Peggy Cullen Nicholson ’54 has accomplished a lot in her life: She taught French for years at several high schools in New York. She served on her town’s board of education for six years. She’s the mother of three. She’s been a lifelong volunteer, serving on “every board in town.” And last fall, she rowed in her first race, at the Head of the Charles.
“It was just a challenge from a friend of mine,” Peggy says. “But it was the most exhilarating thing I’ve done in a long time.”
She first learned to row as a sophomore at Wellesley. “I wasn’t terrifically good at it, but it’s always stayed with me,” Peggy laughs. In fact, rowing seemed to refuse to leave her. After college, she began her career teaching, and there was no easy way to fit the sport into her life. It wasn’t until 2003—nearly 50 years after she last picked up her oars—that she took to the water again.
At that time, the idea of a local rowing club in Pelham, N.Y., was being floated by some rowers in the community. Because of her years of service, they asked Peggy to join the board, and she agreed—on one condition: that they open the club up to kids. As an educator and an advocate, she knew the importance of helping teenagers with athletics, particularly in a sport with high barriers to entry like rowing. “This is an expensive sport,” Peggy says. “It’s a wealthy man’s sport, really, and we can’t have that.” They agreed with Peggy, and the Pelham Community Rowing Association (PCRA) was born in 2003. After serving the PCRA in various capacities, Peggy is now the chair of the scholarship committee.
Initially, she was concerned because she hadn’t rowed in so long. Would she be able to do it again? Would she have the strength? The club founders assured her it was just like riding a bike, and it turns out, it was. And while she enjoyed rowing for the exercise and recreation, the club came at just the right time to help her through a difficult period in her life. Her husband had had a stroke, and she was caring for him at home with help. “Early in the morning, I would go out to row at 6 o’clock, and it was really good therapy for me,” Peggy says. “You just think about getting the oar in the water.”
Since those first days back on the water, she has rowed regularly (weather permitting) and built up her strength and stamina. Peggy even convinced her friend of 35 years to join her in the sport; she’s now the stroke in their boat of four. So it was only fitting when another of her boatmates convinced Peggy to give racing in the Head of the Charles a try.
So, 18 years after starting to row again after a near-50-year hiatus, Peggy entered her first race. “I was fearful at first, and I didn’t know whether I’d have the stamina to row three miles, but I certainly did.” Their boat held two rowers in their 80s and two 58-year-olds, so it was officially entered as a 71-year-old boat. The announcer heralded Peggy as the oldest in the race. “I didn’t like that,” Peggy laughs. “But it’s a compliment, in a way.” Their boat didn’t win any medals, but it was still quite the experience.
“We were all in unison,” Peggy says. “We were wonderful.” As they neared the end of the race, their fans were cheering them on: “Go, PCRA! Go, Ann! Go, Susan!” Peggy recalls. “And then, ‘Go, Nana!,’ which was for me.” Two of her three children and a grandchild were on hand to watch her racing debut.
Perhaps they’ll get another chance to watch “Nana” race at the next Head of the Charles. “This race was exhilarating,” Peggy says. “If I’m healthy, I would like to do it again.”