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Heavyweight rowing coxswain Louis Lombardi plays an integral role in the Quakers' success despite never touching an oar A coxswain before he even arrived at Penn, Lombardi is responsible for keeping the rowers in synch and on track.

Credit: Courtesy of Penn Athletics

Betraying its graceful appearance, rowing is a sport of force, finesse and teamwork.

In the fastest of boats, the eights, the intricacies of the sport require a ninth man who steers — both literally and psychologically — the vehicle as it cruises forward.

Louis Lombardi, coxswain for the Penn men’s heavyweights, is one such man.

To the unaccustomed, the role of the coxswain might seem unclear. Positioned at the stern facing forward — unlike the rowers who are facing backward — the coxswain communicates with the crew and ensures it maintains its course.

That is just the short version, however.

“He’s the coach on race day,” Greg Myhr — the heavyweight squad’s actual coach — said, emphasizing the pivotal role the coxswain plays for the other rowers in the boat.

“When you are right on the edge of physical collapse,” he continued, “he keeps you inspired.”

Lombardi, after several years of experience, has an acute understanding of the demands a coxswain has to shoulder.

A psychology major and Philadelphia native, Lombardi was not new to the sport when he came to Penn.

“This is my eighth consecutive year on the Schuylkill,” he said.

Lombardi’s history with rowing goes back quite far, long before he went to St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, to a summer he remembers fondly. His mother had sent him to a rowing camp, which sparked his initial interest in rowing.

At the camp, Lombardi met rowers Jonathan Hennessy and Matthew McPeak, with whom he would reunite 10 years later at Penn.

While originally considered for rowing as a lightweight, he recalls an anecdote from 2008 of how his coxing career started out by mere chance.

“The coxswain didn’t show up one day, so the coach asked me to jump in.”

From then on, Lombardi had a new calling.

“I’ve been a coxswain ever since.”

The senior describes what he sees as the three main responsibilities of a coxswain with great enthusiasm.

The first and the most obvious is the steering. Rowers are not able to see the course ahead, and even if they did, navigating an eight-man boat at high speeds requires a coordinated effort — even on a straight course.

A coxswain is also — in a role Myhr communicated as well — a coach inside the boat.

“A coxswain needs to mesh the rowers into a single self so that the boat is totally synced,” Lombardi explained. “The rowers have to be in the same state of mind.”

Lombardi takes this role seriously and emphasizes the need to be able to lead and assess the situation independently while not being able to rely on the regular coach as the race is underway.

He draws inspiration from a former coxswain and Penn rowing alumni John Chatzky, who was once set to row for the United States in the Olympics.

Now Chatzky’s mentee, the senior details how the former member of the Red and Blue’s confidence and charisma taught him a valuable lesson.

“Making all eight rowers believe that the boat is going to be faster once you get into the boat is something I have always aspired to,” Lombardi said.

This leads him to the third role — execution.

“The race plan must be executed so every stroke goes exactly as it needs to happen,” he said. “You must be able to take a step back and understand what exactly is going on inside your shell.”

Lombardi cites coach Myhr as he points out one of the most challenging aspects of rowing, namely the team dynamic.

“You can never say there is an MVP in the boat,” he said emphatically, alluding to the fact that rowing relies on a highly synchronized effort measured only in a single dimension of speed.

And so far this spring season, there has been a great deal of speed, as the heavyweights have put together impressive performances, including at the San Diego Crew Classic, among other events.

Lombardi likens the season's narrative to that of a TV drama, one whose climax is the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships at the year’s end.

“We are so dialed in,” he explained. “Every practice is like another step on the ladder.”

With what he sees as a more focused and mature crew than previous seasons, Lombardi is hopeful of what is yet to come.

“I think we are going to have great success this season.”

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