IMAGINE THE WEIGHT OF A WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP MEDAL AROUND YOUR NECK.
Maybe you tuck it into your uni after it’s put around your neck. Maybe you let it bounce against your chest as you walk the boat back to the racks. For James Rook, the Australian men’s national team coxswain, I wonder if the weight of the medal he won at the 2017 World Rowing Championships in the men's coxed pair got a bit more significant just days after he stood on the medal stand in Sarasota, Florida.
Two days after Rook and his crew of Angus Widdicombe and Darcy Wruck took silver in the men’s coxed pair, in Sarasota, the World Rowing Federation (FISA) voted to bring gender equity to all events at the senior, para, under-23 and junior world championships; this vote eliminated the men’s coxed pair event.
Rook is the youngest member of the Australian men’s team, but he had a chance to, as he says, “get a ticket to the Big Dance” after going through selection at the 2017 Trials. I asked him what he thought won him the coxswain seat on the team.
“Personally, I think I steered pretty straight and that’s obviously the number one reason. Number two, I was on weight. I was 55 kilos, so that’s two ticks, and then after that I think I’m quite a moldable kind of cox. I didn’t really have an identity as to how I coxed yet and I think that sometimes can work in my favor. I can be molded to whatever the crew needs.” He pauses here and smiles. “I just had a lot to learn. I was an open slate. You might have to talk to the selectors as to why I was picked, but I think the fact that I didn’t quite have a massive identity yet so I was quite moldable played into it.”
Rook’s sandy blond hair falls across his eyebrows as he explains what he learned from being a part of the men’s coxed pair.”The first time I got into it I didn’t even know how it was going to move. I can tell you what it was supposed to do, but I didn’t expect how the hull moves and twists. It was an interesting experience steering for the first time. I find once it’s at racing speed I get more out of it.” Rook could just as easily be talking about a race car or a race horse, but he goes back to talking about the boat.
“I focus on picking a surge [for steering] and doing a straight row rather than me touching the rudder. It’s a bit difficult to steer at a rate of 20 but here [at the 2017 World Rowing Championships] I had two guys who did most of the work for me. Unless there was a bit of wind, I just pointed it at the exact center of the finish lane and didn’t have to touch it much.”
I ask Rook about the calls he uses in the coxed pair versus the calls he uses in the eight. “In the coxed pair, there are times in training that I wouldn’t say anything for 2k. They [Widdicombe and Wruck] make a couple of calls–just like the straight pair. I almost want them to forget I’m there.”
As a coxswain in the smallest coxed boat, the pair, Rook has learned lessons that have made him a better coxswain in the eight. “Going through my mind,” he says, “especially in the first 1500 meters, if I can’t make the boat faster then why bother saying anything? It’s just wasted words. And, it’s wasted effort for them to listen.”
This is a part of coxing that gets overlooked. What amount of effort does it take for the rowers to listen to a coxswain’s calls? And, if the calls aren’t making the boat faster through some change, some specific need the boat has at that moment, how much do the calls that are “filler” distract the rowers and slow them down?
“If I think I can make it go faster then I’ll say something. Otherwise I don’t see the point in saying anything, unless it’s motivation and that’s mainly in the last 500.” Rook’s experience as the third man in a coxed pair isolates his contribution in a way I’ve never heard coxswains of fours and eights talk about. “I’ve got to keep them calm and they’ve got a job to do. And then, in the last 500, that’s where–especially in the coxed pair–that’s where the cox can really make a difference.”
At the 2017 World Rowing Championships in Sarasota, Florida, Rook coxed the Australian pair to a silver medal and also coxed the Australian men’s eight. “It was almost a fairy tale,” Rook says with a quick flash of his signature crooked smile. “Someone was building a brick wall in our lane,” he says, as he describes the last 500 meters of the coxed pair race.
“With 50 meters to go we had given everything we had. Hungary was at 105% of the world's fastest time in the last 500 meters. We weren’t going to catch them.” Rook’s frank assessment of the final race for the coxed pair is indicative of how he talks about his own coxing ability.
Rook won the battle to be the Australian national team coxswain and then started coxing the pair at the World Cup event in Lucerne, Switzerland. “I jumped into it twice in Lucerne–the pre-row and then the final. We medaled [they won silver at the 2017 World Cup III] and then we’ve been here for two weeks [at the 2017 World Championsips].”
Rook talks about the rowers he coxes as if he’s calling a rugby match. “Here, it was Darcy in bow–he just had to catch it. And Wid in stern–he just had to launch.”
Rook sees himself as a minimalist cox, one who needs to offset the weight he adds to the boat by focusing on the exact calls he can make not to break the rhythm. I ask him to explain how he approaches coxing only two rowers instead of eight. “Yeah, that’s just riding them like a jockey would ride a horse. You’ve just got to get on it a bit and get it moving.” He has learned that the effort of moving the coxed pair is different from moving an eight.
