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Last year, Robyn Shapiro ’01 and her sister Michele did what no American women had done before: They competed in The Rallye Aicha des Gazelles, an all-female, eight-day, 1,500-kilometer race that took them through sand dunes and scorching heat by way of the Sahara desert.

The race, which loosely translates to The Rally of the Chicks (“gazelle” is the equivalent of the slang “chick” in Moroccan), is more focused on accuracy than speed. The winners must reach checkpoints in the shortest distance, with a compass, topographic map, binoculars, and old-fashioned intuition as their only sources of navigation.

The adventure started long before the race commenced.

“My sister had a strong interest in rally driving and found out about the race while searching the Internet,” Robyn Shapiro says. “It just took off from there.”

The women were required to find sponsors to cover most of the $45,000 needed for entry fees and expenses. In the end, they scored big names such as Nissan and Glamour magazine, as well as others close to the sisters’ hearts, including Team O’Neil Rally School, New York City restaurant Keats, helmet manufacturer Bell, and their charity of choice, Seeds of Peace, which brings together children in the Middle East who live in areas of conflict to a camp in Maine to learn the skills of coexistence.

The sisters prepared for the event in many different ways. Both spent time training at Team O’Neil Rally School in New Hampshire and went to Montreal for navigational training.

“It’s a lot of calculations, using a compass and protractor,” Shapiro says.

A month before the race, her sister spent three days in Morocco, practicing driving in the sand and navigating her way around dunes.

With all their training and with pro rally driver Andrew Comrie-Picard as their coach, the women seemed ready for anything, but there were aspects of the race for which they couldn’t have prepared.

“You’re subjected to conditions that most of us have never been subjected to and you’re challenged on all different levels — emotional, physical, and mental,” Shapiro says. “I consider myself a strong person and it brought me to a whole new level.”

Along with the challenge of navigating through a desert, the sisters faced language barriers, with most people speaking French and Moroccan.

“The language barrier was a huge hurdle and every so often [other racers] would stop and translate for us,” Shapiro says.

That solidarity was something that the women had not expected.

“The most rewarding part was the spirit of the race,” Robyn adds. “It’s unlike most other competitions because there’s a whole lot of camaraderie. When you think of a race, you expect some type of rivalry, and there wasn’t a lot of that. Everyone helped each other out.”

For the race, Robyn was the navigator and Michele was the driver.

“I think initially I wanted to be the driver but it was really Michele who discovered the race, so she got first pick in being the driver,” Shapiro says.

It worked out for both women, who realized as training went on that they were best suited for their role.

Still, the women had a few close calls during their eight-day journey, starting on day one when they got lost after just the second checkpoint and following with routinely digging out their Nissan Patrol, which was constantly getting stuck on top of dunes.

In the end, the sisters placed 44th among 72 teams. Despite not winning the $37,000 in prize money, they managed to raise $3,000 on their own for Seeds of Peace through fundraising events and from sponsors who visited their web site.

Categorized in: Alumni Profiles