Civil Engineering Alumna Breaks World Team Rowing Record

A A non-stop flight from San Francisco to Oahu, Hawaii generally takes five and a half hours. For Libby Costello ’19, the 2,400-mile journey halfway across the Pacific Ocean took a record-breaking 34 days, 14 hours and 11 minutes. Why? She and her three teammates rowed the distance.

Costello, a Bruin rowing and civil engineering graduate from UCLA’s Samueli School of Engineering, and her former UCLA teammate Sophia Denison-Johnson were joined by two other elite rowers – Adrienne Smith and Brooke Dowes – in the tremendous rowing effort that took place in the July was completed year.

The quartet set a world record for the fastest rowing time from San Francisco Bay to Hawaii by an all-female team. The journey required months of physical, mental, emotional and logistical training.

Libby Costello
Costello and her crew members set sail from San Francisco Bay on June 21.

“Excellence is a habit, and we practiced it every day,” said Costello. “Our mission statement was, ‘Increase each other’s greatness and get to Hawaii as quickly as possible.'”

The four women set out on their adventure on June 21, rowing and resting in two-hour shifts with only 10 to 90 minutes of sleep a day and prepackaged meals to get through the arduous journey. Just in time for sunset on July 25, Costello and her rowing team pulled into the Honolulu docks to a roaring cheer from a crowd of friends, family and fans.

Being on the open seas for so long proved to be a more rewarding experience than Costello had envisioned in more ways than one.

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“It’s time to think about so much when you’re out there in the middle of the Pacific, it’s kind of a comfort and magic,” Costello said. “There was time for everything – quiet periods, reflection periods, long singing periods, what-does-this-cloud-look-like periods.”

In one of those moments, Costello reflected on her life and what had led her to be on a boat in the middle of the sea — a rowing journey that began when she was a freshman in high school.

Growing up in New Jersey, Costello and her middle school best friend had tracked together, but track season was only in the spring. So her friend suggested that they try rowing in their freshman year since there was both a fall and spring season, and the two immediately found their new favorite sport in high school.

When Costello transferred to another school after ninth grade, she kept rowing and even found it healing as she adjusted to the move from her friends. It wasn’t long before the high school athlete knew she wanted to pursue the sport with an NCAA Division I rowing team at a university that wasn’t on the East Coast and could offer her a quality education. With her list of requirements in hand, Costello decided to fly to California to check out UCLA.

“I remember clearly when the weekend was over and it was time to go to the airport, I didn’t feel ready to go,” said Costello. I wanted to stay because it already felt like home.”

“In terms of career path UCLA is like a build-it-yourself adventure – There are so many resources that can be used and it is up to each student to use them,” said Libby Costello.

As a UCLA rower, Costello constantly had to juggle her studies with early-morning practice in Marina del Rey and travel to competitions—no small feat for an engineering student.

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She loved math from a young age and knew early on that as an engineer she wanted to apply math to the real world. What an engineer, she had to take a few courses before she could make up her mind.

She soon limited herself to mechanical and civil engineering, but left it to fate by flipping a coin. Civil Engineering was the choice, and she says she’s glad she chose it.

“In terms of career path, UCLA is like a build-it-yourself adventure — there are so many resources to tap into, and it’s up to each student to tap into them,” Costello said. “UCLA equips its students with the skills and community to take on anything should they choose to.”

Libby Costello
Costello (far left) and teammates celebrated the completion of the row from the docks.

Costello took courses on everything from tech to aliens. She was also a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers at UCLA and, in addition to serving on the rowing team, spent summers working with the UCLA Athletics Facilities Department.

After graduating from UCLA, Costello continued rowing and discovered a passion for team endurance challenges, which eventually led her to join the Lat 35 racing team to set the record-breaking row. The team also rowed in support of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

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After completing the voyage and amidst a whirlwind of excitement surrounding her team’s record breaking performance, it took Costello just two weeks to recover and retrain her atrophied leg muscles from more than a month at sea. She then returned to the series as an environmental engineer after her two-month hiatus.

At engineering consulting firm AECOM in Oakland, California, Costello helps client companies create plans to minimize waste. Since starting her job last September, Costello said her work has helped her develop a passion for how waste generation and handling affects the environment and the people who live in it. Combining their passions for their sport and the environment, one of Costello’s ultimate professional goal is to design waste management systems for Olympic venues and other sports facilities.

Now that she’s back on land, Costello is also working to achieve the goals she set herself at sea, including meeting friends, exploring her new Bay Area community and enrolling in hip-hop dance classes.

“Then when I get itchy again to train for something extreme and enduring, I’ll start thinking about what that might be,” Costello said. “Right now we’re enjoying it!”

Natalie Weber contributed to this story.


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