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Coxswain's Experience: Handling A Rivalry Race
Release: 05/03/2011
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May 3, 2011

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By Seamus Labrum
UW Sophomore Coxswain

SEATTLE - The Conibear Shellhouse is a pressure cooker.

Rowers and coxswains experience high amounts of stress on a daily basis throughout the year. So when it comes to the spring racing season, how does one harness this anxiety and aggressiveness? For the answer, look no further than the recent California-Washington Dual Race at the Montlake Cut.

First, a brief history lesson: Cal and UW have been bitter rivals for 100 years. Consider it the Ohio State-Michigan football rivalry of the collegiate rowing world. Granted, it is not as historically deep as the Harvard-Yale Boat Race (the first intercollegiate sporting event in the U.S.), but it now means a lot more. This race often foreshadows the results of the IRA National Championship Regatta.

Washington and California routinely finish as the No. 1 and No. 2 best rowing programs in the country.

Needless to say, both aggression and suspense come into play in rowers' minds in the weeks leading up to Cal Dual. The mutual respect for other athletes competing at the same elite level is inherent and, to the Husky oarsmen, the California Bears represent that adversary.

In the week leading up to Cal Dual, and race day itself, the feeling of excitement is palpable. As a coxswain, I want my rowers to be aggressive and hungry for a win, but I also want them to be calm and focused as we approach the starting line. My personal challenge is to walk a fine line between my own composure and intensity.

In order to execute an efficient "Cal Week," as well as an effective warm-up on race day, I take practice seriously, but add in some humor as well. All work and no play is not a good mix during this important week. Lightening the mood is key in between short, intense workouts on the water and the always-important race walk-through the day before The Dual.

The warm-up is also crucial when anticipating a big race against your rival program. It is my job to keep the guys calm. In order to keep my nerves down, I use a technique I picked up in a public speaking class: breathing from my diaphragm. This allows my voice to sound strong, not shaky, at points of nervousness. Although my stomach may be churning during the moments leading up to the race, I sound as casual as any other day of practice. This is imperative when executing the warm-up because it allows rowers to relax and realize that everything is under control. A lot goes on during a warm-up, particularly other boats executing their own preparation. As a result, keeping the guys' heads in the boat and focused on the task at hand is very important.

While approaching the line, I usually calm the guys down and ensure them that the race will go as they want (with a few of my own personal motivational techniques mixed in). This "pump up" is effective just before reaching the start line. At the start line, I often remind the guys to relax once again and row our race. I get my point across, as calmly as possible, and let them know when to sit ready for the starting call. The official or coach yells the starting commands, "Attention, Go!

And then the fun begins.

Once the race is underway, my nerves, as well as the rowers' tension, take a back seat as we execute our race plan.

At this year's Cal Dual, I could not have asked for much better. Down by four seats after the first 15 strokes on the Montlake Cut, I was able to keep the rowers focused and, to their credit, they relaxed and simply rowed their race.

In my boat, the Varsity 4+, we were able to pull out a decisive victory in our early race, setting the tone for the other Washington boats. The day was ultimately a great success for the team, as we swept the men's three varsity events.

Winning the Cal Dual is a big deal, but as a team we know there is more to be done. Our focus is on the first week in June at the IRAs when Washington races the best boats in the nation for a chance at greatness.

Washington Men's Crew
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