Mary Whipple isn’t just any coxswain. She could talk about rowing for a week, and I’d listen the entire time.

At the moment, three-time Olympic medal-winning coxswain Mary Whipple is on tour, offering coxing clinics across the country sponsored by USRowing. Recently, she stopped in Hyattsville, MD to speak at DeMatha High School.

I arrived that morning with two other coxswain/rowers from my masters club, anticipating a lively blend of coaches and coxswains. Stepping past the registration table there was a sea of teen and tween coxswains and suddenly, at age 36, felt ridiculously old and out of place. We plunked down at a table in the back that we deemed “the adults table” and were soon joined by a local high school coach.

Standing 5’3″, a baggy USA Olympic sweater draped over her slight frame, and her red hair in a loose side braid, you could have mistaken Mary for one of the young coxswains she was there to motivate. But her stories give away the fact that she’s been involved in the sport of rowing longer than some of them have been alive.

5 key points for coxswains to consider:

  • Steering
  • Boat maneuverability
  • Execute a race plan
  • Create momentum
  • Be a teammate

Mary quickly delved into advanced concepts of “stealth” steering and “blending” rudder movements. Both phrases seemed a brilliant way to think about a coxswains roll in making a row a smooth as possible.

She also lost herself in visualizations of backing onto stake boats, turning her back to the group and throwing her arms up in the air, moving the right one when she called for quick strokes on starboard, and then the left when she was calling for port side rowers to react. You almost felt like you were sitting in her boat as it backed in and locked on. She used this visualization method several times through the morning, recalling in great detail a variety of events she’d coxed throughout her career.

Did I mention that Mary started coxing the summer before her freshman year in high school? At just 14, Mary learned to cox while attending Sacramento Adventist Academy. She quickly excelled and in 1998 placed fifth at the 1998 World Rowing Junior Championships.

After college, she joined the crew program at the University of Washington. While there, she and her crews took silver or gold at the1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 NCAA Championships. In those years, she won the Henley Prize at the 2000 Henley Royal Regatta; took home gold at the 2001 and 2002 USRowing National Championships; and gold at the 2002 World Rowing Championships. The next 10 years of her rowing resume read like a rowing story book – setting course records and consistently winning gold medals at the National, International, and Olympic levels.

Through all of that, she’s found her coxswain voice. Listening now to tapes from 10 years ago, Mary says they were “awful” and that she sounded “shrill.” (Those awful, shrill recordings are what I’ve referred back to year after year when I’m looking for a refresher.) She suggests keeping “shrill” at bay by controlling your adrenaline, and not allowing the excitement to ruin your ability to execute a race plan.

Other suggestions:

Off the start, lengthen out your shift to base pace. Instead of starting high and dropping stroke rating sharply (which often results in loss of power), gradually decrease stroke rate to maintain speed and power.

Use mid-race “moves” as means of maintaining power and speed, not for a dramatic change. If you call a move (ie. Power 10) tell your crew what you hope to accomplish (take two seats on the boat in lane 3). Afterwards, assure them with encouragement like “rate is good; we’re in it.” Or, “We’re right where we want to be.”

Separate your rhythm calls from your informational calls. Rhythm calls fall in time with the catch and release. But when providing information to your crew (ie. “we’re in second, two seats off lane 1), take your time and make it more conversational.

If you’re a masters rower or coxswain, there are few resources for broadening your coxing education. If Mary Whipple is ever in your town, I highly suggest taking the opportunity to hear her speak.

When she’s not coxing or training with her crew, you can find Mary as the brains behind 9th Seat.