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Originally published September 25, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified September 26, 2012 at 4:19 PM

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Storm co-owner Gilder's resolve takes your breath away

Ginny Gilder just wants to breathe. Don't tell her she's extraordinary because she persists to be ordinary. Asthma makes her this simple...

Seattle Times staff columnist

About the series

Four years ago, four Seattle women bought the Storm, saving the team from relocation. Jerry Brewer's series profiles the three remaining owners and details the struggles of owning a WNBA team.

Monday: Storm owners are driven by passion, not profits. Also, Lisa Brummel, the agile thinker.

Tuesday: The self-education of Dawn Trudeau.

Wednesday: Ginny Gilder's breathtaking resolve.

Thursday: The Storm owners have a plan that will keep the team in Seattle and, eventually they hope, turn a profit. But why is it so hard?

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Ginny Gilder just wants to breathe.

Don't tell her she's extraordinary because she persists to be ordinary. Asthma makes her this simple. Self-deprecation keeps her this humble. The 54-year-old investor and Storm part-owner has an Olympic silver medal, a Yale degree and the fitness level of a twenty-something world-class athlete. Seldom is a person so spectacularly ordinary.

Gilder will hate that adverb, by the way. She will consider it a superfluous way to appreciate what willpower has done for her. She will accept credit for self-discipline, persistence and toughness. She will even accept being called stubborn. But special? Stay the heck away from special.

She underwent testing recently and was told she has a fitness level in the 95th percentile for a person in the 20-29 age range. She participated in the RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day) bicycle race in July, a grueling event featuring 10,000 feet of climbing over 152 miles. Gilder set a 10-hour goal. She finished in 8 hours, 44 minutes.

She just wants to breathe.

"For me, being an asthmatic, breathing hard is the consistent, regular proof that I can still breathe," Gilder says.

Breathing hard makes her feel alive, not special. She averages 75 push-ups and 100 sit-ups a day. If she ever misses a day, she doubles up the next day. It's all part of her plan to live 120 years.

Uh, 120?

"Sure, why not?" Gilder asked. "I've just got to keep my body moving so it's not an uncomfortable last 30."

She just wants to breathe. For the longest time possible. Talk to Gilder about her accomplishments, and she discusses the struggle at length and concludes with a brief mention of the triumph. She's too self-aware, too flawed, to succumb to hubris. She also takes on such enormous challenges that she must focus solely on the difficulty.

"The fun part of doing RAMROD wasn't being able to say I did it," Gilder said. "I knew there would be some point in the middle of it, where it's so hard that you should think about stopping, but I knew I wouldn't stop. There's no way I was going to stop.

"I think sometimes that the reason I can come off looking like I'm gutsy is because I'm too stupid to know better. I have a narrow view of the risks. But, really, I think I just know how to work hard."

Gilder is the visionary of the Storm's ownership trio. She's the ideal big-picture strategist, a risk-taker rooted in reality. Anyone who knows Gilder pokes fun at her contradictory characteristic. She's a self-described pessimist who looks up and sees blue skies.

She ponders the worst possible outcome, and once she digests that, it frees her to attack the challenge. She'll run through a wall. She just wants to figure out how hard the wall is ahead of time.

"When she starts something, she's very self-deprecating, trying to bring down expectations," longtime friend Ann Martin said. "She needs to verbalize a worst-case scenario before going after it. Ginny does this more than anybody I've met, and that's because this is not a woman who does things halfway."

Martin is a former rower who admired and later trained with Gilder, a member of the silver medal-winning American women's quadruple sculls team in 1984. Gilder's love of rowing explains much about her.

Virginia Gilder grew up in New York's Upper East Side. She graduated high school a year early because she hated boarding school, and in her mind, overachieving was an easier solution than dropping out. She went to Yale and majored in history. But rowing dominated her college experience. The year before college, she had attended the Head of The Charles Regatta in Cambridge, Mass., and fallen in love with the sport.

Until then, Gilder wasn't much of an athlete. She was diagnosed with asthma during puberty, and she broke her ankle playing basketball, which made her dislike contact sports. Rowing eliminated her indifference about athletics.

The sport is so Ginny. It requires self-discipline and extreme physical exertion. She often fears failure, but crew allowed her to think, "If you don't believe in yourself, believe in the person in front of you."

