It may just be one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated jobs in all of sports.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the most important.
The coxswain (pronounced Kok-sen), is arguably the most essential person in a rowing crew. This especially rings true for the Penn rowing squads.
But what do these small but mighty members of the team do exactly? And no, they don’t just yell “stroke” over and over at the rowers.
The cox is, quite simply, the coach of the boat. Sitting typically in the stern (or the back) of the boat, the coxswain’s job is to steer the boat. They tell the rowers which direction to row, and with what level of intensity.
“You’re trying to organize a lot and you’re thinking a lot and reacting very quickly in the moment,” men’s heavyweight coxswain Sabrina Stanich said. “…But also you have to be super composed the whole time so you don’t ever make [the rowers] nervous. Because they have to have total faith and confidence in you that you’re doing what you can to motivate them and put them in the best position possible.”
“My favorite part about racing as a coxswain is the quick strategy that is involved,” women’s rowing coxswain Taylor Byxbee said. “Being able to read a course and your competition and knowing when you need to go and when the other team is vulnerable is a fun game to play.”
What many people don’t realize is that coxing can be a high-stress job. In addition to primarily steering the boat, they are also simultaneously keeping track of the competition, what stage of the race course their boat is in, and how fast the boat is moving.
“It’s impossible unless you’re a really great coxswain to perfectly manage everything that’s going on,” men’s lightweight coxswain Julia Hansen said. “…We are looking at a lot of things, getting a lot of information at the same time, and trying to produce information to the crew.”
“It can be really stressful because you feel if you do anything wrong, [the rowers] will notice,” Stanich said.
The path to becoming a Penn coxswain varies from person to person. Some started out as rowers but weren’t big enough to continue at the next level. Others were involved with other sports in high school and wanted to continue having a competitive outlet in college. Alternatively, there are some who just fit the profile.
“[My friends] said ‘you are tiny so you can’t be a rower’ so I had to be coxswain,” Byxbee laughed. “But it’s the perfect role for me, I’m pretty bossy.”
Although they may be small in stature, the coxswain’s impact can certainly be felt on the boat.
The coaches and the cox are in charge of developing a “race plan” for each race. This is what the ideal race will look like for the boat if everything goes smoothly. This includes calling out certain things to the rowers during the race such as distance markers to the finish line.
Since the cox is in charge of directing the rowers, the rowers need to trust the cox in order to properly execute the race plan.
“In a race it’s very crucial that rowers trust us,” Byxbee said. “Because when we’re exactly even with another boat with 250 meters to go and the coxswain tells them ‘I need everything you have right now’ that can be the difference between winning and losing.”
For Stanich, Byxbee, and Hansen, their experience coxing at Penn has come with many different positives.
“I think you learn a ton, and I’m really lucky because I’ve had so many opportunities to try to be a leader,” Stanich said. “Especially on this team as a female on a heavyweight men’s athletic program.”
“It’s been really nice being a part of a team in general, and to be a leader within the team because of the coxswain role,” said Byxbee. “…It is super rewarding when you get your boat across the line first.”
“Being on the team and having great relationships with the guys, being able to go out and compete with those guys on race days, just makes all of it worth it,” Hansen said. “It’s just so fun and I love those guys like family … It’s a really special team.”
Overlooked or not, the Penn coxswains will be looking to steer their teams in the right direction for the rest of the season.