The coxswain is like the jockey on a thoroughbred horse. He doesn’t supply the power, he supplies the navigation, information and inspiration. He plans race strategy and adjusts on the fly.
Coxswains are even jockey-size. If he weighs less than 121 pounds, he must wear weights. Anything more than 121 is dead weight for the mile-and-a-quarter row.
Mitchell: “The old weight was 108 pounds. I was 5-9 and a natural 130 pounds. It would take me six months to lose the weight.”
Cipollone: “I’m 5-1 and it was hard for me.”
Vlahos (who is 5-9): “I’ll leave here at 128 (pounds). I run three miles a day, then I’ll run six a day, then nine as the Games get close.”
Mitchell (to Vlahos): “Drink a lot of water. Keep hydrated. The last thing you want is to have a calf cramp up during a race.”
The U.S. men’s eight this year, for the first time in Olympic history, did not initially qualify for the Olympics. It was given one last shot, a match race in Switzerland against France and New Zealand, winner goes to London.
Teti met with his oarsmen and they selected their cox, Vlahos, at 23, the youngest man on the boat. He coxed Cal’s 2010 national championship eight. The U.S. crew won the race in Switzerland.
So how good is the U.S. eight?
Vlahos: “We don’t know. Six of the eight guys are new to the boat.”
What country will be favored?
Cipollone: “Germany hasn’t lost in three years.”
The U.S. crew recently made a position move, shifting 6-9 Brett Newlin from the front of the boat to the back, directly in front of Vlahos.
Vlahos: “There goes the scenery.”
The boat has speakers; the cox wears a mike.
In movies, the coxswain (pronounced COX-un) always yells through his megaphone, “Stroke! Stroke!” Do you do that?
Vlahos: “People always ask that. You do dictate the rhythm, at times, if needed. But you never say ‘Stroke!’ I’ll say something like ‘Swing’ for a couple strokes, or ‘Catchers out.’ Whatever is going to get the boat feeling good.”
The cox must keep the boat in a straight line. The boat is 63 feet long, weighs 2,000 pounds loaded, travels at about 15 mph, is subject to wind and tides, and has a rudder smaller than a credit card. The coxswain controls the rudder with a rope held in each hand. Steady! You do not want to zig and/or zag.
Cipollone: “You try not to (noticeably) steer. The guys can totally feel any steering. The course is 2,000 meters. You don’t want to go 2,001 meters … If you make a mistake, it’s very visible.”
Coxswains back in the day carried stopwatches. Now boats have a “Coxbox,” with gauges showing elapsed time, stroke rate and boat speed.
What information do you give your oarsmen?
Mitchell: “My (two) guys were very mechanical. Every 30 seconds, they wanted the stroke rate and the position of the boats that were even with us or ahead of us. Guys really need to know where they are.”
The race lasts about 5 1/2 minutes. It starts at a frantic sprint (45 to 50 strokes per minute), settles into a controlled fury for about two minutes (about 36 SPM), then jumps to a new world of pain and effort (40-plus SPM) for about 90 seconds.
The oarsmen want to know the distance to the finish, and then they want a countdown - the exact number of strokes to cross the finish line. If the countdown is wrong, if the cox asks for 20 more strokes but it takes 21, the oarsmen might not have that 21st stroke.Sorry, we gave at the office.
The cox might bark, “We’re gonna take a push (step on the gas)!”
Mitchell (to imaginary crew): ” ‘Let’s take five (faster strokes) and stop their move (hold off the enemy boat).’ We need to stop the bleeding.”
Vlahos: “You keep it short and simple. ‘Germany took a seat.’ (The German boat moved up one seat length on us.)”
Cipollone: “We control the psychology of the athletes in the race … You try to wring every last bit of power out of those athletes. If you do that, you can lose a race and eventually come to terms with that.”
Mitchell: “I find it beneficial to get their attention focused on something technical. ‘Drive with the legs!’ “
Does anger work? The Bobby Knight approach?
Vlahos: “You try to keep it positive.”
Cipollone: “Skew positive.”
Mitchell (directing fatherly advice to Vlahos): “If you feel something positive happening, if you can put ‘em (rivals) away, if you get the opportunity to put someone away, put ‘em away!”
Is rowing the last amateur sport?
Mitchell (laughing): “No one’s making any money.”
Cipollone: “It’s one of the last. Zach trains twice a day, but he has a day job (managing the finances of the California Rowing Club of Oakland). There’s a phase in your life - ‘This is what I want to do,’ and you do it.”
All three coxswains ordered salads.
A list of Olympic rowers on the current team with Bay Area connections:
David Banks (men’s 8)
Jake Cornelius (men’s 8)
Alex Osborne (men’s 4X)
Silas Stafford (men’s pair)
Zach Vlahos (men’s 8 coxswain, still in school)
Kara Kohler (women’s 4X, still in school)
Erin Cafaro (women’s 8)
Julie Nichols (women’s Ltwt 2X)
Elliot Hovey (men’s 4X)
Scott Gault (Piedmont, men’s 4)