USC Crew A Cut Above

April 19, 2007

By Jonathan Horowitz, Sports Information Student Assistant

The USC women's rowing team competes in a maritime version of Dancing With the Stars. Each race is an approximately seven-minute routine that requires perfect synchronization among members of the boat.

At USC, crews consist of four or eight rowers plus a coxswain in each boat, and the rowers must maintain the same rhythm. The coxswain, who sits at the back (stern end) of the boat facing the rowers, steers the boat, calls out that rhythm and must be on the same page mentally with her crew.

At the center of this physical and mental production on the water is a relationship between two athletes whose split-second decisions can affect the entire outcome of a race. In the Trojan varsity eight boat, redshirt junior coxswain Lauren Cowan calls out the race strategy for her crew, and freshman stroke Gabriela Varekova, who sits closest to the coxswain in the boat, executes the strategy and establishes the tempo that the rest of the rowers follow.

The synchronization between a coxswain and a stroke of a boat rivals that of a ballroom dancer and his partner. The coxswain leads, and the stroke must carefully follow.

The tempo the third-year coxswain and the first-year stroke have been able to establish this year has contributed to the USC women's rowing team jumping to a No. 1 ranking on Wednesday for the first time in coaches Zenon and Kelly Babraj's tenure that began in 2003. In one month, the Women of Troy have climbed from a No. 10 preseason ranking to the top of the national standings.

'We're both on the same page of what we're trying to do,' Cowan said about her rapport with Varekova. 'We see each other during the whole race, which is a different position from everyone else because everyone else just sees everyone else's back. We face each other, and so if there's a certain point in the race where she sees something I don't see, she can give me a one-word clue. It's kind of a communication between us, and we control what the rest of the boat does.'

'No one else in the boat gets that because everyone else just follows. They have no say in what goes on. They can't take the rate up; they can't do anything on their own. They have to have both of us--me telling them what to do and Gabi actually doing it.'

To be sure, other sports require the same amount of chemistry between their athletes that rowing does.

'In all of the sports, especially the game sports, there's a moment that you have a designed play, and things happen, and the quarterback or somebody changes that play,' USC women's rowing coach Zenon Babraj said. 'You have this last-moment reading. If they know each other and know the body movement, they can see where each other is going. I'm sure in other sports there is this sub-communication, which is not obvious and is done by knowing each other.'

Yet one split-second decision between a coxswain and stroke in rowing can affect the outcome of an entire 2,000-meter, six-to-seven-minute race.

'In the case of rowing, that relationship in a big boat is very important,' Babraj said. 'It's very easy to lose the rhythm in a split second. A split-second delay can build up more lactic acid in the middle of the race or slow the boat down. The stroke can be very good, but if she's not in sync with the coxswain and the entire crew, it can lead to a very costly mistake. You cannot afford to make a mistake. The timing is very important.'

Cowan, 21, stands out on the rowing team for several reasons. She is the only person on the varsity eight boat without an oar, and during the race her voice resonates through the boat. She is responsible for steering the boat straight and for functioning as a de facto coach on the water by leading the team's race strategy.

'She can really give us the commands, she can steer well, and she knows how to move on the other crews,' Varekova said. 'She has a lot of experience, and so she knows when one boat is moving very fast at the beginning and can't survive [the race]. She'll tell us, `Don't worry. We can move on them later. Just stick with your pace.''

The two types of rowing competitions in the Olympics are sculling and sweeping. Sculling involves one-, two- or four-member crews, each using two oars. Sculling boats are not coxed. Sweeping consists of two-, four-, or eight-member crews with each person rowing one oar. Eight-person crews always have a coxswain; two- and four-person boats may or may not have them depending on the competition.

Prior to arriving at USC and assuming perhaps the most important seat on an eight-person boat, Varekova, 19, competed predominantly in double sculls without a coxswain. A native of Olomouc, Czech Republic, she has represented her home country at the 2006 World Senior Rowing Championships and is a prospect to row for the Czech Republic at the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Being part of a larger squad has not posed any problems, Varekova and Cowan said.

'She's been rowing at the world championship level for a while, and so it's not like having an inexperienced person coming in,' Cowan said. 'If she closed her eyes she can tell you what is going on in the boat without having to look at it.'

Coxswain Cowan and stroke Varekova have a unique role on the crew in terms of executing the team's strategy during races.

'Except for me and the coxswain, it's basically just physical,' Varekova said. 'For the coxswain it's just a mental thing, and for the stroke it's also a mental thing. It's very difficult because you have to be ready for the boats moving on you, you have to have your tactic, and you have to stick with it. Sometimes it's very hard when the other boats are moving on you. The boat has to trust you.'

The USC women's rowing team established itself as one of the best crews on the west coast by capturing the coveted Jessop-Whittier Cup at the San Diego Crew Classic three weeks ago.

Last week the varsity eight, junior varsity eight, and varsity four boats swept the Charles River Challenge races in Boston to assert themselves as one of the best crews on the east coast as well. USC's three varsity eight wins in Boston were by an average of 17.8 seconds. The Charles River Challenge was contested in 40-degree temperatures, 20-mile-per-hour winds and whitecaps on the Charles.

'I was pretty surprised because we were able to focus on our work as if it were normal conditions,' Varekova said. 'So it was very good for us that we could adjust to conditions better than the crews who were used to it. And then there was the changing of time zones, and we were racing at (the equivalent of) 4 a.m. But we handled it very well.'

So in conditions that USC could not have been prepared for, the Women of Troy were in fact prepared.

After big wins on both sides of the country, USC will compete in a dual meet against UCLA next week followed by the Pacific-10 Conference Championships in Sacramento on May 13 and, pending all goes according to the team's plan, the NCAA Championships in Oak Ridge, Tenn., from May 25 to 27.

Cowan and Varekova said that the chemistry between them is reflective of chemistry among the entire team that could propel USC to its first Pac-10 and potentially its first NCAA team titles.

'It's definitely the most cohesive team we've had,' Cowan said. 'We've always been fast. But no one's ever really found a focus that says `we're going to do this.' You've had a lot of people on the team before who have had different ideas about what they wanted. But this year is the first year they've put their complete trust in and think we can do it.'

While some teams have encountered rough waters, this season USC has been rowing gently down the stream. For the Women of Troy rowing team, this year has been a dream.

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