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Pac-12 coxswains lead U.S. Olympic eights

Jul 24, 2021
US Rowing

TOKYO – Pac-12 rowers on the U.S. Olympic team had their adaptability tested on Saturday in Tokyo. As Typhoon In-Fa was heading toward the Japanese islands as of Friday night, and tropical storm Nepartak lurked behind it, several of this weekend’s rowing events were moved up a day or two, including the opening heats of the men’s and women’s eight boats.

Racing one day earlier than expected, the U.S. women’s eight grew closer to a gold-medal four-peat. It won its heat handily over Romania and Australia to advance directly to the A final. The boat was powered in part by two WASHINGTON rowers and it was coxed by fellow Husky Katelin (Snyder) Guregian, a 2016 gold medalist. Earlier in the day, the U.S. men’s eight had a commanding until the last 500 meters of its heat and finished behind Germany.

Still, former CALIFORNIA cox Julian Venonsky said afterwards, “It was a great piece and we're just excited to do it again on Wednesday” in the men’s repechage.

Today’s races were neither the first – nor likely the last – time both U.S. Olympic eight boats would be coxed by Pac-12ers.

Tom Terhaar, the U.S. Olympic women’s rowing coach, said he looks for three things when selecting a world-class coxswain. “They have to be able to steer perfectly, execute the race plan, and have a good sense of when to adjust the race plan.”

Historically, Terhaar thinks the reason U.S. coxes have been so good is “that they had a lot of good racing in college. That’s huge. They’ve seen more races than most of the other coxswains in the world.” Also, at least for the women, Terhaar said, “I know that [Guregian and her Olympic predecessor, Mary Whipple] were mentored very well at the University of Washington. They were asked to watch and learn first, before jumping in, and that patience is really important.”

On the whole, the talent pool could grow even bigger for future Olympics, thanks to a 2017 rule change by the international rowing federation that allows the coxswain to be a different sex than the rest of the crew.

That allowance has long been the norm in U.S. men’s collegiate rowing. In fact, Guregian coxed male boats during her entire career at Washington. But in the NCAA, women’s eights must be coxed by women.  

Still, some countries welcomed the new rule here in Tokyo. On Saturday, nearly 25% of the boats in the field had someone of the opposite sex in the stern of their eights (the Dutch men, and the women’s crews from China, New Zealand, and Australia).

Given the option to switch for Tokyo 2020, neither Venonsky nor Guregian considered it.

Venonsky said he had never coxed women and wasn’t tempted “because that’s Katelin’s expertise. She’s done it for a while, and I don’t think I’d want to step on her toes.” However, he pointed out that Colette Lucas Conwell has been coxing at the men’s training center in California since 2017, the same year Venonsky joined. Perhaps she could be the future.  

Similarly, Guregian was happy to stay put and cox the women. “My team is my team and I felt a sense of ownership over the program,” she said. “These women are so important to me. I want to see it through with them. In fact, I would rather NOT medal with my team than win a gold medal in a men’s eight that’s not my team.

“In my experience,” Guregian added, “it’s actually a lot harder to cox a women’s boat. The men are so heavy and powerful, and when there’s that much physical mass and power behind the stroke, it’s really easy to tell if something is off because the impulse is so jarring. If it’s off, you’re like: Whoa! [With the men, that feedback] was basically given to me on a silver platter. But the women are smaller, not as powerful, so the impulse is a little fainter. I couldn’t tell what was going on when I first got into a women’s boat. It took me a long time to develop that skill.”

Guregian is thankful for at least one byproduct of the rule change: the minimum weight for the women’s cox is no longer 50 kilos (110 lbs). Rather than suggesting the men cut additional weight to cox women, the federation made the minimum weight for all coxswains 55 kilos (121 lbs).

“I was so happy!” said Guregian, 33. “I can’t even begin to explain.” Her weight ranges from 120 in winter to 115 in the summer and to shed the required pounds in a healthy way, she would do it slowly, over four or five months. “It was a drag,” she said. “It sucked. And, getting older, it was harder for me to lose. Now I don’t even have to think twice. If anything, I have to make sure I’m heavy enough. It’s so relaxing.”

“I’m the opposite,” said Venonsky, 27. “I’m naturally underweight. Me in a uni, is around 115, 120, depending. You can be above weight, and if you are, they give you a little wristband or whatever at weigh-in. But if you’re under, they give you dead weight [to carry in the boat] – usually sand.”  But not always. At the 2018 world championships in Bulgaria, he said, “They gave me a bunch of dead batteries. I’m like, ‘THIS is what we’re doing right now?’ It was funny.”

To make sure that the extra weight isn’t tossed overboard mid-race, an official checks it at the start and the finish.

Ultimately, no matter who’s in the stern, Guregian said, “coxing is coxing. It’s about getting to know your teammates, understanding what motivates them, how they respond to criticism or compliments, and how to get the best out of each athlete.”

And when the schedule changes at the last minute as it did on Saturday, Guregian said, “We know that, at the end of the day, going fast is all about how hard you can go, how much you believe, and how much you trust.”