ComArtSci Alumna Dawn Riley selected for Michigan Sports Hall of Fame

Michigan State University alumna and world-renowned sailor, Dawn Riley, will be inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, Sept. 16, 2023, in Detroit.

Dawn Riley (‘86) has known she wanted to be a sailor since she was a kid sailing on nearby Lake St. Clair. When she was 13, she missed seventh grade because she was sailing the world with her family. As an early teen, she became a commodore of the Sea Scout program at the North Star Sail Club on Lake St. Clair.

Her passion for sailing continued — and when she transferred to MSU in 1984, she joined the Sailing Club, eventually becoming Captain. Her position marked a time of personal and professional growth that laid the foundation for her career.

“Honestly, being captain of the sailing team and sailing club did as much if not more than any individual experience [at MSU] because we were a club sport and we had to raise our own money, take care of our own boats, schedule our own events, arrange for travel and train. So it was like our own little startup essentially,” Riley said.

In 1989, Riley joined the crew of Maiden, which set its sights on becoming the first all-women crew to sail the grueling Whitbread Round the World Race. The 24-year-old Riley served as the watch captain, engineer, and diver. 

The 2018 documentary Maiden highlights their journey en route to shattering barriers in the sport. Maiden finished first twice on two legs of the race, including the stretch in the iceberg-ridden Southern Ocean. The Maiden’s crew finished second overall in their division in the race that lasted eight months. 

In 1992 she became the first woman to have an active racing role in an America’s Cup race. Riley was the pit man on America3, ultimately winning the race that year.

In the 1993-94 Whitbread, Riley stepped in as skipper of the Heineken after the race's first leg.  The original skipper stepped down over disputes with the crew. Her experience on Heineken inspired her 2013 book Taking the Helm.

In all, Riley has raced in four America’s Cups and two Whitbread Round the World races. She was the first American to accomplish that feat. Her legacy is immortalized in the National Sailing Hall of Fame and the America’s Cup Hall of Fame

Charting her course

Riley graduated from MSU in 1986 with a B.A. in Advertising. The lessons learned from ComArtSci helped her build her personal brand and manage the business side of sailing. 

“There’s a huge part of communications, marketing, sponsorship, communicating with donors, telling your story, writing a book, all of that came from Com Arts.”

Riley is a motivational speaker on sailing, business and women's empowerment. Riley’s passion for sailing and women's empowerment in sports led her to the national media. The ‘dual-famer’ has appeared on ESPN, CNN, CNBC, Live with Regis and Kelly, and Late Night with David Letterman, among others.

As a trailblazer for women’s inclusion in sports, Riley served on the Women’s Sports Foundation board from 1999 to 2006. She also served as the foundation’s president in 2003 and 2004. 

“When I was first involved in the late ‘90s, the statistics showed that horses and dogs got more coverage in the newspapers than women’s sports. And that shows you how much progress there is — and we still have some work to do, but it’s getting there.”

At the Oakcliff Sailing Center, Riley now coaches the sailing leaders of tomorrow in the role of executive director – a position she has held since 2010. At the center in Oyster Bay, New York, sailors train and work on their boats in preparation for various races, including the Chicago and Bayview Yacht Club Races to Mackinac each July.

Michigan Sports Hall of Fame

Riley joins a star-studded class of athletes who have made a difference in Michigan sports. The 2023 class features ten inductees, including MSU football’s Lorenzo White, MSU hockey’s Ryan Miller, and two-time national champion MSU hockey coach Rick Comley.

The Michigan Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony is Thursday, September 14, from 6–9 p.m. at the Sound Board at MotorCity Casino Hotel in Detroit.

—Matt Dwyer