May 5—So you think all a coxswain does is yell at rowers and get thrown in the water after victories?

Think again.

Coxswains (pronounced kok-suhns) are vocal cheerleaders, trying to muster every ounce of speed from the rowers. They don't row, but they still have plenty to do.

Job one is steering. When that part of the job becomes second nature, coxswains work on their communication and building trust with coaches and rowers, so they can change the game plan on the fly.

Some of the greatest coxswains in the world have honed their craft as Washington Huskies. The current batch will test their skills Saturday when the UW men and women compete against the Australian national teams in the 37th annual Windermere Cup on the Montlake Cut.

"The University of Washington made me into the Olympic coxswain that I am today," said former Husky Mary Whipple, who won Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012 and has five gold medals in the World Championships.

Said UW women's coach Yaz Farooq, who competed in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics as the coxswain on the U.S. women's eight (plus coxswain): "Washington is Rowing U, but we also see it as Coxswain U, not only because of the success of our coxswains over the years, but because we put so much energy into that role and because we truly see the coxswain as one of nine."

Washington men's coach Michael Callahan said, "If you need to win a big game at the end, and it comes down to a 50-yard field goal with a lot of pressure, that's a coxswain. You're depending on them a lot."

"They might be the difference of your whole season, whether you win the national championship or not," Callahan added. "You'll always hear coxswain jokes, but you don't hear them here because coxswains have always been highly respected at Washington."

Senior McKenna Bryant, the UW women's team captain who has been a rower on the team's top boat the last two seasons, summed up what a coxswain means to the boat:

"If anyone thinks that it's just the rowers and the power of it all, that's so not true," said Bryant, who went to Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien. "It's like a human body without a brain — you're not going to be able to do anything. The coxswain is the brain. We might be the body, but they're the brain."


Built for the role

Nina Castagna, the coxswain for the top UW women's eight, said she got started in the sport as a 78-pound high-school freshman.

"I wanted to row," she said. "I could use muscle in my arms. I could use some biceps. But my coach took one look at me and said, 'All right, we're teaching this kid how to cox,' " she said. "I told them after the first practice, 'That was super cool, but when do I get to learn how to row?' ... They never did teach me how to row, but it worked out."

Castagna's story of a smaller person being turned into a coxswain is not unique, because being small is an advantage. The minimum weight for a college female coxswain is 110 pounds, and for a male it's 125 pounds. Weight is added to the boat if they weigh less; they usually do not weigh much more than the minimum.

Former Husky Al Rossi, who won an Olympic bronze medal in 1952 as part of UW's four-plus team, said he joined the Huskies as a freshman in 1949 because he was 100 to 110 pounds, at a time before the minimum weight limits.

"Your weight had to be ideally around 110 to 115 pounds, because those (coxswains) that were 120 to 125, their rowers had to carry dead weight for two or three miles," he said.

Farooq joined the Wisconsin rowing team as a coxswain because friends said her small stature and loud voice made her a natural fit for the role.

And a fun fact about college coxswains: Men can be coxswains for women's teams, and women are often coxswains on men's teams.

Nick Dunlop, the coxswain on the UW men's top eight, coxed the Australia women's four to a gold medal at the 2022 Under-23 World Championships.

Dunlop is 6 feet, which is tall for a coxswain. He has a slight build and wants to stay around 125 pounds for the big spring competitions, but said he feels no pressure from Callahan.

"When I came on my recruiting visit, Michael said, 'We don't weigh our coxswains, and we're not going to track what you weigh,'" Dunlop said. "Other schools, the first thing they said was, 'You're quite tall, how are you going to stay on weight?' Not having that pressure is a big, big part of it (at UW)."



UW senior Grace Murdock, who has been coxing UW's women's second varsity eight, got her start in high school and soon learned there was more to the job than she thought.

"I just thought you yelled at people, but there's definitely a lot more to it with steering and trying to be a connection between the coaches and the rowers," she said.

The rowers have their backs turned to where they are going, so it's the coxswain's job to watch what is happening and to steer in a straight line. Any divergence means lost time.