At Yale, Gilder was part of the famous 1976 strip-in to protest a lack of shower facilities for women rowers at the boathouse. The women's crew won a national championship in 1979, her senior season. Gilder went on to make the United States Olympic team in 1980, but the U.S. boycotted the Games that year. She made the team again in 1984, though she was disappointed that a rib injury kept her from qualifying in her best event, the single sculls.

She doesn't talk much about the silver medal she won in 1984. She focuses more on being cut the first three times she tried out for the national team. She was still a college student for most of that journey, but she doesn't care.

She remembers failing to make an European tour squad that her college coach selected in 1978. He told her, "Look, you're too small. You're never going to make an Olympic team. I'm sorry." Gilder, who is 5 feet 7, said she would quit the Yale team.

Instead, she spent that summer learning how to scull, a different rowing technique than the sweeping that she had learned. When she made the 1980 team, she told her college coach, "I forgive you."

"I didn't, but that was what I said," Gilder says now.

She gets emotional when recalling what her father, Richard Gilder, told her on the drive to the Olympic Village after the medal ceremony in 1984. Richard, who started the Gilder for Growth company that his daughter now runs, is known as a big tease. And he knew exactly how to needle Ginny after her accomplishment.

"So, now you're a has-been," the father said. "What's it like to be a has-been?"

She laughed.

"It's better to be a has-been than a never-was," Ginny replied.

Soon after, Gilder quit rowing. Her first child, Liala Ljunggren, was stillborn. She was devastated to lose her little girl. Rowing didn't matter anymore.

Three years later, she gave birth to a son, Gilder Keeler. She went on to enjoy a happy marriage with three children. But there was one problem: She was gay, and she tried to ignore it "because I couldn't afford to lose my dad." Her father is so influential in her life that she chose history as her major at Yale because he told her she needed to study an area of weakness. She has always wanted to please her dad. She's running his business, even though she's more passionate about nonprofits.

True to her nature, Gilder committed to being straight.

"It's not like I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, I wish I was with a woman,' " Gilder said. "I had just kind of put aside I was gay and literally forgot."

Then, while taking tennis lessons with her husband in late 1997, she met Lynn Slaughter. Both were married to men, but they wound up falling in love. They got divorces, but if they were going to be together, it couldn't be to the detriment of their children. Slaughter had two children to go with Gilder's three. It took time, effort and conversation, but those relationships are intact and healthy.

"There were definitely some growing pains, but I think we all came out OK," Gilder Keeler said. "My mom's really happy. It turned out to be the best for pretty much everybody involved."

Ginny Gilder found the strength to tell her father, too.

"We're still close," she said. "He loves my partner. He's been there for us. I would think that he wishes it were different. If I'm being really honest, that's what I would think. That's OK. He's shown up anyway."

In the beginning, Gilder cringed over the idea of sharing her story. The woman defined by toughness looked timid for once. She spoke in a slow, measured and spare manner, as if on a verbal ration. It was a stark contrast to her usual confident and energetic style.

She stared at a distant wall early on, but 42 minutes into the first interview, she looked up and grinned. She even smiles tough.

"I think turning 50, in many ways, is a blessing because I just don't care anymore about what other people think," she said.

Another wall penetrated.

"Most people in life either are too risk averse or never are lucky enough to find love in something, to really dedicate themselves to being great at something," Gilder said. "And if you find something that you love, and are smart enough to follow it, you're way ahead of the game. But it's going to test you."

Gilder talks about her daughter, Sierra, who is playing soccer at Colorado College. She's trying to manage the pain of a knee injury that has required multiple surgeries. Sierra was advised not to play anymore. She called her mother crying. Gilder listened and probed.

Finally, Gilder concluded, "Look, your body, your knees. You understand what you could be mortgaging. You understand why the doctor is saying this, right? He's thinking about what it's going to be like for you in your 30s if your knee is damaged. You have to decide how much you love soccer, and then you have to decide if you're willing to fight for it."

Sierra replied: "I don't care if I play in pain for the next two years. I want to play."

She's playing again. Gilder went to Colorado Springs for a game two weekends ago. She's concerned, but she's proud.

Sierra is fighting. Like her mother, she just wants to breathe.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

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