As the old saying goes, good things come in small packages.
In rowing, these small packages are known as coxswains, or by a more unflattering nickname, “coxies.” Those who aren’t rowing aficionados might think that a coxswain has the easiest job in the world, just hanging out in the bow of the boat.
When asked about the skills required to be a coxswain, a typical response would be first, “cock what?” and then, “Oh, you mean the little ones who get to sit there and yell. I could do that.”
In fact, the position of the coxswain takes more than just a big mouth. In addition to motivating the crew in the boat, the coxswain must also develop a full race plan for an entire 2,000-meter race while steering and glancing at where the boat is in relation to its opponents. Think about it like driving stick shift while screaming on a cell phone and drinking a cup of coffee; now multiply it by 10 and that’s a coxswain.
“The hardest part of being a coxswain is trying to serve as the bridge between the rowers and coaches,” senior coxswain Julia Dalzell said.
As if they don’t get enough flack for being little, the coxswains are also the ones who usually take the most heat for a lost race. A winning race is often attributed to the strength and rhythm of the crew, but after a loss the coxswain is often blamed for a poor race plan, bad steering or flawed start.
She has yet to participate in a college race but freshman Laura Dunn seems to be handling the pressure of the position with ease. Even though most of the rowers in her boat have seniority, she recognizes that she must be a leader.
“I’m becoming more comfortable with the program,” Dunn said. “I know what’s expected of me in terms of balancing being a leader right off the bat and knowing my place.”
With help from coaches and former coxswain Tara Medina, Dunn and the other varsity coxswains are improving daily. Medina’s advice, guidance, leadership and knowledge of the program make her an ideal choice for coxswain coach. During her Michigan career, Medina led the Big Ten Boat of the Week on multiple occasions, leaving metaphorically gigantic shoes to fill for this year’s coxswains: Dunn, Dalzell, Stephanie Chan, Jessica Shanahan, Sheila Merchant, Jessica Whang and former rower Vanessa Reid.
After three years of rowing, Reid decided to move up to the bow of the boat facing the crew.
“Rowing has helped me to identify the characteristics that make a good coxswain,” Reid said. “Making clear calls, being confident and making yourself available to field concerns of the rowers,” Reid said.
Reid and her fellow coxswains are starting to get their bearings on the water this fall. Working with mixed line-ups every day allows them to get a feel for the different rowers and how they work together. They hope to put their skills to the test this Saturday in their competition against rival Ohio State. The event takes place at Belleville Lake (10 minutes outside of Ann Arbor) and the time is yet to be determined.
Although these coxswains might come in small packages, they more than compensate for their lack of stature in heart – and lungs.