Feb. 1, 2011
This is a first-hand look at the experience of being a coxswain for the University of Washington. Seamus Labrum came to Seattle from New Jersey, where he piloted the top freshman 8+ to an undefeated season in 2009-10. This included a victory at the Cal Dual, Pac-10 Championships and the IRA National Championship. To top off the season, Labrum coxed the Grunties to a victory at the Temple Cup in England. Now in Year 2 at Washington, he's learning on the fly what it means to be a varsity coxswain for the Huskies
Eight eyes looked straight at me as my boat launched from the dock. It was my first varsity race at Washington: the Head of the Lake Regatta. In a boat full of experienced national champions, the heat was on. I had to execute my race plan, take control and "complete my mission" by winning the Head of the Lake. That was the ultimatum given to me from my coach Michael Callahan.
I composed myself, slipped on my microphone's headband, and went to work.
The pressure I felt that day is an all-too-familiar feeling for a coxswain at the University of Washington, home of the nation's premier Division I rowing program.
But pressure, in this sense, is a good thing and it makes me work that much harder. Having talent surround you is what makes our team run for the rowers, and the same is true for us coxswains. Our selection is performance-based, but we don't have the luxury of gauging previous ergometer workouts like the rowers. Therefore, I must be at my best everyday because every other coxswain is just as skilled as I am. Every coxswain is brought to Seattle for a reason: to help make boats go fast. Whether it is steering straight, motivation, or understanding a boat's particular "feel," all of these facets describe a coxswain's responsibility to the crew.
For me, progressing from freshman to varsity level required taking a step back, in order to move forward.
The experiences of my freshman year have built significantly on one another: from the moment I stepped into a Washington shell, to winning my first dual race, to winning my first national championship and culminating with winning the Temple Cup at Henley Royal Regatta. These are monumental accomplishments, yet the race experience gained with them is what really matters on the varsity level.
I have gained valuable experience from my time with freshman coach Luke McGee, shaping my evolution into a varsity coxswain. His knowledge and expertise have taught me the techniques and intricacies signature to Washington Rowing. The rowers themselves also had an impact on my emerging style that I would ultimately carry into my sophomore year.
This past fall began at warp speed. As soon as I arrived on campus, I had to adapt to the new varsity pace and protocol. Pair trials were the first hurdle. Among the varsity oarsmen, there is understandably little confidence in a "green" varsity coxswain regardless of what I did in the past. This was humbling and an immediate indication that I was no longer the "top dog." The primary reason for this uncertainty among rowers is that I had no previous knowledge of the intricacies of the pair trial course.
To overcome this, I had to ask around. Other coxswains were useful tools in this area and I continue to employ their knowledge today, working to move up the ladder as quickly as possible. I use the experience of the older coxswains as a resource to gain knowledge and get me on the right track. I feel I can ask them how things worked in previous years or how they handled particular situations. However, they had two key advantages over myself when it came to the trials. One: they had coxed pairs before, something that was completely foreign to me, and two: they had previously established relationships with the varsity rowers, whereas I was limited to the freshman crew.
Not to be deterred, I had a plan. My goal was to make myself available, more than the others, by constantly being down at the boathouse, ready to make my mark. Ultimately, this was met with challenges, as it was imperative that I balance my education with rowing.
Creativity was a skill I had particularly excelled at freshman year. So, I already had a sense of how to transition to a new group dynamic and learn what makes the varsity guys "tick." Winning the Head of the Lake with a boat comprised of mostly varsity oarsmen is a testament to this fact. However, I had more to learn.
At UW, you learn under fire so that later on you can perform under fire. Ham and Eggers, our weekly race of crews picked out of a hat (scratch eights), gives me that opportunity to grow. For me, I had to take a new approach to a long-standing tradition here at Washington. The Ham and Eggers are filmed and recorded; allowing coxswains to be judged on steering and race calls, while providing the opportunity to get specific feedback from rowers and coaches alike. I have learned to take this criticism seriously, but not personally. I use it to progress and learn from my mistakes. I have adopted the mentality that confidence is imperative, because uncertainty undermines your standing among the rowers.
This superb method of preparation for spring racing has already helped me substantially. It has taught me to improvise, yet be in control, and prepared me to cox from a losing position if that is the circumstance come racing season. Developing this motivational skill and executing it will prove critical in the spring. This method of preparation often means we stay out in front.
I know that further challenges await me, but I have the tools available to achieve success. I realize that as a sophomore, or "rookie" as we are affectionately referred to, I have to roll with the punches, take my days in the launch as learning opportunities, and realize that I will get a shot. Some days are harder than others and it's difficult to know exactly where I stand. Success as a coxswain is largely based on the judgment of the rowers and the expertise of the coaching staff. Michael Callahan knows what he wants from his coxswains, and from his impeccable track record it is easy to see that he knows what is necessary to win. Adding Rick Gherst to his staff has only given me more of an advantage. His experience and ideas from the perspective of a former coxswain supply our team, myself in particular, with new ideas that can be incorporated into a race plan. I can develop a customized approach to victory by bouncing ideas off of Rick.
In anticipation of spring season, I am excited to have the opportunity to further grow as a member of the varsity squad. I am looking forward to fostering a relationship with the oarsmen, learning what keeps them motivated, and developing unique calls for each. The pressure to perform this year will be great, but will result in explosive power, speed, and ultimate victory. While the transition from freshman crew to the varsity squad is a formidable task, it is met with what I identify as an opportunity.
It reaffirms my commitment to this sport, keeps me focused on my goals, and reminds me of what I have set out to achieve.