Coxswain a commanding presence at back of Wellesley boat
``OK, Ginny, we're going to bring the rating up for the sprint in two. All four, be quicker at the catch and JAM those legs down as fast as you can! Ready, one, two: on THIS one!!'' Immediately I feel a response from all four rowers sitting in front of me. The burning fatigue they are feeling is intense, but as coxswain I have to keep demanding more from them in order to pass over that finish line first. ``You have to get inside their heads so that they will do anything for you. That's how you win,'' my coach at Wellesley College, Betsy Cooper, is always saying.
A lot of people ask me what exactly does a coxswain do? I just have to steer the boat and yell ``STROKE ... STROKE,'' right? That doesn't sound so hard!
Coxing is a lot more complex than it looks, however. I usually have a thousand things on my mind at once: steering a straight course, racing strategy, keeping an eye on the other shells, giving commands, communicating with my stroke (the rower sitting in front of me who sets the pace of each stroke), watching and correcting my rowers' techniques, etc.
Before every race my head is spinning with so many thoughts, but I must remain completely calm - or at least I have to appear calm. My rowers must have absolute trust in me so that they will make a change when I ask for it. My voice has to penetrate their minds and push their bodies beyond fatigue - beyond what they may think are their personal limits.
After asking what I do as coxswain of the varsity four, people generally ask me why I do it? Why do I get up at 4:45 three or four mornings a week to travel a half hour into Boston, row on the Charles River, and get back at 8:15 in time for class? By the time many people are rolling out of bed for an 8:30 class, the crew team has already been up for three hours! And crew lasts for the entire academic year.
My friends all think I'm crazy. Sometimes I wonder myself. This spring of my junior year was particularly difficult because of the weather. There were so many mornings when it was cold and pouring rain, and when the waves seemed about four feet high as the water kept hitting me from both sides.
So why put myself through all this? It is difficult to understand unless you have experienced being in a shell yourself. That feeling of harmony within a boat when four blades catch the water at the same instant, the legs drive the body down the slide and the blade through the water, and the boat surges forward.
Each rower is completely dependent on every other rower to pull as hard as possible, and they all depend on me to get them through 2,000 meters, or about eight minutes, of intense physical exertion. That feeling of passing over the finish line first is amazing, but there is a tremendous amount of time preparing for each race.
Practices begin in the fall as soon as we get back to school. We have only a few weeks to prepare for a season full of head races, including the Head-of-the-Charles and the Head-of-the-Connecticut, each being about three miles long and lasting about 20 minutes. We train on the water throughout the fall, ending the season with the Foot-of-the-Charles, a mid-November regatta held primarily for novices (first year of collegiate rowing). It is often bitterly cold, possibly snowing, but it is an exciting time for the novices as they get a taste of what rowing is all about.
When it is so cold outside that the ice begins to form, we move indoors to begin winter training in the weight room. Once again the coach turns to the coxswains for help. We must always be vocal around the rowers, whether we are spotting them on a weight machine, encouraging them to run even faster, or coxing them on an ergometer (an indoor rowing machine). They must learn to tune in to our voices. Sometimes we train with them so we can empathize with what they are going through.
Spring finally arrives, and we are all eager to get out on the water. The rowers are very strong by this point, their muscles being built up after lifting thousands of pounds over the winter. We are generally on the water for a few days before heading down to Virginia for a very intense week of training on the Occoquan Reservoir. While most of our classmates are heading for a spring break of ``fun in the sun,'' we are holding two practices a day to get ready for an exciting season of sprints, shorter and faster races than in the fall.
Even with the fall season behind me, I was a bit nervous as I began my first spring campaign on the varsity squad. I couldn't help thinking about the fact that I was the least experienced coxswain, and that the rowers I was giving commands to knew a lot more than I did. As the week progressed, however, I gained more confidence - though it certainly was tested one day when we hit a pole in the water which I did not see because of the sun's glare!
Finally our first race arrives: the annual Lake Waban Sprints held on campus. As we sit on the starting line, my head is spinning with everything Betsy has said, and with all of the things the rowers want me to say during the race. My heart is pounding, yet I tell my rowers to relax. There is a rather strong wind so I keep adjusting my course. Finally there is a countdown start, the blades dig deeper, and the shell begins to sail through the water.
For the next 3 minutes (the lake course is only 900 meters long) I yell at those four athletes in front of me to slam their legs down harder yet stay relaxed, to keep perfect technique, and to put open water between us and the other two shells in that race. We are neck and neck with another Wellesley shell for most of the race, but in the last few strokes we make an all-out effort to get to that finish line first: we win by half a second.
Not all races are as close as that one. Sometimes a shell will beat us by boat lengths, but we also beat some shells by boat lengths. Yet every race prepares us a little more for the Eastern Sprints, a regatta for women held on Lake Waramaug in western Connecticut.
My novice year at Eastern Sprints last spring had been highly successful, as Wellesley had finished 1-2 in the novice event, with my shell winning the silver medal. This year the varsity competition was tougher, but we had confidence, and we were strong. If I could just keep them pushing hard, staying relaxed with a long stroke, and maintaining that technique, we could medal, I kept telling myself.
In the middle of the finals race in the afternoon when we were slipping back, I told them to ``Go for the gold!'' and they pushed even harder though their legs were burning. We gave it everything we had until the very end, but the other crews were faster, and we came in fourth, missing the bronze medal by a little more than a boat length.
It is an incredible feeling to win, and it is very discouraging to lose after training for so long. But despite all the cold, wet, early-morning practices when everything seems to go wrong, there are those mornings when the sun is shining, the water is like glass, and the shell slips through the water in a perfect rowing motion. It is then that I know why I am here.