I’ve been involved with rowing since 1985 when I joined the Washington-Lee High School Crew (now Washington-Liberty) as a sophomore. At the time I was a manager for the football and wrestling teams. W-L’s legendary coach, Charlie Butt (father of Harvard Head Coach, Charlie Butt III), had talked to me a few times in the halls around the school and told me he thought I’d make a good coxswain. I was interested but not convinced. . . and just a touch intimidated. One evening in late February the phone rang with Charlie on the other end. “Why don’t you come down tomorrow and see what it’s like?” How could I say no to Charlie?
My first day was spent riding around in the launch with Charlie. I had no idea what I was seeing. Charlie talked to me the whole time, which in retrospect was unusual, it was something I wouldn’t see him do very often. He tried to explain as much as he could in between getting the team on the water and fixing the problems that always arise. This also meant that Charlie expected that I was absorbing everything he was saying to me as well. As the practice pieces began I was asked to take care of getting the stroke rates. . . the old fashioned way- count the number of strokes in a minute and divide by 60. Now, I barely understood what I was counting let alone where I was supposed to take the count from. Luckily another cox in the launch, Jeff Kohn, helped me out and I survived my first day. I decided to come back the next day too. What I didn’t find out until many years later was that call from Charlie was prompted. My mom knew I was curious but too insecure to just do it. She had run into Charlie in the parking lot of the school and asked him to call me. . . Thanks, mom.
My first day in the coxswain’s seat is something I will never forget. It was a cold, rainy Saturday and Charlie was short a coxswain. It didn’t matter that I had never been in a boat before. . . I had spent the week riding around in the launch learning by observation. I was put into a 4+ with four seniors: Sean Hall (of National and Olympic Team fame), Sean Flanagan, Jason Starr, and Todd Ellsworth. These guys did their best to teach me how to steer, count tens, launch, land, turn. . . you name it. All the while trying to get a practice in. I don’t think I have ever been so frustrated and cold in my life. After an hour and a half, I came off the water soaking wet, shivering, tired, and a touch “shell shocked.” The rowers were, I’m sure, a few fist-fulls shorter of hair. I wasn’t sure about this sport. I knew hardly anyone, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I had just spent the morning getting grumbled (i.e. yelled) at by four seniors. I can remember walking into the ballroom at Potomac Boat Club where parents and kids milled about and just standing there bewildered and wanting to quit. As I stood there, Charlie came by and patted me on the shoulder, said “good job” and kept on going. It dawned on me that I was now part of something special. I couldn’t quit now. . . maybe this wasn’t so bad after all!
From there I would like to say that life in the coxswain’s seat got easier, and it did, but learning to cox was a long road. I wanted to quit several times, but I always came back. I learned, persevered, and eventually got better. My senior year I started winning some races as the “light bulb” came on and the sport began to make sense to me. I won some races (inlcuding NOVAS, the area championship of the time, and SRAA (scholastic) Nationals). Coaching became a natural advancement of my coxing skills and I have coached since high school. I continue to coach and cox, and hopefully, pass on my love and knowledge of the sport to others. I hope my book and this site will make your understanding of the sport easier, more quickly, than it was for me and that you come to love the sport as much as I do. Besides, there is no better rush than coming across that finish line first!