Think Like an Oarsman

Mike Cipollone had the opportunity to talk with John Hartigan regarding his views on being a coxswain. John grew up and went to high school in Chicago, where he was team manager for his high school football and basketball teams. When it came time to apply for college, his mother suggested the Ivy League schools, because they had rowing and he could be a coxswain. He followed her advice and began his college career at the University of Pennsylvania in 1959. He coxed the University of Pennsylvania Varsity Eight in the Eastern Sprints and the IRA regattas, as well as several Pan Am Games and went on to compete in two Olympics (1968 and 1976), win a World Championship (1974). John is an interesting–and entertaining–person to speak with.

Mike Cipollone: How did you get started in rowing?

John Hartigan: Everyone had to take a physical exam their first week of school at Penn. Joe Burk (the Penn crew coach from 1950 - 1969) was there and he spoke to every tall person and recommended they try rowing. He saw me and invited me to come out and be a cox (I had totally forgotten my mother’s advice) along with eleven other candidates. 

My freshman year I was 12th out of twelve. Sophomore year I was one of two coxswains who turned out in the fall. Lots of learning, lots of rowing, lots of oarsmen yelling at me. I did all the practices in the spring and then, in April, when the upperclass coxswains came out, I was the low man and never coxed a race. At the end of the year, I asked the coach if I should stick with it, reminding him that I had never missed a practice and yet still was not racing. His response was that I should definitely stick with it.

In the fall of his Junior year at Penn, Hartigan was the only coxswain and the team had some very fast boats and some very good oarsmen including Frank Shields (Brook Shields’ father and the founder of Power Ten New York, an organization dedicated to the sport of rowing).

Hartigan: Junior year we had a very fast crew and 

when the other coxswains came out in April, Joe Burk said, “Hartigan is the varsity coxswain.” We were very successful, tying Yale at the Eastern Sprints and coming in fifth at the IRAs. We also raced at the Henley Regatta in England.

Cipollone: Who was your stroke man and how did he treat you?

Hartigan: Woody Fisher. He was an outstanding oarsman, stroke for our boat, and teacher for someone like myself who was new to the sport. All coxswains need to listen to their oarsmen as part of their learning experience. Be open–you’ll learn a lot that will help you big time.

Hartigan steered the Varsity Eight his Junior and Senior years at Penn. When he was in graduate school, he raced in the 1964 Olympic Trials. He continued to compete with the College Boat Club and Vesper Boat Club, and in 1968 he was the coxswain of the College Boat Club’s Four with Coxswain (4+), winning the trials at Long Beach and coming in 5th in the Olympic finals in Mexico City. His coach at the 1968 Olympics was Ted Nash. In 1974, Hartigan went to the lightweight Eight National Team camp and became the lightweight men’s Eight coxswain; they went on to win the World Championship.

In 1975, Hartigan was the cox of Al Rosenberg’s Eight that won gold at the Pan American Games in Mexico City. Next, he competed in the 4+ at the 1976 Olympics (an 11th place finish), won a bronze medal at the 1979 Pan Am Games and a gold medal at the 1983 Pan Am Games. In 1985, Hartigan coxed the PennAC Eight to gold at the San Diego Crew Classic and he coxed the 1986 USA lightweight Eight. He has been a Masters coxswain at Fairmount Rowing Association and University Barge Club for years. All along the way, he worked in the pharmaceutical industry at SmithKline. What a career!

Cipollone: How do you address steering?

Hartigan: There are two ways to steer. Steer in relationship to the crews next to you or get a point and keep your eye on it. 

Cipollone: John, can you give me one of your memorable calls?

Hartigan: We were rowing the Eight in the Pan Am Games and the Cubans had pulled out in front. Their coxswain was yelling, “Cuba Si, Yankee No!” They were starting to pull away. I said to my crew, “Are we going to lose? Tell me!” They screamed, “No!” 

We won.

Hartigan's Advice

You have to be very persistent to accomplish anything. Basically, your job is to keep control of the boat. It’s very important to think like a rower. You have to think of these elements:

  • Focus on specifics. “Tommy, get your hands out quicker.”
  • Nobody wants to hear “Row hard.”
  • Legs are critical.
  • Always tell a rower something constructive.
  • You’re in charge of the boat. The rowers are looking to you. They can’t see where they’re going.
  • Periodically, talk to the coach after workouts and find out what he would like you to work on.
  • You are the voice of the crew, the director of power.
  • Use your coach as a fountain of information.
  • Learn to listen better.
  • To be successful you have to be detail-oriented.
  • When giving constructive criticism, good coxswains talk to the rowers privately.
  • What does the oarsman want to know? “Hands, legs, hold your knees down.” That’s how everyone gets better.


John Hartigan pictured in 1976

John Hartigan pictured in 1976