Mary “Gwen” Knapp ’83 — a sports journalist at The Harvard Crimson, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Times — died on Jan. 20 at age 61 after a year-long battle with lymphoma.
Long-time friend and former classmate Nancy W. Boutilier ’83 first met Knapp during a rain delay under the scorer’s table at a 1981 Harvard softball game. Boutilier was pitching, and Knapp was covering the game for The Crimson.
“Her intensity, curiosity, and passion for sports drew me in from the get-go! It didn’t take but 5 minutes with Gwen to know she was brilliant!” Boutilier wrote in an email.
Known for her column in the San Francisco Chronicle that ran from 2000 to 2012, Knapp covered sports and its intersections with contentious topics ranging from racism to doping to homophobia.
Before her career as a professional sportswriter, Knapp got her start as an associate sports editor of The Crimson. In addition to covering athletics on campus, Knapp swam for the women’s swimming and diving team.
Claudia S. Leonard ’83, one of Knapp’s freshman-year roommates, remembers meeting her on move-in day into 33 Matthews South, their dorm in Harvard Yard.
“She might have looked soft and sweet at that first encounter, and little did I know at that first meeting, the kind of ferocity that she had underneath,” Leonard said.
Knapp's friends and family said she was known for her integrity and strong ethical reporting standards — traits that extended to her personal life.
In 2001, Knapp questioned the legitimacy of former cyclist Lance E. Armstrong’s numerous wins 12 years before he admitted to his use of performance-enhancing drugs in his Tour de France victories.
Caroline A. Miller ’83, a friend from the swim team, said she was unsurprised 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 — still at that time — would just kind of give in to make nice, and Gwen was somebody who did not care about whether or not other people were gonna agree with her,” Miller added. “She just always held 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 fortitude.
“If you knew Gwen, if you worked with Gwen, if you had any relationship with Gwen, you understood that she was without guile and that the demands and the determination and persistence did not come from a place of ego at all,” she said. “It came from a desire to do the right thing, to see the right thing done.”
Alongside her commitment to covering injustice in the sports world, Knapp remained a persistent optimist, according to Leonard.
“She would assume the best,” she said. “Despite the fact that she always had something that was distressing her about the state of the world — some injustice — she still was at heart a complete optimist.”
“She laughed loud, argued fiercely, and worked really hard at everything,” Miller added.
Lawrence R. “Larry” Countryman ’83 first met Knapp during the eighth grade after joining the swim team at their middle school in Delaware.
Though they attended different high schools, they kept in touch through their arrival at Harvard, where they both swam at the varsity level.
Countryman recalled that when Knapp was covering the 2000 Sydney Olympics, she called him during the men’s 1500-meter freestyle so he could hear the race.
Countryman had been a distance freestyle swimmer, and he lauded Knapp’s propensity for remembering “little things” about others and including them in experiences she knew they would enjoy.
“She wanted to make sure you were taken care of, that you were part of the thing — whatever that thing was,” he said.
“I’m never gonna forget about that,” he added.
Countryman also spoke fondly of Knapp’s “loyalty” and generosity.
When his mother fell ill and he needed to travel back home, he said Knapp told him, “just get to the airport tomorrow morning — there’ll be a ticket there for you.”
The oldest of four sisters, Knapp is remembered as an impactful mentor — both formally and informally.
One of Knapp’s youngest sisters, Adams, said that Gwen was always the exemplar of a big sister.
“The role of big sister was really important to her. She really saw it as a responsibility to all of us,” she said. “I think she also — whether this was conscious or not — was a real role model.”
Adams added that when working as a swim coach during the summer, Knapp would seek out kids that needed a “big sister figure.”
Susan Knapp McClements, the second-oldest sister, said Knapp served as “an amazing mentor” to all of her sisters’ children.
During her time in San Francisco, Knapp volunteered as a tutor at A Home Away from Homelessness, a nonprofit organization providing unhoused children with mentorship, tutoring, counseling, and legal aid.
Reverend Alyson Jacks, the director of volunteer services and mentorship during Knapp’s time there, said she was an invaluable volunteer.
“She just was one of those volunteers when you’re so lucky to have them, who was consistent, showed up, didn’t bring a lot of pretentious assumptions about anything, and was really just there to be of support to the kids and bring her sense of curiosity and love of life and love of learning,” she said.
Nancy Knapp Piccione, another sister of Gwen Knapp’s, said Gwen Knapp enjoyed her time with the children at the nonprofit beyond her role as a tutor.
“I think she obviously was a role model and an adult who took care of them, but I think she loved being at their level and understanding their lives and joking around with them and supporting them.”
Gwen Knapp is survived by her three sisters, as well as her father, Laurence Knapp.
Countryman said Gwen Knapp’s legacy is rooted in her trailblazing journalistic career as a female sportswriter who always strove for fairness and truth.
“Gwen always strived to do something that was different and wanted to be good at it and wanted to excel and get things right,” he said.
“I think going into sports for her was sort of, ‘Hey, people don’t expect this from women, and I’m going to show them that women can,” he added.
—Staff writer Paton D. Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @paton_dr.
—Staff writer Sophia C. Scott can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ScottSophia_.