Athlete of the Month - June 2008
Mary Whipple’s vast experience in rowing began at high school in California in 1994. She was convinced to take on the coxswain position when the coach told her it was one below the coach in the chain of command. Since then she has won three championships at NCAA level (the United States’ National Collegiate Athletic Association) while a student at the University of Washington, and is most noted as being the coxswain of the USA’s women’s eight, the defending World Champions and Olympic silver medallists in Athens. World Rowing catches up while Whipple is in Europe for training camps and the Rowing World Cup season.
WR: The USA women's eight comes into the Olympics this year as two-time World Champions no doubt aiming to better the silver won at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. Your crew is obviously the team others want to beat. What is it that you have been focusing on as a coxswain to keep your team at the top since the last World Rowing Championships and in the lead up to the Games?
As the coxswain of the women’s eight I’m trying to be a supportive teammate and making sure the rows in the eight are quality rows. The women in our training group are inspiring and pretty much I just need to let them know the goal of the practice and what it’s going to take to achieve it and then they run with it.
WR: You have been in Munich for the Rowing World Cup, but the eight didn't race. What was your role there?
MW: I was responsible for our small boats racing in the Rowing World Cup. Some might call it being a “coach” but the women racing in Munich are my teammates so I helped them by being their second pair of eyes by videoing and being the liaison to our coach, Tom Terhaar, who was back at home getting the rest of our team ready to join us in Breisach, Germany, for our training camp before Lucerne.
Taking care of the small boats was an amazing experience because it forced all of us into self-sufficient roles. The group as a whole stepped up to the challenge and performed well but we are also excited to see if we can improve in Lucerne. I called it a grass roots operation.
WR: After the Rowing World Cup in Munich and Australia's clear victory, what is your assessment on the competition?
MW: I know that every country is trying to find the right combinations in the lead up to the Olympics. You’d make yourself crazy trying to keep up with them. Every eight that makes it to the Olympics has a shot at medalling and I never like to underestimate my competitors. I can only control what is happening in my lane and in my boat. So my focus can only be on my team and how we are going to get down the race course with our best race when it counts the most.
WR: You were in Germany for a training camp right before Lucerne - why has that been the team's choice as the training location for the build-up?
MW: We have been in Breisach, Germany, training on the Rhine. The boat club has been very gracious and welcoming. We chose this place for the location. It’s about 2 hours north of Lucerne and it was about a 5-hour drive west from Munich. This is our first training camp overseas for this Olympic cycle and we heard of other international crews coming to Breisach; it has exceeded our expectations.
WR: With the US Team selections still going on this month (June) what is your role in training and deciding the final line-up to race in Beijing?
MW: I can thankfully say that in this area, I’m just an athlete. Of course that comes with the responsibility of performing well and without mistakes when others’ seats are on the line. Our coach, Tom, has complete control and our team trusts that he’ll put together the best training programme for us. His methods are methodical and that allows us to focus on our training while competing for our seats.
WR: Do you expect the line-up to be similar to the one at the World Rowing Championships last year?
MW: I feel like we have a strong group of athletes in our training group. With our women’s four winning as well last year there has been great competition within our group during our winter training. Selection won’t be over until June 25 so we are all on our game and allowing our deep training group to elevate each other.
WR: What does your schedule look like for the rest of the summer?
MW: Our team will compete in Lucerne and then we will head back to Princeton, New Jersey, where we all live and train for the rest of the summer.
WR: Going into your second Olympics Games, how do you feel you are preparing for the Olympic experience and competition compared to last time?
MW: One of the things I learned is not to let the highs get too high or the lows get too low. I’ve also learned that you can have expectations to a certain extent but performing in the moment and capitalizing on certain situations is key. I can’t wait to experience being on the line at the Olympics because I know the possibilities are endless before that red light flashes green.
WR: You've been coxing on the national team for nine years, including junior. What is it about the sport and your position that keeps you in it?
