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Dowling becomes first Navy women's basketball player to have jersey retired

Becky Dowling Calder participated in a ceremony to retire her Navy basketball jersey with her husband, Adrian Calder, two children, athletic director Chet Gladchuk, left, and academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael Miller, right.
Becky Dowling Calder participated in a ceremony to retire her Navy basketball jersey with her husband, Adrian Calder, two children, athletic director Chet Gladchuk, left, and academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael Miller, right. (By Phil Hoffmann, courtesy photo , Capital Gazette)

Becky Dowling Calder made history by becoming the first female pilot to graduate from the United States Navy's Fighter Weapons School, an elite program commonly known as Top Gun. The 1998 Naval Academy graduate went on to fly F/A-18 Hornet jets with distinction.

Dowling Calder has every right to brag about such a tremendous accomplishment, but took more pride in being a trailblazer for future female fighter pilots.

"People have asked me that a lot throughout my career - especially flying F-18s because there's not a lot of women who have done it," Dowling Calder said. "I've never thought about it like that. You know, I might have been the first woman that went to Top Gun, but most importantly, I won't be the last."

Dowling Calder has the same attitude about being a pioneer in another arena. On Saturday, she became the first Navy women's basketball player to have her jersey retired.

Still emotional after participating in a halftime ceremony that featured her No. 32 being unfurled from the rafters at Alumni Hall, Dowling Calder was asked how it felt to have been bestowed such an honor.

"I'm extremely humbled to be the first player in program history to have my jersey retired. I'm proud, but what makes me most happy is knowing that I won't be the last," she said. "There are so many women who are just as deserving and it makes me feel good that what happened today will lead to others receiving the same honor."

Dowling, a native of Longview, Wash., was a key figure in the first era of successful Navy women's basketball teams in the Patriot League - a member of the graduating class of 1998 that established a school record with 80 career wins. The Midshipmen, who were led by head coach Joe Sanchez, shared the regular-season conference championship and advanced to the tournament final in 1998.

Pasadena resident Joe French was an assistant under Sanchez and recruited Dowling out of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where she was a multi-sport standout. French, who is now head softball coach at UMBC, called Dowling the best athlete to come through the Navy women's basketball program during his five-year tenure.

"Becky could do it all on the basketball court. She was like a point forward who would rebound a shot on one end, dribble the length of the court for a layup or feed someone else for a basket on the other end," French said. "She was very quick off her feet and was always given the task of defending the opponent's top scorer. She was one of the hardest-working players I've ever seen and was a great role model and leader."

Dowling was named Patriot League Rookie of the Year as a plebe and second team all-conference as a sophomore before earning first team honors as both a junior and senior. A rare two-year captain at Navy, the 5-foot-10 guard-forward was selected as team Most Valuable Player as both a junior and senior.

Dowling holds Navy career records for rebounds (923) and steals (261) along with minutes played per game (34.5). She remains sixth all-time at Navy in scoring with 1,470 career points and ranks Top 10 in numerous other statistical categories.

Laurie Coffey, who played basketball with Dowling at both Phillips Academy and Navy, said her longtime friend was a versatile scorer capable of hitting a pull-up jumper, taking defenders off the dribble or posting up. Coffey, who has returned to the Naval Academy and serves as officer representative for the women's basketball program, called Dowling "an aggressive rebounder and tenacious defender."

"Becky had great court sense and an excellent understanding of the game. She was a gifted athlete with a strong competitive streak," Coffey said. "Becky was just an all-around good player, a consistent performer that you could count on to produce game-in and game-out. She was also a very humble person, very gracious. Everyone on the team loved Becky as a person."

Dowling was the lynchpin of a recruiting class that also included Adria Schneck, who would score 1,578 career points. Coffey, who would accumulate 1,218 points and 828 rebounds, arrived a year later. Erica Hayes, who also ranks Top 10 in Navy history with 1,406 points, arrived the following year.

After finishing no higher than fifth in its initial three seasons in the Patriot League, Navy placed third in 1995, '96 and '97 before sharing the regular season championship in 1998. The Midshipmen reached the conference championship game for the first time in program history in 1998, falling to arch nemesis Holy Cross. The 23 wins posted by the 1997-98 squad remains a single-season record at Navy while 80 career wins accrued by the Class of 1998 has only been eclipsed by the Class of 1999 (81 wins).

"We had an amazing group of players during that time and were very proud of pointing Navy women's basketball in the right direction," said Dowling Calder, adding that Schneck or Coffey could just as easily have received the honor of being the first player in program history to have their jersey retired.

Having graduated from the Naval Academy with a 3.38 grade point average and garnered academic honors in five semesters as an English major, Dowling was an active duty pilot for 14 years - serving aboard the aircraft carriers USS George Washington during Operation Enduring Freedom and USS Harry Truman in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In all, Dowling amassed 2,500 flight hours and made 421 arrested landings, 185 of which occurred at night.

"I had a great time flying and my career as a pilot ultimately traces back to basketball," Dowling Calder said. "I would never have attended the Naval Academy if not for basketball. That's the reason I came and that's the reason I stayed."

Now married and known as Becky Calder, she lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Adrian Calder is still on active duty with the U.S. Navy and serves as executive officer for a fighter squadron known as the VFA-27 "Royal Maces."

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