are awarded based on finish and accumulate over the races. The low score wins, much like cross-country running.

Michelle takes few risks. She feels a top-seven finish in each race guarantees an overall finish at least in the top two.

“Consistency in the long run really pays off in sailing,” she said.

Vanessa is more aggressive and takes more risks. 

“I’m really good at assessing,” Vanessa said. “We always talk about the first feature – what shift is going to come next, what puff is going to come – because that sets up your whole race. I’ve been pretty good at being able to identify what that first feature is and how to position myself, so that I could get it first.”

In sailing, the weight of the sailors is a factor. If the skipper is heavier, the crew doesn’t have to be as active. However, if the driver, perhaps a female, is lighter, the crew needs to be more active and athletic.

“Maybe a guy from a different team can just throw in a maneuver and not tell the person in the front of the boat, and it ends up being a great maneuver,” Michelle said. “I can’t do that. I always have to work together with the person in my boat. For a lot of female sailors, it’s like that.”

Ellie Harned came to crew on Michelle’s boat as a freshman though she’s a natural skipper. “As a skipper, I know what I want my crew to be doing and what I want my crew to be telling me,” she said. “That was helpful in terms of how I could best help Michelle.

“She’s an amazing skipper. I’ve learned a ton from her. I try to understand what she needs and what she’s thinking and that’s helped us have a lot of chemistry in the boat and constant communication. At no time should we be quiet on the boat for more than 5-10 seconds.”

The program lost an entire class of recruits and continues to have a small roster. This year’s squad is 19 – including 13 women – compared to rosters of 30 or more at most schools. Of course, that means more opportunities for the Cardinal women.


Michelle’s big break as a driver came when she was a sophomore. As the team’s No. 3 skipper, she was promoted to the No. 2 boat, and into the B Division at the national open fleet race, when Stanford’s top driver had to bow out because of an internship with no flexibility on the starting date.

“I got a week’s notice,” Michelle said. “I was freaking out. I’d never sailed a coed event in college and had no idea what to expect. There’s a bunch of guys at the starting line. I don’t know how they sail, or how competitive they are.”

Michelle’s crew for the race was Sammy Pickell, a woman who had sailed in the top boat all season. She calmed Lahrkamp down and provided reassurance.

“You’re fast,” Pickell said. “You’ll be fine.”

She was fast indeed. Lahrkamp and Pickell won the 2021 B Division by such a huge margin that they clinched the victory with a race to go. Michelle was the first woman since Harvard’s Margaret Gil 20 years earlier to earn the Robert M. Allan Jr. Trophy as the highest finishing skipper in the B Division. Lahrkamp also was the first Stanford skipper, man or woman, to win either division since a male, Kim Desenberg, won the A Division in 1966.

“That was the first time I realized, men do sail a little differently, the racing’s a little closer, but that doesn’t mean a woman driver can’t be successful,” Lahrkamp said. “Having the team and the coaches believe in me, it was a good moment for me to realize, this is so achievable.”

As a junior, Lahrkamp and Wiley Rogers battled for the team’s B Division skipper spot. All season, Lahrkamp competed on Saturdays and Rogers on Sundays, with their results compared. Lahrkamp won the spot for the national races, and moved up to the top boat in 2023 after All-American Jack Parkin graduated.

“Stanford is ahead of the curve,” Michelle said. “When the opportunity came around for a woman driver to step up into a coed role, they gave it to them. There was no favoritism. There was no, ‘We think the boys are better.’ There was no, ‘Women can’t sail in coed.’ It was just, ‘If they prove themselves, they get the spot.’ And that’s how it should be.”

There’s a feeling that’s not the case at many other schools. With the creation of the ICSA Women’s Team Race National Championships in 2022 (won by Stanford in 2023), there became even more of a tendency to funnel women into women’s-only regattas and send the men into the more prestigious open competitions. 

That was true in Vanessa’s recruitment, when another school’s coach only wanted her for the women’s competitions, without giving her a future to race in the open. She made up mind quickly on that program.

