The UConn women’s rowing team; Tess Nobles is second from left in the front row. Credit: Courtesy Tess Nobles / Uconn Women's Rowing team Instagram

Often in the stroke seat at the boat’s rear, Tess Nobles sets the rhythm for the boat on her women’s rowing team, in much the same way as rowing sets the pace of Nobles’ life. Five to six mornings every week, 6 a.m. to 8:45 a.m., fall, winter, and spring, she joins her team for practice on water or land; and later in the week, for yoga, lifting, supplemental workouts, and races. Her crewmates are her roommates, her best friends, her community.

“It’s a good escape but it also keeps me just together and in a good mental space,” Nobles said. “You just can’t take for granted working with your team.”

Nobles, a lifelong Wilton resident (WHS ’20), is currently a junior studying nutrition at the University of Connecticut, where she rows for the school’s Division I women’s rowing team.

It was a dream come true to make the team, but it was a dream that was almost taken away.

June 24, 2020, the summer before her freshman year. In the lifeguard office of the Country Club of New Canaan where she worked, Nobles’ phone lit up with that fatal alert notification – UConn Women’s Rowing team had been cut.

“We had no warning,” Nobles said. “It was just shocking.”

UConn athletics officials had announced that along with three other sports, Women’s Rowing was set to be eliminated in the 2021-22 season as part of an attempt to cut $10 million from their athletic budget deficit of $42 million.

But for Nobles, it was an upset. Her coach had mentioned the possibility but trusted the team was protected by Title IX, the law that bars educational institutions from discriminating based on sex for programs that receive federal financial assistance. For collegiate sports, that means schools have to provide equal opportunities and treatment for male and female athletes.

The UConn team tried everything to get the university to reverse its decision — launch petitions, accept offers from other UConn women’s teams to share some of
their budgets, and solicit protest letters from alumni.

But nothing was enough to spur a UCONN change of heart.

Until the rowers sued.

“In the beginning of the fall [2020], we had a Zoom call with our team and the coaches and they had mentioned the idea of filing a lawsuit,” Nobles said. “We were hesitant to do it, but we found a really good lawyer, Felice Duffy, who has a specialty in Title IX, and she was awesome.”

Nobles was one of 12 student plaintiffs. “I wanted to be involved in some way,” Nobles said, “to fight for my team.”

Every other week she joined Zoom calls with the lawyer and other plaintiffs, but it was hard not to let the heaviness of the situation weigh on the team. Though Nobles would still have freshman year to compete, what did that mean if the team would never row again after that?

“We raced in the spring but every race was just kind of like, well…” Nobles said. “There was no drive or anything because we were like, we’re done after this.”

But Nobles and her teammates were determined to not let that happen. In April 2021, the team held a protest through campus and into downtown Storrs, carrying their oars, and marching in unity.

“We wanted to show people that we’re here and we’re fighting for our team,” Nobles said. “We don’t want to go anywhere. We’ve been a team for so long and have fought to be here.”

Early on the morning of May 20, 2021 — just one month shy of a year since the team was cut — after months of working with the lawyer, Nobles and two of her two teammates rose in her Wilton home, dressed in slacks and heels, and drove to the courthouse in Bridgeport to fight for their team.

“It was just powerful,” Nobles said. “It was really exciting to be there … it was definitely something that I felt was really important.”

Nobles didn’t testify, but three teammates took the stand to describe how it would cause “irreparable harm” for the school to cut the team.

Though the final decision would come much later, the court set a temporary restraining order preventing UConn from cutting the team before the lawsuit was settled. Leaving the courthouse after nine hours, Nobles was uncertain and nervous about the future — but not without hope.

“I felt like a lot of people had our back,” Nobles said.

Finally, just after Christmas in December 2021, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the team was covered under Title IX, protecting the future of women’s rowing at UConn at least the 2026 season.

The win earned national coverage, including reports on ESPN, NBC, and AP. Plus a documentary was produced about the decision called “Crew of IX,” which featured Nobles and her teammates and was posted to YouTube last November.

YouTube video

On top of that, UConn’s settlement of the lawsuit made several concessions that boosted the women’s rowing program significantly — a renovated boat house, six more scholarships, three full-time assistant coaches, a new dock and a recruiting budget increase from $7,000 to $35,000.

The school also promised to review its entire athletics program for Title IX compliance, according to the Hartford Courant.

Today, there are 46 students on UConn’s D-1 women’s rowing team, and the future looks bright. Irreparable harm, avoided.

“I couldn’t imagine coming to college in the peak of COVID that fall, and not having immediate friends… having your teammates always there is really comforting,” Nobles said. “My closest friends are all teammates, and I’m so grateful for that. I couldn’t imagine not having that.”

Tess Nobles (fourth from left) is a UConn junior from Wilton on the university’s women’s rowing team. Credit: Courtesy Tess Nobles / photo: Kathy Nemec-Lucas

Reflecting on National Girls and Women in Sports Day on Feb. 1, Nobles said being a female athlete is “going to be a part of me for my whole life.”

“Women have not had the opportunity to be an athlete and have all the benefits of being an athlete for that long,” Nobles said, citing the 50th anniversary of Title IX just last year. “I feel really grateful for all the opportunities I have as an athlete in college. It’s not perfect, we’re not totally equal with men’s teams, but it’s definitely getting there.”

Physical exercise brings her joy, and it brings her peace. And for girls and women in sports in Wilton (and all over the world), Nobles said it’s important not to be afraid to do whatever it takes to protect it.

“If you are passionate about something and it’s taken away from you, don’t hesitate to fight for it and get what you want,” Nobles said. “Because it’s definitely possible.”

3 replies on ““Fight for What You Want”: Wilton’s Tess Nobles Part of Historic UConn Women’s Rowing Title IX Win”

  1. Proud of you, Tess. Well done. Your team’s a winner … and you are the lead puppy. So excited for you and your future with the team. Cheers and hugs!

  2. Well done Tess. So pleased you and your teammates sought legal assistance and won! UCONN should know better.

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