Whipple, who helps coach the UW coxswains, said steering was what intrigued her about the position, but she said at some point it becomes so natural that coxswains can focus on other aspects that set the great ones apart.

That includes monitoring how each of the rowers is doing and the boat's strokes per minute, while exhorting and cajoling the rowers to stay at the planned pace.

When Rossi was a coxswain, he communicated by yelling into a big megaphone. He wondered if anyone farther than a couple of seats away could hear him.

With current technology, coxswains can speak quietly and their voice is amplified clearly to everyone in the boat. How they communicate is vital, coaches and rowers say.

"They're incredibly important, not only just how they speak, but in the rhythm of their voice," said UW senior Max Heid, a Seattle Prep graduate who has been racing on the Huskies' top boat. "It's rhythm, balance and harmony, and they bring a lot of that rhythm just in how they speak."

Good coxswains become an extension of their coach.

"The coaches shove the boat away, then they're stuck on land," Whipple said. "The cox's job is to get the rowers to the (starting) line and race up to their ability that they've practiced, believed in and rehearsed."

Coxswains also have to be ready for the unexpected. Take what happened at a recent UW men's practice during a racing segment when a big wake came their way.

"I said, 'Hey, there's going to be a wake coming through,' so I made the call to sit up a little bit more so they don't kind of fall down and get stuck in the water," Dunlop said.

After that practice, Callahan spoke with Dunlop about how it went. The coach said he talks regularly with his coxswains, who also make out detailed race reports after each competition.

The women's team does the same thing.

When the coxswains get off the water at practice, they head to a small room in the shellhouse to go through the data that was accumulated by monitoring devices in the boat.

Depending on the practice, it can take up to a couple of hours to analyze the data.

Castagna acknowledges that when she was younger she didn't value the data that much, but the senior's thoughts have changed.

"We've got so many trinkets and different ways to measure data, and I love seeing the graphs of it," she said. "I love watching how splits adjust through pieces, and I like measuring it with what I saw. If I saw a slippage in the back half of a piece for a certain technical reason, then I look into the data and if it reflects that, it assures me I'm doing the right thing on the water."

During races, coxswains will wear cameras, recording the boat's movement and the coxswains' voices.

Castagna said the first thing she looks at is her steering, then she analyzes the tone of her calls.

"If I sound the same way throughout the whole piece, it sounds like a monologue," she said. "It's pretty hard for people to stay engaged. I listened for the way I execute calls. ... Will they get energy off of it? If I can feel through a recording that my blood is pumping and I'm like, 'Yeah, let's go,' there's a pretty good chance they could feel the same."


Trusting the call

Building rapport and trust with the rowers is essential for a coxswain. For a boat to be successful, rowers have to buy in to what the coxswain is saying and asking.

"First of all, I think the guys on the boat have got to like you," Rossi said.

Young coxswains are usually expected to follow the game plan, but experienced coxswains who have earned the trust of their coaches are given the freedom to ad-lib based on what is happening during the race.

Stuart Sim, the coxswain on UW's 2015 national-title winning boat who competed in 2020 Olympics for Australia, had that freedom as a Husky.

"I would only want to change within maybe 100 meters (of the finish) in a 2,000-meter race," said Sim, who is helping coach the UW men. "So it's not a drastic change. But can you ad-lib on the speed relative to another boat, so we're actually moving away from or moving (closer to) another boat?"

Whipple said it's important that the coxswain gets rowers on board with any changes.

"You can definitely call an audible, but if you're going to do that, you better tell your crew why and sell it. Like what's at stake, what needs to have to happen in how many meters, and why."

Current Huskies say they trust their coxswains to make the right decision.

"When you're deep in that pain cave and someone tells you to go harder, your initial reaction would be, 'What? Like, I'm trying,' " Bryant said. "If you have that trust, you're like, 'Hell yeah, I can do this. You're right, I can find another engine and find another gear.' "

Said Heid: "We know we can fully put our trust in (Dunlop). We're the horses and he's the jockey. When he says that he needs more, he can trust in us that we're going to give it all we've got, and we can trust him that it's going to get us to where we need to be."

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