Switching Sides

By Andy Anderson

Without a lot of fanfare here in the U.S., FISA made a small but significant rule change to its rules of racing and related bylaws. The new rule, which took effect this year, read, “Coxswains are members of the crew. Except for Olympic, youth Olympic, paralympic, and relevant qualification regattas, which shall be subject to the rules of the authority concerned, the gender of the coxswain shall be open so that a men’s crew may be coxed by a woman and a women’s crew by a man.”

That’s right. Despite the prevalence on every level across our country of female coxswains in male boats, in major international events mixed gender boats have not been allowed until now. The first incidence of a national team being coxed by a member of the opposite sex was at the Poznan World Rowing Cup in June. Sam Bosworth coxed the New Zealand women’s eight, becoming the first man to steer an international women’s crew to victory. The Kiwis moved on to the Henley Royal Regatta, where they won the Remenham Challenge Cup, the women’s eights event. Finishing up their European tour, they were second to Romania the next weekend at the Lucerne World Rowing Cup. They are now home training for the world championships in Sarasota.

How did this come about? Dan Kelly, coach of the women’s eight, said that “over the summer Sam was part of a group of coxswains working with the men’s and women’s eights, with selection being their end goal. The rule change came through early in the year, giving us the ability to put the best coxswains in our boats without gender being a restriction. We felt Sam would do a great job with the women’s eight, so he was selected. The women have really enjoyed and respected Sam as a coxswain from Day 1.”

At first, Sam was apprehensive about coxing the women because he had been focused all year on trying to win a seat in the men’s eight. But after the rule change, he realized he had twice as many opportunities to represent his country at September’s world championships. “Over the summer there was talk about gender equality and the rule change, so I started coxing both men’s and women’s boats. I had previously coxed the junior men’s four in 2012 and the under-23 coxed four from 2013-16 and have either won gold or silver in each of those world championship campaigns.”

He quickly fit in. “I have known most of the girls for years and was quite comfortable getting in a boat with them and coxing. It is hard to explain but it just feels right and we get on really well.”

Besides being regularly addressed as “one of the girls,” Sam has not run into many awkward moments. “I have had a few encounters at the World Cups where I have gone to weigh in for the women’s eight and they have been confused as to why I am weighing in for the women’s eight.”

Twenty-three year old Bosworth finds few differences between coxing men and women. “When coxing either gender you have to be confident in what you are doing and direct them well. I find that when I am switched on, the girls are switched on. My mood and behavior rubs off on the crew.” Rebecca Scown, a member of the crew, recalled that “at Poznan, he was calm, we felt confident he had everything covered, and you could tell he was excited to be there, a real racer and ready to drive the boat.” Kelsey Walters, at four, adds, “He’s very calm and confident with every call he makes. He’s always striving to be better at his job and making our jobs easier.”

Sam praises his crew. “The girls bring energy and intent to everything we do and are very responsive to making changes. We have to work very hard, perform as a team, and have the common goal of wanting to get better. I find women do have to be more aware of their technique as they cannot just rely on power.”

Will he stay with the women through the 2020 Olympics? According to Coach Kelly, “As with all seats in the eight, we want the best fit for the seat, and we see Sam as the right person for the role, hence the selection this season. He has made an impressive start and is fully dedicated to his role; he is showing all the signs and characteristics to be a successful and long [-term] international coxswain.”

Have women lost a seat? In this case, yes, but undoubtedly there will women coxing men’s eights going forward. And the 55-kilogram minimum weight will allow slightly larger women to cox. New Zealand head coach Noel Donaldson says that the men’s eight will continue with their male cox, but they do have women coxing men’s boats. “We are quite happy to be gender neutral and select on ability.”

And will there be mixed gender boats in the Olympics? Donaldson says, “When the gender rule change occurred at the FISA Congress earlier this year, the question was raised. Matt Smith, the CEO of FISA, asked the IOC programs director who answered that if this was the sport’s wish then they saw no reason why the IOC would not accept this. We are working to this expectation.”