Mary Whipple is headed to London for her third Olympics. She’s already won gold in Beijing and silver in Athens and all she had to do was tell people what to do in the coolest sport in the Olympics – not that I’m biased or anything…
So maybe there’s a little more to it than just telling people what to do. Mary is on a team of nine. She is 5’3” and the rest of her teammates probably average close to 6ft tall. Her job is to make sure everyone else on her team is moving in perfect unison in a sport that combines brute strength with finesse and precision. In case you hadn’t guessed, Mary is on the US Rowing team and is the coxswain for the women’s eight.
I’m a rower and when I talk to non-rowers about the coxswain, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is always “Oh! That’s the person who sits in front and yells at everyone!” Kinda. There is a lot more to it than just yelling.
A good coxswain knows what to say, how to say it, and when to say it to get the most out of every rower in their boat. The calm confidence and command of the coxswain’s voice truly contributes as much to the success of the boat as each of the rowers.
Mary and her twin sister, Sarah, learned to row the summer before their freshman year of high school and they were excited when the coach invited them to join the team. Mary was soon disappointed to hear the coach had plans for her as a coxswain, not a rower. She thought it would be boring, but her coach explained she would be “middle management” and calling the shots in the boat.
Calling the shots worked for her and Mary went on to cox at the University of Washington, winning championships in 1999, 2001, and 2002. After graduation she headed east to Princeton to train with the national team.
With Mary in the coxswain’s seat, the US women ended a 20 year Olympic medal drought in 2004 by winning the silver. The last medal won by the women’s eight was in 1984. Since Athens, Mary helped the US win World Championships in 2006 and 2007 as well as an Olympic gold in 2008. She took the year off in 2009, but came back to win the World Championships in 2010 and 2011. Yep… she’s good.
The amazing thing about Mary is that she doesn’t just lead and coach her boat, she helps anyone who asks. In 2009 Mary started The 9th Seat, a website where coxswains of all levels can ask questions, get tips, read Mary’s blog, and interact with her. She gives advice for racing, drills, specific race courses, winter training, and she offers clinics.
The Olympic final for the women’s eight is August 2nd. I am supposed to be heading to the beach with my family August 2nd. I’m letting them know right now it won’t be until after I watch Mary and the US Women’s eight win gold in London (and then I’ll have to immediately rush down to the boathouse here in Austin, jump in a single and pretend I’m there too).