U.S. Olympic silver medalist Mary Whipple is one of only two coxswains on the U.S. National Rowing Team who will be competing in the Beijing Olympics. Current Olympic rules allow only one coxswain for the women's team, and another for the men. Coxswains will be used in only one event: the women's and men's eights, which are the largest of all the rowing events in Beijing. As VOA's Teresa Sullivan reports, Whipple hopes to steer her team to a gold medal.
Two-time Olympian Mary Whipple won a silver medal in the "women's eight" rowing event at the 2004 Athens Games without lifting an oar. That is because Mary is a coxswain - the person who steers and calls out a rhythm for the rowers.
A coxswain sits in the back of the boat, or stern, facing forward, while the eight rowers sit facing backward. They rely on the coxswain to be their eyes, and to safely guide them across the finish line - hopefully in first place. Whipple describes her style as "cool under pressure, calm and relentless."
A coordinated effort
In talking about teamwork involved in her sport, the 29-year-old California native says her job as a coxswain is to coordinate all nine minds on the boat to work together.
"I think to be successful, especially on the elite level, you definitely have to keep your goals in check, and especially in the team atmosphere," she says. "We are all coming together for one goal and that is to execute the best race possible."
There is more to being a coxswain than just sitting in the back of the boat to steer and count out a rhythm. The coxswain acts as liaison between the rowers and the coach, and manages the equipment. Coxing also requires knowing when and how to motivate the rowers - the wrong word at the wrong time could be the difference between success and failure.
During a race, Mary Whipple can see the other boats and what they are doing. She says she has to absorb and evaluate the situation, and then issue commands to her eight rowers that will put the boat into its best position to win the race.
She praises her Olympic teammates as the most self-motivated group she has ever worked with.
Achieving team's respect
Mary, who lives and trains with her team in Princeton, New Jersey, runs and lifts weights along with her teammates even though she does not row in competition. Coxswains often have to push rowers to their limit in competition. By working out with the team, Whipple earns her rowers' respect and trust, and she learns about the pain and effort she demands of them during a race.
At the 2004 Games in Athens, the U.S. women's eight set a world record in qualifying heats, and won a silver medal in the final, barely edged by the Romanians. Whipple says she expects equally tough competition in Beijing.
"Definitely the Romanians, the Germans, Great Britain, Australia. It is a tight field," she notes. "And I definitely expect it to be six boats across [almost even] coming into the last part of the race."
Disappointment leads to success
Both Mary and her twin sister, Sarah, are coxswains. She says they intended to join their high school rowing club team in California, but quickly realized that at only 1.6 meters tall, and weighing just 48 kilograms they were too small. A coach suggested they would make good coxswains, and the twins took his advice when they learned that coxswains are next in line to the coach in the team's hierarchy.
Both Mary and Sarah found success as star coxswains at the high school and collegiate levels. As a nine-year member of the U.S. national team, Mary has earned three World Rowing Championships and five World Rowing Cups in addition to her Olympic silver medal from Athens. Sarah says her sister is "strong willed, but very patient and cognitive, and quick to act" when she is coxing.
The drug issue
Doping is a big problem in the world of both professional and Olympic-level sports. Olympic officials say they expect a nearly 30 percent increase in positive results in Beijing than in Athens four years ago.
But, according to Mary Whipple, the likelihood of a rower being among the drug cheats is low. She says her sport is relatively free from doping concerns.
"Rowing is definitely an amateur sport, and it is a clean sport," she says. "I think there is a lot of integrity in the athletes, and we definitely like to keep it that way. We are an honest sport."
While they are not known for taking performance-enhancing drugs, rowers and the coxswain do partake in an unusual tradition to celebrate a race victory. Mary says it is one that she would welcome.
"Definitely the coxswain gets thrown in [the water] if you win, so I would not mind that at all," she says.
Soaked to the skin and dripping wet, Mary Whipple would happily accept an Olympic gold medal along with her eight bone-dry teammates in Beijing.