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“You always have each other’s back.”

Rowers rally behind memory of fallen teammate

March 9, 2023
by Martin Snapp
Shawn hanging off the sign at Mt Kilimanjaro (Courtesy of the O'Donnell Family)

When Shawn O’Donnell lost her life on July 20, just a few days after the Cal grad (’04) celebrated her 40th birthday by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, America lost a dedicated public servant, her sister Shannon’s unborn son lost someone who was giddy with excitement at the prospect of being his aunt, and people all over the world—she had traveled to more than 50 countries—lost one of the more memorable people they had ever met.

“Everyone says, ‘She was my best friend,’” says Ona Spaniola ’04, who rowed with O’Donnell 20 years ago on the Cal women’s crew. “Well, I felt that way, too. Shawn attracted such magnetic people, and she was attracted to magnetic people. The last time I saw her was in Washington, D.C., when she wanted to show us the COVID memorial on the National Mall. There were little white flags, one for every American who had died from COVID, and Shawn realized that the flags were all meant to be personalized. She immediately thought of our teammate, Hilary Meu ’04, whose dad had passed from COVID, and she wrote his name on one of the flags. Such a testament of who she was—always thinking of other people.”

O’Donnell had been bicycling to work as a foreign service officer in the U.S. State Department when she was struck and killed by a truck. The first to get the horrible news was her mother, Mary O’Donnell, with whom she was very close. Mary called Ryan Salma ’02, a member of the men’s crew who had been adopted by the women long ago as an “honorary crew girl,” and asked him to inform all the other rowers. It took him all day and into the night.

“Everyone processed the news a little differently,” he says. “Some people started crying; others were really silent. And it still affects me. I would be fine talking about my friend, and all of a sudden, I’d be in the grocery store and start bawling into the produce.”

“What strength he had to get on the phone and call each one of us individually and stay on the phone while we processed it, again and again!” marvels Ona.

A celebration of O’Donnell’s life was held at St. Joan of Arc in San Ramon, the church where she was baptized, sang in the choir, worked in the parish office, and sat for many years in the front pew for 9 a.m. Mass. On a table were two framed letters of condolence her mother had received: one from President Biden, the other from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

Her mom gave the eulogy and read what her daughter had written on her State Department application: “I was born into an Irish family that recognizes and values the freedoms we enjoy in these United States of America. My grandmother’s family immigrated from Northern Ireland to escape the persecution they experienced as a result of living and practicing their faith. Perhaps that explains why I come from a family that has devoted itself to public service through service in the military; my Dad and Aunt Francie were in the Marine Corps and my Mother served in the Coast Guard. I take great pride in wanting to continue that tradition.” (She modestly omitted that her mother was a rear admiral in the Coast Guard Reserve, and Aunt Francie was a 3-star marine general.) 

More than 80 of O’Donnell’s friends, including foreign service workers and Cal rowing alumnae, attended the service, and countless others all over the world watched on Zoom. 

“She was one of those people you can always count on, even if you haven’t seen each other for many years—a real longtime friend,” says Teresa Guthrie ’02.

“It was very, very meaningful to have all those people show up. It’s such a rower thing: You always have each other’s back. It makes me choke up every time I think of it,” adds Anita Sarrett ’02.

“I was studying at the Free Speech Café when I met her,” says Liz Lee ’06. “My first thought was ‘Who is this person?’ She was the funniest person I had ever met, and she had this incredible laugh that would light up the place. She always spoke her mind, and I loved that about her. You always knew where you stood with Shawn.

“She was a humble person, too. I talked with her a week before she was killed, and I told her she was doing great things at the State Department. Her response was a very Shawn response: a little laugh and ‘I’m a work in progress.’”

That progress included working as a strategist for the Department of Homeland Security specializing in immigration and asylum problems, then as a refugee officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services around the world, and finally back in Washington as a diplomat. In addition to English, she was fluent in Spanish, Turkish, and Arabic. Her sister Shannon remembers the time their mom took them to a bazaar in Istanbul and told them to pick out one item for a souvenir.

“I picked a gold ring with white sapphires. Shawn picked a couple of 200-year-old loose pages from the Qur’an. In later life I decided that she picked the cooler gift.

“She was very complicated and also very simple—simple in that she didn’t pull any punches. She was what she was. It’s the Irish O’Donnell girl in her. She also had the world’s worst poker face. That’s why she wanted to be in the political sector at the State Department [as opposed to the consular track]. Gripping and grinning was not Shawn’s thing; she wanted to get into the nitty-gritty and improve people’s lives.”

rowers rowing
(Courtesy of the O’Donnell Family)

When her crew sisters started thinking about the best way to honor their teammate, the answer was obvious. “We came together to fundraise for a boat to be named in her honor and raced by the Cal women’s team this spring,” says Anita.

A high-quality racing shell costs around $50,000. With a core group of Anita, Teresa, Hilary Martin Conboy ’03, and Andrea McDermott ’03 spearheading the drive, they set up a website,, and raised the money in just a few months.

“In rowing, one of the greatest honors to give someone is a boat named after them,” Anita explains. “I’ve always loved that tradition. What’s cool about the boat is that it almost has its own life, its own spirit.”

On March 25, the Shawn K. O’Donnell, a 212-pound, 55-foot-long carbon fiber racing shell, will be christened in a ceremony at Briones Reservoir in Orinda, where the Cal rowers regularly practice, and formally handed over to the current women’s crew.

“It will be raced by Cal as its top boat,” Anita explains. “You always give a brand-new boat to the top crew on the team because it’s super stiff, which makes it cut through the water with the least amount of drag.”

Four months after Shawn O’Donnell died, her sister Shannon’s baby was born. She named him Aengus Shawn Kothleitner. Shawn’s friends made a present for him: a picture book titled Auntie Shawn Loves Me, featuring pictures of some of the people and places she loved, with captions like “Auntie Shawn climbs mountains. I will be brave like her.” Speaking for them all, Ona says, “It’s been such an honor to be her friend.”

Martin Snapp is a frequent contributor to California

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