Rising Star - June 2015
South Africa’s Willie Morgan has raced internationally as a coxswain at the junior, senior and para-rowing levels. At the 2013 World Rowing Championships he steered his LTA Mixed Coxed Four to a bronze medal.
But Morgan's skills are not just about steering a boat. He has been organising coxing seminars in South Africa to help grow the skill nationally. World Rowing asked Morgan to share his experiences on what he thinks makes a good coxswain and how coxing has helped shape his personality.
World Rowing: How did you become a coxswain?
Willie Morgan: I became a coxswain a couple weeks after having picked up the sport in high school. I was simply told by my coach that he needed someone mature and lightweight to take that position, and I grew fond of it since that very first time.
WR: What do you like about coxing?
WM: The exclusivity it brings to the sport. It is such a unique and pivot role in the rowing boat. Many athletes would be fearful of or repelled by the demands of being a coxswain, but I have always seen it as an opportunity to nurture my persona and so I like how it encourages me to be the best human being that I can be as I am not perfect. Nobody is perfect.
WR: How did you develop your coxing skills over the years?
WM: By being inquisitive. I had this knack for researching as a young lad and so that is what I did. I spent copious amounts of time on the internet (mainly US websites), self-educating myself about different rowing techniques, rowing boat terminology and coxing vocabulary. I read through vast amounts of material, tailored and integrated it and then the cherry on top was putting all of that knowledge to practice on the water and gaining the experience. I had a great supportive environment at St. John's College to do this and become successful at it to the point that I represented my country at a junior national level, so I am grateful to my high school and to the University of Johannesburg that allowed me to continue my passion.
WR: In your opinion, what makes a good coxswain?
WM: There are three things. He or she must know his/her responsibilities and their order of importance and accept those responsibilities. Secondly, be the eyes and ears of the crew and take charge without abusing his or her power and being forceful in an irrational manner. Lastly, be socially savvy and know how to read the crew dynamics and athletes' state of mind, and make effective calls based on these.
WR: Are there any differences between coxing a para crew and an able-bodied crew?
WM: Yes, definitely. For one, my boat-feel response differs between the two crews as the boat runs through the water. Obviously the para-rowers have different limitations or motor skills due to their disabilities, and so even steering the boat may prove an intricate affair.
Para-rowers are fired up for life. They have had to overcome their disabilities and believe in themselves unequivocally, so to motivate them is not tricky or complex. Because they have contrasting disabilities, I have to be more conscious of how they are doing physically and psychologically, whereas I don't check in as regularly with the able-bodied athletes. I guess the able-bodied athletes have more independence in that regard and the way I address them is very much straightforward, while with my para-rowing crew the vibe is somewhat different since the crew composition includes two females (LTAMix4+).
WR: How much of your time do you dedicate to coxing?
WM: I have never calculated how much time, but definitely a lot. In the last week of May I spent about 18 dedicated hours.
WR: What do you do when you are not coxing?
WM: When I am not training, I am most definitely listening to music! I love my EDM (electronic dance music) and I used to sing in the school choir as well as play the classical piano so I am a music junkie. Hanging out with friends is another hobby of mine as I cherish every friendship that I have. I am required to read a lot of text as I am studying towards a law degree and also majoring in English. Finally, I have two cute miniature Jack Russells, so taking my dogs for walks or playing with them is also what I do.
WR: What motivates you?
WM: I am very much motivated spiritually. I grew up in a Christian home and worship God because I believe that I was brought on earth for a reason and a purpose. I am motivated by life itself because I believe that I am a privileged human being and I have much to offer to the world, be it mentoring school kids, doing community outreach or motivational speaking, or being an inspiration to my younger siblings Eva and Ronald. My other teammates encourage me to hunt for silverware. It still is crazy for me to think that I row among guys and girls who are World Champions, Olympians and Olympic gold medallists. Finally, my supporting and coaching staff are fantastic and they trust my capabilities, experience and assertiveness.
WR: What do you usually do before a race?
WM: Before a race, I am calm and collected. My extreme levels of composure have even startled some of my teammates in the past, but they feed off of it in training and racing situations which is vital. I use my mellow disposition to visualise my race plan and lines that I will carry out during the race. I also like to clean my boat before a race while I get in the zone - I mean which sensible driver pitches up to an exotic car race with a dirty Ferrari?
WR: You organise seminars for coxwains in South Africa. What led you to begin this endeavour?
WM: I realised that I was constantly being approached for help and advice - even by concerned parents and coaches. It is very evident in South Africa that coxswains are not invested in and equipped as much as rowers are in terms of quality coaching and time spent on them. I devoted some time to coaching at my high school after graduating and so this endeavour was realised.
I was thinking that Rowing South Africa does well at an elite level in small boats, but one day my country should have enough depth to compete in the big boat categories as well as have that quality level of coxswains available to drive such boats. It still is only the beginning and there is more to come over the next year.
WR: Do you also row?
WM: I started with rowing and I've always loved rowing as I am ridiculously physically active and play six sports. Even though coxing is my forte, I am always up for a paddle in the single.
WR: How do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
WM: I see myself being suited up! I will be a brown-skinned version of Harvey Specter, working in a corporate firm or a law consultancy. I will most definitely maintain my fitness and physique until I am a great grandfather ;-) therefore gymming and marathon running will most likely be a staple for me.