For the past sixteen years straight, there has been at least one coxswain from the University of Washington on the United States National Team. This year, both National Team Eights were coxed by University of Washington alumni: Katelin Snyder and Sam Ojserkis.
Mary Whipple, Katelin Snyder, Sam Ojserkis, Betsy Beard, Bob Moch: the Huskies seem to produce winning coxswains who continue coxing after college and make it onto the National Team. But what is it that happens up there in Seattle, as the Huskies train not only their world-class rowers, but their world-class coxswains?
Michael Callahan, the men’s head coach at the University of Washington who led his Husky crew to a full sweep at the IRAs in 2012, and to national championships in four of the five years he’s been at the helm, explains it like this, “On a football team, the place kicker scores more points than anyone else. When a race comes down to the last 250 meters, the coxswain has to make the right decisions. I totally disagree with that old adage ‘the cox should just sit and steer.’ The cox is a very pivotal position. They have to have the consolidation of judgement, situational awareness and race savvy.”
Sam Ojserkis, the coxswain for the United States National Team at the 2016 Olympics claims, without hesitation, that coxing at the University of Washington is what allowed him to rise through the selection camps for the Team and make it into the men’s boat that took fourth in the world at the Olympics. “I’ve had a pretty interesting ride,” he says. “My path to the Team hasn’t been a linear one.”
Ojserkis grew up in New Jersey, coxing for Mainland Regional High School near Atlantic City. “My high school course was right behind the casinos,” he says, “it’s really tight and windy in there.” Ojserkis learned to steer a straight course and honed his racing in high school on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.
“Every year in high school, I was competing, competing, competing for a seat.” His team had a slew of coxswains, and he had to fight to get in a boat. “I wasn’t in the varsity boat in high school.”
When he visited the University of Washington, though, he knew it was the right fit for him. “I knew UW was very special. It was hard work, but it was fun work. That was an important blend. When you go to the school, you just know if it’s a fit.” Ojserkis started coxing his freshman year and explains it this way, “Everyone at Washington has that expectation of competition. It just gets beefed up.” He smiles here, a smirk almost. “It’s a lot of fun to compete to get in that seat. At Washington they do a good job at competition. The rowers are competing hard for their seats, and so are the coxswains.”
In his first year, Ojserkis coxed the second freshman Eight. “Some of my closest friends are from that year, from that boat. It was very formative.” As the second freshman boat, they didn’t compete at any major races, but that experience put him in the running to cox the Open Four at the end of his freshman year. Says Ojserkis, with the tone of voice that only experience can give you, “I was in competition to cox the Open Four, but I just wasn’t ready for it. That thing was going laser fast and I had never been lying down in a boat like that.”
Ojserkis reflects on his collegiate years, his progression through the boats, and what made him successful. “I have to credit Mike Callahan for pushing me along as a person. He’s been more than a coach. His vision is not just to be a good rower. You want to be good at everything.” Ojserkis, is, of course, on the lighter side. As he explains how Callahan changed his trajectory as a coxswain, Ojserkis says, “He kind of whipped this under-achiever into shape. I thought it [under-achieving] was cool at the time. He believed–not just me, but everyone–could be really special. He said, ‘Why not? Why not go after it?’
“There were also several teammates who helped me become a better coxswain. I remember, in my sophomore year, Simon Taylor [a member of the 2005 New Zealand Jr. National Team] sat me down and drew out what he wanted from me on the whiteboard. He let me know exactly what he expected from me, how often he wanted to hear how many meters were left in a race, when to tell the boat what position we’re in, really the Xs, Ys, and Zs of it. He said, ‘This is what you want to worry about first, then you can get the guys pumped up.’”
As Ojserkis progressed through his collegiate years, the seat races continued. “During seat races, you just have to be yourself. You have to rely on your second nature. Don’t get too wrapped up in what the other boat is doing, just be as loose as possible.”
