On the Ropes

    Veteran U.S. national team coxswain Katelin Guregian on the successes and setbacks of a career focused on making the boat go faster.
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    Every time you place your blade in the water, the opportunity is waiting for you. That blade dropping into liquid can harness the power in your body and become a lever you can use to propel your boat forward. In some strange twist of physics, how you apply the pressure of your leg drive determines how stable the water will be. An ill-timed drive will cause the blade to rip through the water and diminish your opportunity to move the boat. But if you time the pressure correctly—and in sync with the other rowers in the boat—you can use the slippery water to your advantage. When your power is timed to accelerate at exactly the right rate, the water becomes like concrete, your power will compound with your teammates’ power, and your boat will take flight. The result is exponential.

    This is true for coxswains, too. With every stroke, they have an opportunity to add pressure to the face of the blade and contribute to the speed of the boat. The difference is they have no oar; their hands are firmly affixed to the steering cables, and they can’t let go. For a coxswain, harnessing the strength of the rowers and amplifying the opportunity of every stroke sequence is their way of placing a blade in the water and contributing to the speed of the boat.

    As the coxswain for the U.S. women’s eight, Katelin Guregian understands this equation. Over the course of her career, she has learned that being unabashedly opportunistic in these moments is one of the things that makes the boats she’s in the fastest in the world. Literally.

    Guregian coxed the U.S. women’s eight to the world-record time of 5:54.1 in World Rowing Cup III on the Rotsee in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 2013. She has coxed the U.S. women’s eight to five world championship titles (2009, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018). She has an Olympic gold medal from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. In college, as a coxswain on the University of Washington men’s team, she coxed her crews to gold medals at three IRA championships (2006, 2007, 2009). And now, as the U.S. national team trains with their sights set on the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, she continues to use her knowledge of her rower’s strengths—and her voice—to put pressure on the blade.

    Guregian says the greatest contribution a coxswain can make is to be one of the 10 people in the boat who are making it move. I wonder if she’s misspoken about the number of people in a boat, or if this is some kind of new math, but I keep quiet. “If there is one thing I’ve learned at the training center,” offers Guregian, who has spent her summers in Princeton, N.J., and her winters at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., training with the national team, “it is to focus all of my calls on the technical focus or emphasis of my coach.” For Guregian, understanding what national team coach Tom Terhaar is asking of his athletes is the most important contribution she can bring to the crew. This is where she gets her “boat of ten” math: she tries to keep the focus of the coach constantly in the boat as she makes her calls, effectively adding one more person to the crew.

    “For me, one of my strengths is being able to understand the focus of my coach and to make calls that are in line with that.” She chuckles a bit as we talk, conveying in an instant that she’s grown over the years from feedback from some of the best coaches in the sport. “I’m not making a call that’s opposite of that focus. I can nit-pick a hundred things but if we’re working on catches and I see the finishes are off, I have to figure out what I can do at the catch to make the finishes better.” 

    I ask Guregian to explain what this looks like during practice. “When I get into the boat for the first time in a few weeks or if my coach is making a technical change, I sit there at first and watch the blades. I think about things for a while. At the end of the second or third practice, I’ll understand the technical changes he [Terhaar] wants. Only then can I take ownership of making my calls. Anytime we’re making changes or if I’ve been out of the boat for a while [until the team is selected each year, Guregian rotates through the practice sessions with the other Training Center coxswains], I take it slowly.” 

    Guregian speaks deliberately as if she’s uncovering the gems she’s found at the end of a long hunt. I wait, hoping she’ll go on. “When I was in school, I would have done what I knew, which was to make calls, regardless of the focus. What I’ve learned is that I’m better when I restrict myself to backing up my coach.” A beat passes. “It’s a critical thing. You have to think of the long term more than the short term.”

    Guregian began coxing at her high school in Winter Park, Fla. In college, she coxed for four years at the University of Washington. As she was finishing her career as a Husky, Mary Whipple, the national team coxswain who was also a former Husky, shared advice with Guregian about advancing into the national team ranks. Guregian coxed the under-23 team and then, in 2009, while Whipple was taking a year off of competition, Guregian coxed the U.S. women’s eight for the first time. After a successful year of competition—the U.S. women’s eight won the world championship in 2009—Whipple returned to the team. 

    “In 2010, I didn’t make the boat,” Guregian states plainly. “I didn’t really know what came next. I knew I wanted to try again, I wanted to keep going. I definitely felt… I was upset. It felt unfair to me at the time.” She pauses for a moment. “It really sucked. There’s only one seat.”

    I asked her what happened next. What did she do after getting cut from the team? “The next day,” she says, “I went to practice. This is what everyone does when they get cut. No one makes any rash decisions, throwing their arms up and leaving the next day. I kept going to practice. I got in the boat a few times before they left for the world championships. When they came back, Mary and I were rotating.” She slows a bit. “When it became clear that I wouldn’t be going to London [for the 2012 Olympic Games], I decided to step away.”