The women’s races were created because women weren’t getting the experience in open regattas. But in execution, it seemed to become an excuse to be marginalized even more.

THE FEAR WAS and continues to be that women’s regattas, through no fault of their own, will increase inequality in the open races. That’s one reason so many of their peers supported the Stanford women at Kings Point on June 2, 2023.

At around 2:30 p.m., a steady sea breeze began to kick up. Michelle Lahrkamp turned off the lecture, and joined Harned as they made their way to the dock.

On board their vessel, the women tested the current, practiced some tacks, and focused on the race and not on the prize. Making history wasn’t the goal, rather it was about making good decisions in ever-changing conditions.

The boat speed, the wind, the sails, the tide, the current, the competitors. There was no time for envisioning the unprecedented, especially as a light breeze began to fill the sails. Shortly after 3 p.m., the racing was on.

Three races in each division were completed before the 5 p.m. cutoff. Michelle Lahrkamp and Harned took eighth, first, and second in the A races. Vanessa Lahrkamp and Tindall placed sixth, 12th, and 12th in the B. Stanford not only maintained its narrow lead, but built it to a 93-106 victory over runner-up Yale.

Moments after the boats returned to shore, the Cardinal sailors, hand-in-hand, leaped into the bay with a celebratory splash.

Never before had an all-women’s team won collegiate sailing’s most prestigious competition. And, for the first time, all-female teams won both divisions -- Michelle Lahrkamp and Harned in A, and Yale’s Carmel Cowles and Anisha Arcot in B.

After things had settled, Michelle found this LinkedIn message from a Navy sailing alumna: “I thought women’s sailing would kill women’s sailing, and you proved it wrong. I wanted to thank you so much. You guys are incredible.”

It took a moment for Michelle to figure out what the woman was saying, but soon understood how important her victory was for women’s sailing, and what it could mean for those coming after her.

“That one really resonated,” Michelle said. “It’s sad because I know the other drivers and they’re also very good. I just don’t know if they’re given those same opportunities.”

The ICSA is doing its best to create a fair and open community. It created an Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity Task Force, of which Michelle Lahrkamp is a member, and a Sexual Violence and Sexual Assault Task Force. And there are now three women’s-only national championships.

But even with Stanford’s success, the inequity is obvious. There were 63 skippers who competed in the 2023 ICSA Open Team Race Championships (held a week before the Open Fleet Race Championships) and only Stanford and Dartmouth had boats driven by women.

In a 2022 ICSA survey analysis, 31 percent of sailors who responded said they’d heard sexist remarks at a regatta or in a team setting.

“Several female sailors reported experiencing gender bias, especially skippers,” the report said. “A few of these sailors expressed frustration that, due to the lower numbers of women on their teams, women are ‘automatically’ sent to women’s events, causing them to feel that they are not given the opportunity to compete on an equal level with their teammates who sail in open events.”

Thankfully, that’s not how things are done at Stanford.

Lahrkamp, who had experienced the worst as a Stanford sailor – Varsity Blues, the COVID shutdown, and the planned discontinuation of the program – now soaked in her historic victory as a possible capstone.

Sunglasses could not hide the joy in her eyes. With her hair dripping and with a wide smile, Michelle stood on the dock, on top of the collegiate sailing world.

As Lahrkamp, a graduate student in her fifth year, and the Cardinal women shoot for back-to-back titles at the Open Fleet Race Nationals (May 23-27 in Cambridge, Massachusetts), Lahrkamp hopes Stanford’s breakthrough has caused coaches to re-think the expectations and assignments of their female skippers.

But in the boats, and on the water, it’s hard to see any differences. At least right now.  

“It will be like that for a long time and I don’t know why,” Michelle said. “Maybe it starts the conversations. Conversations are important, but I don’t know if it’s enough to actually change the way people are doing things.

“I still think we have a long way to go.”

Does history have to repeat itself for change to begin?

It shouldn’t have to.