Coxswains Hope To Help Rowing To Repeat Title

Ohio State's rowing program will go for a repeat NCAA championship Sunday, and part of the reason for the team's success is a standout crew of coxswains who fill one of the most unique roles in sports for the Buckeyes.

Before arriving at Ohio State from South Africa, senior rower Claire-Louise Bode had never raced in an eight-person boat with a coxswain.

So when she arrived in Columbus and found out that she wouldn't be steering or barking out commands, with that job instead going to one of her diminutive teammates, it was a bit of an adjustment.

It still is.

"I feel like that happens like every day," she said with a laugh when asked if she ever gets annoyed at the instructions barked out by junior coxswain Victoria Lazur. "It's really weird, but then you sit there and two strokes later you're like, ‘I have to do this and she's telling me.' When she asks for it, you comply and you do it."

Half coach, half athlete and seemingly half the size of the eight rowers in their crews, Lazur and her fellow conswains hold one of the most unique, challenging and important roles of any in sports. Their job is to balance personalities, inspire teammates and get their boat down the water as quickly as possible – all while serving as extra weight (as close to the 110-pound NCAA minimum as possible) that the rowers might rather throw overboard in the heat of the moment.

"You have to make sure you bring added value," Lazur said, "or they're going to wish they didn't have that 110 pounds sitting there."

At Ohio State, the credentials are impressive for a team that is ranked No. 1 in the nation and is hoping to repeat Sunday as NCAA champions. Lazur – who was recently invited to try out for the U.S. Under-23 national team that will compete this summer – was the coxswain a year ago for the Buckeyes' top boat, which finished in third place in its race to clinch the team national title. Junior Alex Sawatzki, which is the coxswain in the team's No. 2 boat, helped pilot the Buckeyes' fours boat to the program's first-ever NCAA title in its race.

This year, both are coxswains in boats that advanced to the NCAA finals in their respective races by winning heats both Friday and Saturday. The Buckeyes will battle Brown, Stanford and Cal for the team title on Sunday morning.

If they are able to pull it out for the second year in a row – and earn just the second women's NCAA title in school history – it will likely be because of the work, in part, of the team's coxswains.

"It's a really hard place to be," Ohio State head coach Andy Teitelbaum said. "It's like one of those things where when everything s going well, you're not getting noticed at all. The moment you screw up, it's just like everybody sees it. Basically, it's like being a leader anywhere else, and we tell them that. We're like, ‘Look, this is the burden of leadership. If you're uncomfortable with that reality then maybe this isn't the place for you.' "

Get it right, though, and the coxswain can be the person who – like a great conductor – can unite the rowers in her boat and take its performance to another level.

"I think the best coxswains step in and fill that role in a way where they're able to get the group to do things that the group wouldn't have done in their absence," Teitelbaum said. "That is rare, to be perfectly honest. I would say the majority of coxswains are competent in that their crews will win the boat races that they should win, but it's the rare coxswain that can take a crew and enable them to win a boat race that they would have lost without them."

Ohio State has plenty of talent on hand besides the coxswains, of course. Bode was last year's OSU Female Athlete of the Year and was a first-team All-Big Ten and all-region choice this year. She was joined on both of those squads by sophomores Holly Norton and Catherine Shields, while junior Ashley Bauer made each second-team squad and has been invited along with Lazur to the U-23 camp.

But despite their size, the coxswains are point guard and coach of the boat wrapped into one. The coxswain is charged with steering the boat, calling out race strategies through a speaker system and serving as a leader whose voice is the one that can push the team when it is needed most.

Rowers are asked to use every bit of their mental and physical energy to propel the boat over the 2,000 meters – almost a mile and a quarter – of open water. All of the team's training, workouts and practice come out in an intense burst of six to seven minutes of action.

"Over six minutes and 20 seconds, there's going to be a lot of emotion," Teitelbaum said. "You need to keep the crew calm when they have a lot of energy early, and then you need to keep the crew focused and motivated when it hurts more than anything else that they've ever experienced in their life and they're still too far from the finish line to believe that they're going to make it without dying."

Each boat will have a race plan – a strategy of how fast it plans to start, when it plans to attack its hardest, etc. – but it is up to the coxswain, based on feel, to put it into action and keep all the rowers in the boat on the same page. The coxswain in an eight-person boat also has a view of each oar, allowing her to spy any issues.

"Andy always likes to say you can sit and visualize how the race is going to go beforehand, but a lot of it is just being able to go on the fly," Lazur said. "Things happen very quickly and it's not always the outcome you expect. You have to stay calm. We have a race plan and usually you hold to that very strongly, but things happen, and it's being able to relay to them without freaking them out – being a thermometer, not a thermostat – and getting them down the course as fast as I can. It's also a lot of fun."

The work doesn't even come close to ending on race days. During the week a coxswain is an essential person who directs and organizes practice and workouts. Coxswains are also often recorded during races so that coaches can break down their words and actions during races.

"We try to meet with them outside (of things), when they're not in the boathouse and when they're not at practice," Teitelbaum said. "We spend a lot of time recording what they're doing, what they're saying, and then going over that with them in terms of everything from how accurate and articulate are you being in this moment to tone and inflection and everything.

"We spend quite a bit of time and energy in trying to school them into being better at what they are doing, similar to coaching anybody else in any other endeavor. Ultimately, few things are as helpful as experience."

Lazur and her crew ran into a unique roadblock this offseason – the freezing temperatures that left the team unable to get out on the water to practice.

The Buckeyes were still able to work on ergometers set up in St. John Arena during the winter but that experience pales in comparison to being on the water. That's especially true for a coxswain, whose impact is dulled in such sessions.

While Lazur still spent time working on conditioning activities with the team to stay fit – "If they go running eight miles, we're expected to keep up with them," she said – she also did her best to be at the behest of her teammates.

"Even in winter, it's just like making sure their needs are met," Lazur said. "It's like, ‘How are you feeling? What's wrong? Do you have any injuries or anything?' You're making sure they're OK, mentally just checking up on them every once in a while. It's stuff as little as making sure they have Gatorade, making sure that they're OK because that is the No. 1 priority. If they're not performing, it doesn't matter what I'm doing."

It's all about getting that little extra out of the team while toeing the line between athlete and coach.

"That's definitely the hardest part because I'm halfway between them and the rowers, so you have to maintain that level of respect," Lazur said. "You have to be a leader, and you have to know when to step back and say OK when it's enough. It's interesting. It makes for almost a lonely experience at times."

And over time, it's something that even Bode has come to appreciate.

"As I've grown up in the program I understand more and more where they are coming from," she said. "It's taken a while, but it's something I've grown into."

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