Mary “Gwen” Knapp ’83 — a sportswriter with the Harvard Crimson, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times — died January 20 at the age of 61 after a year-long battle with lymphoma.
Longtime friend and former classmate Nancy W. Boutilier ’83 first met Knapp during a rain delay under the scoring table at a 1981 Harvard softball game. Boutilier was a pitcher and Knapp covered the game for The Crimson.
“Your intensity, curiosity and passion for the sport inspired me right from the start! It didn’t take 5 minutes with Gwen to know she was brilliant!” Boutilier wrote in an email.
Known for her column in the San Francisco Chronicle, which ran from 2000 to 2012, Knapp covered sport and its intersections with controversial issues ranging from racism to doping to homophobia.
Before her career as a professional sportswriter, Knapp started out as an assistant sports editor at The Crimson. In addition to cover Athletics on campus, Knapp swam for the women’s swim and dive teams.
Claudia S. Leonard ’83, one of Knapp’s freshman roommates, recalls meeting her the day they moved in at 33 Matthews South, their Harvard Yard dorm.
“She may have looked gentle and sweet that first time we met, and I didn’t realize the kind of wildness she had beneath her that first time,” Leonard said.
“The desire to do the right thing, to see the right thing done”
Knapp’s friends and family said she was known for her integrity and strict ethical reporting standards – traits that extended to her personal life.
In 2001, Knapp questioned the legitimacy of former cyclist Lance E. Armstrong’s multiple victories, 12 years before he admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs in his Tour de France victories.
Caroline A. Miller ’83, a friend of the swim team, said she wasn’t surprised to read about the Armstrong story in an obituary for Knapp.
“I just laughed because that was Gwen,” she said.
“I admired her because so many women – back then – just gave in to be nice, and Gwen was someone who didn’t care if other people would agree with her or not,” Miller added. “She just always had hotly contested opinions about everything.”
One of Gwen Knapp’s younger sisters, Rebecca Knapp Adams, said that Gwen Knapp’s bold reporting stemmed from her ethical steadfastness.
“If you knew Gwen, if you worked with Gwen, if you had a relationship with Gwen, you understood that she was without guile and that the demands, the determination and the persistence did not come from a place of ego at all,” said you . “It came from wanting to do the right thing, to see the right thing done.”
Alongside her dedication to reporting on injustices in the sports world, Knapp remained a stubborn optimist, according to Leonard.
“She would assume the best,” she said. “Despite the fact that there was always something about the state of the world that troubled her — some injustice — she was still a complete optimist at heart.”
“She laughed out loud, argued big, and worked really hard at everything,” Miller added.
Remembering the “little things”
Lawrence R. “Larry” Countryman ’83 first met Knapp in eighth grade after joining her middle school’s swim team in Delaware.
Although they attended different high schools, they stayed in touch until they arrived at Harvard, where they both swam at the varsity level.
Countryman recalled that when she was covering the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Knapp called him during the men’s 1500m freestyle so he could hear the race.
A long-distance freestyle swimmer, Countryman praised Knapp’s penchant for remembering “little things” about others and drawing them into experiences she knew they would enjoy.
“She wanted to make sure you were taken care of, that you were part of the thing — whatever the thing was,” he said.
“I’ll never forget that,” he added.
Countryman also spoke affectionately of Knapp’s “loyalty” and generosity.
When his mother got sick and he had to go home, Knapp said to him, “Just come to the airport in the morning – they have a ticket for you.”
‘Big Sister Figure’
Knapp, the eldest of four sisters, is considered an influential mentor – both officially and informally.
One of Knapp’s youngest sisters, Adams, said Gwen was always a role model for a big sister.
“The role of the big sister was very important to her. She really saw it as a responsibility for all of us,” she said. “I think she was also – whether consciously or not – a real role model.”
Adams added that Knapp was a summer swim coach looking for kids who needed a “big sister figure.”
Susan Knapp McClements, the second eldest sister, said Knapp was “an amazing mentor” to all of her sisters’ children.
While in San Francisco, Knapp volunteered to tutor at A Home Away from Homelessness, a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, tutoring, counseling, and legal assistance to homeless children.
Reverend Alyson Jacks, the director of volunteer services and mentorship during Knapp’s time there, said she was an invaluable volunteer.
“She was just one of those volunteers when you’re lucky enough to have her, who was consistent, showed up, didn’t bring a lot of overbearing assumptions about anything and was really just there to support the kids and bring out their sense of curiosity and zest for life and love of learning,” she said.
Nancy Knapp Piccione, another of Gwen Knapp’s sisters, said Gwen Knapp enjoyed her time with the nonprofit’s children beyond her role as a tutor.
“I think she was obviously a role model and an adult who cared about them, but I think she loved being on their level and understanding their life and fooling around with them and being supportive.”
Gwen Knapp is survived by her three sisters and father Laurence Knapp.
According to Countryman, Gwen Knapp’s legacy is rooted in her groundbreaking journalism career as a sportswriter who always strived for fairness and truth.
“Gwen has always strived to do something different and she wanted to be good at it, excel and do things right,” he said.
“I think going into the sport for her was like, ‘Hey, people don’t expect that from women, and I’m going to show them that women can do it,'” he added.
—Staff author Paton D. Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @paton_dr.
– Staff member Sophia C. Scott can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ScottSophia_.