Washington’s rowers took their lowest moment, and turned it into a conversation.
In the summer of 2017, two of their own – John C. Young and Tyler Minney, both 19 – were dismissed from the men’s rowing team after being charged with disclosing intimate images, for allegedly distributing a video of both men having sex with an intoxicated freshman student without her consent. Minney was also charged with a second count of the same offense for allegedly sharing photographs of himself having sex with a 19-year-old female student.
Suddenly, one of UW’s most successful athletic programs was embroiled in crisis.
“There was kind of this guttural feeling that something more needed to happen, or we needed to take it in our own hands,” said Hank Pelto, the team physician for men’s and women’s rowing. “That’s what SAASHA came out of. It was a student-athlete group that said, ‘We don’t want this. What can we do?’ “
Student Athletes Against Sexual Harrassment and Assault.
You can credit women’s rowing coach Yasmin Farooq for the name, but Maggie Phillips was the force that essentially started the conversation. Phillips – now an assistant coach at UW – served as a captain for the women’s rowing team during her senior season in 2017, leading the Huskies to an NCAA title and the first sweep of all three grand finals in the 21-year history of the NCAA Championship regatta.
But with SAAHA, she found a more long-lasting way to lead.
“Really the most important thing to me was that it was student-driven, because I feel like the athletic department does a really good job of giving us a ton of training and trying new programs,” Phillips told The Times last month. “Every year I went through two or three training (sessions).
“But at the end of the day, the people that are creating the culture are the people that are rowing the boats. Any change is going to come from them. I wanted something that was bottom-up instead of top-down.”
So Phillips started from the bottom, enlisting the help of Farooq and Pelto in starting a new student organization. The Stanwood, Wash., native recruited members in both the men and women’s rowing teams as well.
That’s how Max Rennie got involved.
“We went through this (incident) and our team was labeled as having a rape culture, which was pretty confronting for me,” said Rennie, a senior from Deniliquin, Australia. “I have three sisters, so it made me think about, ‘What if this happened to one of my sisters?’
“That really affected me. I wanted to have some sort of impact and SAASHA was my outlet to do that.”
But how does SAASHA go about making its intended impact? It starts on a peer level, as the organization has made presentations and hosted discussions on sexual violence with fellow UW athletic programs, including men’s soccer, women’s soccer, women’s basketball and gymnastics (so far). One such discussion centers on the Netflix documentary “The Hunting Ground,” which addresses the “epidemic” of sexual assault on college campuses.
The UW men’s and women’s rowing teams also wear a permanent SAASHA patch on their uniforms to raise awareness for the cause. Pelto and Phillips presented information on the organization at the most recent U.S. Rowing conference as well, with the eventual intention of launching SAASHA chapters at other universities nationwide.
But the most significant impression may not be made on the collegiate level.
“There’s a real realization from all of us that college is too late to address this,” Pelto said. “People are forming their relationships and their ideas about relationships and sex and alcohol consumption much earlier than college, so the real power of this group is using the strength and societal force of a college athlete to go to some of these younger groups and say, ‘Hey, this is an important topic. You need to pay attention to this. This is real life.’ “
To Pelto’s point, SAASHA has met multiple times with local youth rowing groups in recent months, and the next step is to expand to other sports and continue to spread the word.
“The goal for the next six to 12 months is to continue to work on our youth outreach,” said Rennie, who added that the group meets once a week (outside of presentations and special events). “That’s something that has been really, really beneficial. One of our theories is that if we reach those kids before they go into college they have some sort of recognition about what a good relationship looks like and what an unhealthy one looks like.”
Added Phillips: “Rowing itself is a community that lacks diversity and accessibility, so getting into other sports where we can reach more people is always the goal.”
For Phillips and the rest of SAASHA, the conversation has started … but the race is far from over.
“I feel so, so thankful,” Phillips said. “I just feel constantly grateful to the people around me that are passionate about it and want to support it and don’t shy away from it.
“But I just feel like there’s a lot more to be done.”
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