Civil Engineering Alumna Breaks World Team Rowing Record

Libby Costello
Courtesy of Libby Costello

Oct 18, 2022

UCLA Samueli Newsroom
A nonstop 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 alumna of the UCLA 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 feat completed in July of this year.

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

Libby Costello
Costello and her crewmates set sail from the San Francisco Bay on June 21.

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

The four women set out for their adventure June 21, rowing and resting in two hour shifts with just 10 to 90 minutes of sleep a day and prepackaged meals to last the exhausting voyage. Just in time for sunset of July 25, Costello and her rowing team pulled into the docks at Honolulu to the roaring cheers from a crowd of friends, family and fans.

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

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

It was during 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 best friend from middle school had run track together but the track season was only in the spring. So her friend suggested that they try rowing in their freshman year, as it had both a fall and spring season, and the pair immediately found their new favorite sport in high school.

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

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

“In terms of career path, UCLA is a lot like a build-your-own adventure — There are so many resources that can be tapped into, and it is up to each student to make use of them,” Libby Costello said.

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

Having loved math since a young age, Costello knew early on that she wanted to apply mathematics to the real world as an engineer. As for what kind of engineer, she had to take some classes before she could decide.

She soon narrowed her options down to mechanical and civil engineering, but left it up to fate by flipping a coin. The choice came up civil engineering, and it’s one she said she is happy to have made.

“In terms of career path, UCLA is a lot like a build-your-own adventure —There are so many resources that can be tapped into, and it is up to each student to make use of them,” Costello said. “UCLA equips its students with the skills and the community to take on anything, should they choose to do so.”

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

Costello took classes on everything — from engineering to aliens. She was also a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers at UCLA, and worked with the UCLA Athletics Facilities Department in summertime in addition to being on the rowing team.

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

Upon finishing the journey, and amid a whirlwind of excitement surrounding her team’s record-breaking accomplishment, Costello took just two weeks to recover and re-train her atrophied leg muscles from being at sea for more than a month. Then, it was back to work as an environmental engineer, following her two-month leave for the row.

At engineering consulting firm AECOM in Oakland, California, Costello helps client companies make waste minimization plans. Since she started her job last September, Costello said her work has helped her find a passion for determining how waste generation and handling affects the environment and those in it. Combining her passions for her sport and the environment, one of Costello’s ultimate professional goals is to design waste management systems for Olympic venues and other sports facilities.

Now that she’s back on land, Costello also is working toward implementing the goals she made for herself while at sea, including catching up with friends, getting acquainted with her new community in the Bay Area and signing up for hip-hop dance classes.

“Then, when I get the itch to train for something extreme and enduring again, I will start thinking of what that could be,” Costello said. “For now, we enjoy!”

Natalie Weber contributed to this story.

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