To become a better coxswain, he sought his coach’s help. “You’ve got to be the one to initiate it, and it’s not just ‘How can I be better?’ Tell your coaches, your rowers, your teammates, ‘I’m working on this aspect of my coxing. Can you help give me feedback on that specific part?’ Simon had taught me the nuts and bolts of how and when to say things. In college, it was Mike Callahan who taught me how to lead in the boat, how to harness my personality and how to create a good working environment for the crew.”
Ojserkis pauses for a moment. “When I came into the [National] Team, I was unproven.” I ask him how he went about proving himself. He’s quiet, then, “It’s a process. It takes time. The biggest part is listening, not just repeating what people say but trying to figure out what they’re actually trying to tell you.” The room grows still. “When you get criticism, you have an initial emotion about it. It’s OK for that to be there–that negative feeling–but you’ve got to take a step back because they’re probably right.”
Ojserkis is a pensive man. He stops, then says, plainly, “If I hadn’t gone to UW, I wouldn’t have made the Team, I know that for sure. It’s the only school that could have gotten me to cox the Olympic Eight. They taught me how to harness my capabilities. That’s what you should look for in a coach.”
I ask Ojserkis to expand on what was important to his development. “It’s different for everyone: cox, rower, CEO,” he says. “There are traits that are shared… perseverance, stubbornness, being coachable, adaptable and flexible. And, you have to be really honest with yourself. Sometimes that means submitting to something and sometimes it means plowing through.” He pauses slightly, then keeps diving into what he learned from years of fighting for his seat.
“There’s no magic pill, you’ve got to put in the work. If you think you can do something to make the boat go faster, you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to be ready with a strategy, but everyone’s different. You have to know what works for you.”
Ojserkis talks about developing as a coxswain with as much detail as one who has just finished a Masters in Management from Cambridge would (Ojserkis finished his Cambridge Masters degree in 2013, coxing the Goldie boat on the Thames that year). “I think that physically coxing for UW is a big challenge that you don’t get anywhere else. You’re rowing in a city with a lot of maritime activity. There’s industry going on, tug boats, fishing boats, big barges, 90-foot yachts, pleasure boats. There’s so much going on you have to be on your game all the time. You’re trying to cox the guys, trying to stay focused, and you’re trying not to die out there. In Seattle, on the water, your boat is not a priority. You put your head on a swivel there.”
Later, when I get a chance to ask Mike Callahan more about the coxswains that emerge from the Conibear Boathouse he uses another football analogy: the coxswain as quarterback. “When the guys are on the erg, you wouldn’t believe how hard the coxswains are working. There’s usually a boss who rises through the ranks. He is accountable. And in the boat, they’re the boss again. When Katelin [Snyder, the US National Team Olympic gold medalist] was here, she really got into coxswain notes. She kept logs of the drills, how the practice was being run, asking ‘Why are we doing this drill now?’ That gave the coxswains context in the boat. That’s their job: to be mentally engaged, to know the rowers. By their senior year, they know to tell me what’s going on with the guys.” When a coach pauses, a silence settles over you. It happened here and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. “I wish coxswains would focus more on boat feel. We have coxswains practice with no GPS and no CoxBox because I want them to feel the boat instead of read it on a screen.”
Callahan goes on, reiterating what Ojserkis had mentioned about the actual waterway Washington rows on forcing him to become a better coxswain. “Let’s talk about the environment here. The waterway is very tough. There’s big water, sea planes, traffic patterns, other programs. Coxswains here learn that they have to be making decisions three steps down the track, they have to see the whole picture. I put tons of pressure on coxswains. I expect them to make decisions very quickly. The pace of practice sometimes disturbs people, but it’s a necessity. They’ve got to keep their rowers organized. That pace–that awareness–when they’re on the water means they have to be totally engaged. They’re making pressure decisions all the time. And, sometimes they’ve got to tune me out and tune the rowers out to make their own decision. It’s not calm, but that’s when the good coxswains get really calm.”
Maybe that’s what’s in the water at the University of Washington: the ability to be calm when the pressure is on.