“With the coxed pair you might put in the hardest strokes of your life and nothing is going to happen. Then, twenty strokes later something might happen–or it might not–but it’s a boat of passion and belief and you know that eleven months of hard training can get you to the finish line.”
Rook’s style of coxing changed between the pair and the eight at the world championships. “In the pair, we found ourselves up about fifteen strokes in and for me it was just talking at the same tone I am now, saying, ‘Just walk away. Keep doing the same thing you’re doing. Don’t change, just keep on it.’ In the eight, there’s not really much I say in the first couple hundred meters. Just a bit of body, maybe. Just catch a little. You know, whatever the boat needs.
“I think it’s very different but, as I said, in the pair I don’t really feel like I need to say that much unless it makes the boat go faster. In the eight you have to mange everyone a lot more. In the pair, it’s more, ‘You guys do your job and I’ll just help you out if you need it.' It’s very different.”
Rook started coxing at the end of his Year Nine at Scotch College, a secondary school in Melbourne. “When I was in Year Nine, at the end of the year, I had a mate who was going into Year Twelve, James Malon. Because I was a little fellow at my school, he said, ‘Oi, mate, I need you. We need a coxswain. You're a small guy, why don’t you come down?’”
What followed was a scene many coxswains have been in. “I had actually wanted to row myself but I had one session and I said, ‘Oh, geez, it’s going to be pretty hard for me to get into a good crew because I’m not very big.’ So I came down the next day and was going to cox in the fifth eight. Then, all of a sudden, the forth eight coach didn’t have a cox that session and he said, ‘Oi, you, come here. You’re coxing my boat now.' I said, ‘Yep, fine.’ So I got promoted to the fourth eight before I’d ever been in a boat.” Rook coxed for three more years at Scotch College, moving into the third eight for his last two years.
“I never got to cox the first eight, but I was undefeated my whole school career in division. I loved it so much. I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to go out as a third cox. I want to cox Australia. I want to go on and win some gold medals.’”
After graduating Rook enrolled in University, studying education, and then, when he made the Australian men’s national team last winter, deferred his schooling so he could train full-time with the team.
“I just got this gig this year,” he says, with that crooked smile. “I never made the U-23 team. I wasn't sure I was going to get it. There’s no point going to Trails if you don’t think you’re worthy. I listened and learned as much as I could and then I got the ticket to the Big Dance.”
Rook has a light air about him. I ask him how he has risen so quickly through the ranks as a coxswain and what is building as his reputation. His answer explains his personality: a humble and self-aware man.
“It’s becoming more of my identity to cox quite similarly each time–to be predictable with what I’m going to say. So, if I say something different they know its important. I might not be as…” Rook looks for the right words. “I’m not particularly vocal. It’s just what the boat needs me to be on that day.”
Rook continues, a cascade of energy that I can see he uses when he needs it, “If you find yourself walking away, you might get a little more excited. Or, if you just say to the crew, ‘Keep plugging away, keep doing what you do. This is the right thing.’ It’s just whatever you need in that particular race. You can’t stick to a script and expect to have the best race of your life. You need to be stopping and actually thinking.”
Rook’s experiences are exponentially developing his skill as a cox–at the highest levels. Before he heads back to this team tent, I ask him for his advice for coxswains who are trying to break into the next level. Rook is straightforward.
“Get on weight and steer straight. If you’re not doing that then there are two big crosses right next to you. Before you can help the crew, you need to go straight and you need to make weight. These are two things that slow the boat down. If you’re not doing those things well you might as well not say anything and steer straight than say something and be all over the place, really. I think that’s just the reality of it: the importance of steering straight and being on weight.”
As we wrap up the interview, I ask him about his next steps as a coxswain. “My next steps? Go home and get straight back into it.” His straightforward attitude about a coxswain’s responsibilities is unrelenting. “Go to the club and get on the strings as much as I can. Time on the strings is the best thing you can get. Actually, being in the coxed pair I learned a lot: how the boat feels and how it’s supposed to move. That also helped me in the eight.” He pauses, wanting to help me understand what he learned in the smallest coxed boat on the water. “The feel–it’s not the same–but there are a lot of principles about how the boat can feel that you can take out of the pair and move into the eight. The eight is bigger and stiffer but you can still look for those same sorts of things.”
Rook leans back and surveys the scene around him at the 2017 World Rowing Championships. “We go back to Trials next year,” he says. “I’ll try and make the team again, then the year after that do the same, and the year after that hopefully I’ll be in Tokyo.” Rook’s crooked smile appears again.
As Rook stands and picks up his pack I thank him for the chance to talk. “No worries,” he says. Somehow, I think this is how he sees things. No worries.