Tori Murden McClure, who rowed solo across Atlantic, engages Westminster students

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 | 7:52 p.m. CDT
Tori Murden McClure, speaking Tuesday at the Westminster Symposium, holds a model of the rowboat she used to cross the Atlantic Ocean. McClure was the first American woman to row solo and unassisted across the Atlantic.

FULTON — Tori Murden McClure kept hitting her head.

Orange slices appeared on her forehead — contusions. She was in the cabin of her rowboat, 23 feet long and about 6 feet wide. The cabin was the size of two coffins put together. The boat was in the North Atlantic, and it was caught up in a hurricane.

The boat flipped over and over, about six times total. High waves pushed it down about 30 feet below the surface. McClure's ears popped from the pressure. She saw fish swim by and knew that wasn't good.

The boat capsized, dislocating her shoulder. The boat capsized again, shoving her shoulder back in place.

"My personal definition of a bad day," said McClure, in a black suit and pearls, on Tuesday at a symposium at Westminster College. She shared a brief version of the story during her talk, then elaborated afterward.

The line got her a big laugh, one of several she received from Westminster students and faculty in Champ Auditorium. McClure, the first woman and first American to row solo and unassisted across the Atlantic Ocean, was in Fulton for the two-day Westminster Symposium. This year's topic was "Global Sport: A Common Language in a Diverse World?"

The annual event will now be known as the Hancock Symposium at Westminster College because of a substantial gift from alumnus David Hancock of Kansas City. College President George B. Forsythe announced the gift on Tuesday.

The symposium this year explores why global sport can be a force for greatness and a cause for concern and how it affects entire societies around the world.

"Are sports academic?" asked Keith Hardeman, Westminster professor of speech communication, in opening the symposium. "Oh my goodness! From science to world and U.S. history, to economics to politics to math to art to elocution, they're not purely academic. They often serve as life lessons.

"From football to futbol, baseball to cricket, basketball to team handball, ice hockey to field hockey to lacrosse, from running races to swimming races to horse races to NASCAR races," he continued, "we can talk in perpetuity about the curriculum and how they tie together a global community."

The symposium had sessions Tuesday on the Negro Leagues, the Olympics and football — more commonly known as soccer to the rest of the world. As Hardeman asked in his remarks, schools have reading across the curriculum, why not sports across the curriculum?

In was in this vein that McClure, who is president of Spalding University in Louisville, Ky., came to speak. In crossing the Atlantic, she learned a valuable lesson about the importance of failure.

McClure had a privileged education, she said. She was an undergraduate at Smith College then went to divinity school at Harvard. She was so successful in her life, she recalled, that "I needed to be knocked down."

In 1998, after six months of intense physical training — she was able to leg press 640 pounds — McClure set out from the North Carolina coast, headed toward France.

She wouldn't make it. She got caught up in that hurricane, but she held out for two days before signaling for rescue.

She waited so long because she was battling her sense of helplessness, which she dubbed a "villain." If she could just do something great, something that made her better, maybe she wouldn't feel so helpless, she said.

McClure failed on her first attempt, but the defeat made her realize that to be human is to have moments of helplessness. And the only way to deal with that, she said, is to find love and friendship.

Between her first and second rows, she met the man who would become her husband. In 1999, McClure set out from the coast of Africa. This time, she made it.

But in her book about her experiences, "A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean," she devotes more time to her first failed attempt.

"I learn more from my failures than from my successes," McClure told a group of rapt students in a small session after her speech. "They’re gifts along the way."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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