Olympian Anita DeFrantz ’74 wins 2024 NCAA President’s Gerald R. Ford Award
Connecticut College’s most honored athlete adds one of the NCAA’s top honors to her collection
Anita DeFrantz ’74 graduated from Connecticut College just three months before Gerald Ford took the oath of office to become the 38th President of the United States. Now, 50 years later, DeFrantz has been honored with the 2024 NCAA President’s Gerald R. Ford Award.
The award, according to the Gerald Ford Foundation, “honors an individual who has provided significant leadership as an advocate for intercollegiate athletics on a continuous basis over the course of their career.”
And to think, it all began with a stroll across Conn’s campus.
That’s where DeFrantz had a chance encounter with the College’s rowing coach, Bart Gulong. Despite coming to Conn as a basketball player and having no experience rowing—not to mention the prospect of practices that began at 5 a.m.—the sophomore accepted an invitation to join the team. It was a choice she never regretted.
“I knew nothing about rowing, but I loved the opportunity to be out on the water, and the freedom that came with it,” she recalled. “Racing with the school uniform on was something that was magical to me, and I loved working really hard with the team.
“If I hadn’t walked across campus that day at that time, who knows?” DeFrantz continued. “It began an opportunity that has taken me literally around the world.”
Watch DeFrantz tell her story to the NCAA.
Indeed, DeFrantz’s love for the sport extended well past her time in New London. While she continued to pursue her academic and career goals at the University of Pennsylvania, eventually earning a law degree from the prestigious institution, she also joined the Vesper Boat Club. There, she trained, eventually earning not just a spot but the role of captain on the 1976 U.S. Women’s Olympic Rowing team for its inaugural season.
At the time, it made her only one of four Camels to go the Olympics—two others competed alongside her in ’76—and she remains one of 10. Her bronze medal in the 8+ women’s event makes her the first and only Conn graduate to earn an Olympic medal thus far. Two years later, she added a silver medal at the World Championships in the 4+ women’s event. In 1980, she was set to compete again when the U.S. opted to boycott the Moscow games in response to the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Afghanistan. While DeFrantz led a group of athletes in opposition to the boycott, she ultimately followed it. She was among the 461 would-be athletes to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor in the United States, in recognition of her athletic excellence later that year. In 2016, she was voted into the Rowing Hall of Fame alongside fellow Camel Tim Young ’92.
Her leadership continued beyond the proverbial field of play for years to come. She was elected to the International Olympic Committee in 1986, making her both the first American woman and first ever African American to hold that position. As a member of the IOC’s program commission, DeFrantz played a key role in increasing opportunities for women and is credited with getting women’s softball and soccer accepted to the program. In 1997, she’d become the first woman elected as IOC vice president, a position she held until 2001. She returned to the role for a second term in 2018. As a key participant in bringing the Olympics to Los Angeles in 1984, she kept the LA84 Foundation going for the past 28 years. In that capacity, she has helped to distribute around $225 million to over 2,000 youth sports organizations in the area. She now plays a role on LA 2028, the committee planning for the Olympic Games’ return to the city in four years.
Her commitment to advocacy does not stop with sports. As noted by the NCAA, “She is also the president of the Tubman Truth Corp., an organization that aims to end modern slavery and works to provide liberty and justice for all people.”
Connecticut College has long held DeFrantz in high esteem as an emeritus trustee and member of the Connecticut College Athletic Hall of Fame since 1989. In 1995, Kathryn Smith ’84 established the Anita L. DeFrantz Award, the highest honor for a Conn student-athlete. Each year, the award is bestowed upon the graduating man and woman who best exemplify DeFrantz’s qualities of sportsmanship, leadership and athletic prowess. Past honorees include Maura Danahy ’02, one of the fastest Camels ever; Connor Rodericks ’20, the College’s most decorated hockey player of all time; and Jessica Archibald ’95, the first honoree and, fittingly, Conn’s most successful woman rower since DeFrantz.
Previously, DeFrantz was honored with the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award in 1999. The NCAA President’s Gerald R. Ford Award was officially bestowed upon her on Jan. 10 in Phoenix, Arizona, during the 2024 NCAA Convention Welcome and Awards Presentation.
“Anita DeFrantz has been a pioneer for women’s athletics and continues to be an advocate for equal opportunity for all individuals,” NCAA President Charlie Baker said. “She has dedicated her life to serving others and fully embodies the values we all aspire to at the NCAA, making her truly deserving of this award.”