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Peter Mallory's Blog


By pmallory - Posted on 12 January 2013

18 December 2012

I just got an email question from one of my novice coxswains, and I believe the answer may be worth sharing worldwide.

Hi coach,
Is there anything specific you want us coxswains to be working on over break? I know in the past from when I raced track I tend to build up a lot of muscle/weight in my quads from running and want to make sure I stay the weight I am right now but still be in proper shape. Any suggestions you might have would be much appreciated!
Best,
Natasha

Coxswains -

I am speaking to all of you as I answer Natasha's questions.

As for what you all can do during the break and during the next semester, my attitudes as a coach can be just a little bit unorthodox, but it partly comes from having been a coxswain myself . . . and it also comes from my dad.

I can feel a story coming on . . .

The first time I stepped into a shell was as a second former (8th grader) at Kent School in northwest Connecticut, which has a legendary crew program. But I had been chosen by fate to be a lifelong member of the worldwide rowing community long before that. My ancestors built whaling ships in Mystic, CT, big ones. My grandfather rowed. My father rowed at Kent in the 1930s. He was the smallest kid in the school when he got there, but he refused to cox, said he wanted "to pull his own weight" (which is an old rowing term that has now entered normal conversational English).
Dad in 1940 Yale Harbor 2

Even in his final year, he remained very small, 5’6” 120 pounds or so, by no stretch of the imagination “varsity material,” but still he loved rowing on the Housatonic during those glorious spring afternoons with crocuses popping up on the river bank, cows mooing in the back pasture, buds turning into leaves and birds singing their hearts out. Dad organized a boatload of his senior classmates who were likewise not deemed varsity material, and they named themselves “The Gentleman’s Eight.” They wore custom matching shirts with a top hat, gloves and a cane as their insignia, verrrry Fred Astaire, and they would progress up and down the river at a stately pace, feeling ooooh so good about themselves. I think there was even a picture of them in the yearbook.

When I got to Kent in the 1950s, the Gentleman’s Eight had been completely forgotten. I quickly discovered I was the smallest kid in the school, just like my dad had been, but nobody gave me the choice. I was going to be a coxswain. Period. I was terrible to start with, terrified of my own shadow, but off-and-on I coxed all the way through to my freshman year at Penn . . . and I got good, very good in fact. I came to love the challenge of steering, of anticipating every move so the turn was halfway done at every bridge abutment. I came to love the game of urging on my team and dicing with other coxswains in long, curving head race pieces. I imagined we were Formula 1 drivers vying for the lead, albeit in elegant slow motion. I loved leading. I loved the camaraderie of an eight. One for all, and all for one.

When my increasing size finally forced me to switch to rowing, I discovered a completely different perspective on our sport, but I never forgot how much I had loved to cox. So when I began to coach, I brought with me a tremendous appreciation for the art of coxing . . . and some attitudes you won’t find in too many other coaches.

Natasha, you mention concern for your weight, which is 125. The league minimum weight is 125, so you’re perfect. If you eat healthily and don’t gain that “freshman 15,” you’ll be just fine. Natalie, I have never asked you about your weight, but Kyle and Trent, you are also at or below the minimum, so just don’t eat junk food. Eat healthy.

So what happens if you gain weight between now and the spring? You might grow, for instance. I did. My dad never did, but I grew a couple of inches and went from 125 to 153 during my freshman year in college. Late growth spurts sometimes happen with young men, less often with women of that age, but what if it does? Just be healthy. That’s all I care about.

Would I reject you as a coxswain if you gained a little healthy weight. No, I wouldn’t. I know how valuable a good coxswain can be . . . because I was one. I know a good coxswain more than makes up for a few extra pounds.

A number of years ago I interviewed bow-oar Gus Giovanelli of the 1948 Olympic Champion University of Washington Coxed-Four. This is part of what he told me: “I attribute our win completely to our coxswain, Al Morgan. A coxswain has to steer a straight course, coach the crew and cheerlead. Al was the best I ever had. He won the Olympics for us. The minimum weight for coxswains was 106 pounds [48kg]. Al weighed 131 [59kg], and he was worth every pound. I would have picked him if he was 160 [73kg]!”

Don't get me wrong. Al Morgan certainly did his part. He worked really hard to get to 131. Look at the photo [sadly missing here]! That's Gus furthest away on the right, along with stroke Warren Westlund, 3 Bob Martin and 2 Bob Will, the only U.S. coxed-four ever to win Olympic Gold.

So, Natasha, be healthy, and make sure you are “worth every pound!” That’s all you have to do.

Now I have told you already that with many of the young men and women I taught to cox in the past, I also encouraged them to learn to row. Why? There are lots of reasons. I mean rowing is good for you, for heaven’s sake, but it also allows you to understand better the challenges your rowers face when they are trying to respond to my coaching, and soon enough I will expect you to be helping to coach them as well. No better way to understand and explain something really well than to experience and master it yourself.

And then there’s my dad . . .

Dad wanted to “pull his own weight.” He didn’t think the coxswain contributed as much to getting the boat over the finish line first as the rowers did. Well, he was dead wrong there, I know, but more than once or twice I have heard rowers say that coxswains have it easy, get a “free ride,” etc. It is human nature when you are feeling sorry for yourself in the middle of a hard workout to think others are better off than you.

Yes, most rowers have a little of my dad in them.

So when we do our first Team 6k Erg in January, I will encourage each and every one of you coxswains to participate, do the whole thing, and do the full workout whenever we erg together. Then next spring when you ask your rowers to reach down and give their very best, they will know in their hearts you were willing to do the same, they will know that you can and you do pull your own weight . . . and I believe that can make a difference at a crucial time. You will have earned more self-respect . . . and you will have earned the respect of your teammates.

No, I won’t require you to erg, but I do encourage it.

So Natasha, what can you do during this winter break? You're obviously a runner. Do your morning runs just like the rest of the squad. (And then keep doing the same thing for the rest of your life! It’s a healthy lifestyle we’re developing here.) And coxing requires good posture and a lot of back and core strength. Running helps, and so do situps, rock-hard abs. Same for the rest of you.

If you live close to one of the more experienced rowers and one of you has access to an erg or two, arrange to get together and coach each other. Get used to erging. Technique first . . . and then follow the varsity erg workout schedule.

How fast should you go? Your body will tell you. Of course I don’t expect you to match the scores of the rowers, but doing your best will impress the heck out of me . . . it will impress the heck out of your teammates . . . and it will feel good to you!

I am so appreciative that Trent is available to row when the numbers require it, and I encourage you other coxswains to get some coaching from me on the erg once we return to campus so you can jump in a boat on occasion, too.

Many thanks to Natasha and to the rest of you for investing yourselves in our team quest for excellence. This is going to be a great spring.

Dad -

R.I.P. I dearly hope you have gotten The Gentleman’s Eight back together and they have a brand new Pocock Cedar Speeder for you to row at your high-altitude training camp. May the waters always be calm for you and the birds always sing.

Your son,

Peter