MW: I love the team atmosphere and knowing that you are only a piece of something bigger. My team has taken great care to make our team dynamic strong by respecting each other and we actually do like hanging out with one another. Most of all I love it when the boat gets running and you all get on the same page to get a groove going.
WR: Do you have role models or particular mentors? Have there been specific coaches or mentors along the way who have helped you become the best?
MW: Someone once asked me, “When was it that you knew you have arrived?” In my opinion, the moment you think you have arrived is the moment you stop yourself from learning or you’ll hit something... I learn mostly from my coaches, Tom, Laurel and from my teammates.
Having gone to the University of Washington and learning from my coach there, Jan Harville, definitely gave me the foundation to make the transition to the National Team. I also learn a lot from my many hours riding in the launch when we are in small boats for practice. I make sure to pay attention to what the girls are doing.
World Rowing caught up with Mary Whipple in final preparations for Beijing in Princeton, New Jersey, the base camp for the US rowing teams.
WorldRowing: After a training camp in Germany and the Rowing World Cup in Lucerne you are back in the US training in Princeton. What is your focus now?
Mary Whipple: Our focus right now is making the Olympic Team. We are going through final selection and we’ll know by June 27th. We are focusing on more race specific things but always sneaking in a lot of mileage.
WR: How do you feel, now that the women’s eight field has been finalised for Beijing, with Canada and the Netherlands qualifying at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta, and China missing out?
MP: It must be very hard on China’s women’s eight right now with not having the chance to race in their home country. It is just a major reminder of how competitive the women’s eight event is and that no one is going to let another country just win.
WR: Why did your team decide to stay in New Jersey instead of race the final Rowing World Cup in Poznan?
MP: We had to come home for the final selection of our pair and eight.
WR: How will you acclimatize and prepare for the conditions in Beijing? Apparently the conditions are pretty humid there in Princeton too?
MP: You are right, Princeton gets rather nasty in the summer time. This summer though we’ll be glad for that, so we can get used to being uncomfortable in heat and humidity.
WR: Have there been other coxswains to challenge you for your position? How do you go through a selection process?
MP: We usually have 12 to 14 girls in our training group and up to a couple of months ago just one physical eight boat shell. I’ve made sure that there wasn’t a reason to bring another coxswain into the training group by working hard and not taking the position for granted. In 2001 and 2002 there were two coxswains in camp and the competition was tight but I eventually earned and defended by position. I make sure to keep learning and improving to keep up with my teammates who are competing every day.
WR: Your teammate Anna Goodale says that you are the team’s good luck charm and they need to take you to China. Do you have any good luck charms you will be bringing along to China?
MP: First, I think Anna was just making fun of me like any good teammate would! But hopefully our teams’ hard work will bring us opportunities for good luck.
WR: What is the hardest thing about being a coxswain?
MP: Seeing straight in front of you! I have nightmares about hitting submerge logs on Lake Carnegie. In all honesty though, the hardest thing for me about being a coxswain on the National Team is all the time in the launch while the girls are in small boats.
WR: Have you ever rowed?
MP: I’ve rowed a couple of times in high school. Never in a race though, but I erg and play around in tanks to work on things our coach is having the girls focus on.
WR: What kind of physical training do you do to keep in shape for the position?
MP: When the girls do land training, I usually join in. I lift with them, go on runs and do our core work. It’s important for me to work out with them so when I have to tell them to push harder to work harder they won’t resent it.
WR: What is your project “Shooting it Straight” all about?
MP: There are few resources for coxswains to learn about coxing, so Marcus McElhenney and I decided to do a few Podcasts on various topics. We also answer e-mails from coxswains through www.rowcoachmedia.com. The project has been fun to speak about with coxswains of all levels and also coaches who don’t know what to do with their coxswains.
WR: If you were to encourage someone to try coxing, what would be your key words of advice and encouragement?
MP: Learn to steer straight and choose your words and listen to your coach and teammates.
WR: If your teammates had to use one word to describe your coxing style, what would it be?