    Guregian spent the next two years as an assistant coach at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “When I left the [national] team, I wasn’t sure if I was going to keep going. When I was coaching, there were so many experiences I had as a coach that was a reflection of my time on the national team. Having the point of view of a coach made me realize I was wrong.” 

    Guregian’s ability to make calls that add speed to the boat come through at this moment; she is just as quick to make calls about herself. “Tom [Terhaar] made the decision he made because it was the best decision for the team. I could see it clearly now.”

    Guregian says that as a coach, the actions of a coxswain—and the impact they have on the team, both on and off the water—became imminently clear. “I was really able to reflect. I realized that me getting cut from the team wasn’t about Mary or Tom or my teammates. It was about me. I wasn’t being receptive to coaching or to criticism. I was often the last one to arrive and the first one to leave. I thought, ‘It should only matter what I do on the water.’ As a coach, I always wished the coxswains would take more of a leadership role.” By switching seats, Guregian was getting a clearer view of how she had filled her previous seat. “I knew that my ‘best’ was in my own hands. I knew I wanted to go back. I did, thank goodness.”

    Guregian watched her former teammates win gold at the 2012 Olympics in London and then, after taking the Loyola Marymount team to its championship, she returned to the training center in Princeton during the summer of 2013. She was back in the smallest seat in the biggest boat in rowing: the U.S. women’s eight. She and her teammates won three world championships on their way to the 2016 Olympics and then, with her infamous call of “We are the U.S. women’s eight,” they won Olympic gold.

    I ask Guregian when she knew in the lead up to 2016 that she would cox in Rio. “I guess I knew when everyone else knew: that summer.” She hops right into the next sentence. “It’s so difficult to say. There’s never a point in [the Olympic cycle] when I didn’t think I wasn’t going—that’s just the mindset you have to have.” She weighs her words here, looking for the right ones. “It’s a balancing act: first, being humble, understanding everyone is disposable and that there are no guarantees. If your performance is not up to par, you’re not going to make it. But what I’ve learned is that the most important thing is winning the race. It’s less valuable to compete to make the team than to say, ‘What can I do to be the best in the world?’” She draws in a breath and I wait. “I realized very quickly that there’s a big difference in my coxing if I’m trying to beat my teammates or if I’m doing everything I can to make the boat go faster.” She doesn’t mince words, “I’m better when I try to make the boat go faster.”

    The year after the 2016 Olympics, Guregian was in the coxswain seat of the women’s eight that took fourth at the World Championships in Sarasota-Bradenton, Fla., ending an 11-year unbeaten streak at the worlds and Olympics. “My first race on the national team,” she says, recalling the 2009 season, “was with six gold-medal Olympians. For this race, nearly everyone was new. This was their first senior team race. This was trial by fire. We had to figure it out together. Of course, we were upset, but what I was proud of was that we got stronger and stronger from the heat to the rep to the final. Every time we worked on something as a boat, it happened, we implemented it. We simply didn’t have enough time.”

    I ask Guregian if that loss made her doubt her commitment to training for the 2020 Olympics. “No, I knew I was in it for the long haul. I didn’t doubt it.” She pauses for a moment and a softness enters her voice. “The only thing that made me doubt it was when my husband left Princeton.” Nareg Guregian is also a multi-time national team member and an Olympian (he competed in the 2016 Olympics in the men’s pair) and is based in San Francisco, where he works for Visa. The Guregians met while at the training center and married in 2015. “We see each other at least once a month,” she says, bringing me back to her commitment to training through the Olympic quadrennial.

    “I feel like we have an incredible rally going on now. The depth we have is not new people, it’s people developing and stepping into new shoes. The 2018 world championships were the happiest I’ve ever been about winning a race.”

    “When I came to the team before, we had the streak. I felt like I knew what it took to win. But now, seeing what it took to go from fourth to the gold again, I have become so appreciative of my teammates and my coaches. You have to have a really competitive mindset to train your ass off all year with no guarantees. It takes incredible willpower and belief.” I ask her to explain a little bit about that, and how it feels different now.

    “In years past, if you made the team, you’d have a chance for a medal. Training for 2018, we didn’t have that feeling. The motivation comes more easily when you believe ‘if I make the team, I’ll have a chance.’ It’s motivating when the team is fast. For a while there, we weren’t the fastest. To watch people commit and build a new team, a new speed, it taught me how to trust more.” She waits for me to catch up, my pen scribbling wildly.

    “And it’s weird. It’s a combination of being attentive and alert—doing everything I can to make myself faster and being there for my teammates, but relaxing and trusting at the same time. It’s  having that belief.”

    Guregian takes this belief to the level of working with the next generation of coxswains at the training center. “There’s another cox here right now, Leigh Warner. She’s awesome. I love working with her. I don’t know if we’ll compete or not, but I do know that I want to give her all of my knowledge so that when she does compete, she has the tools to make the boat go fast.” Guregian doesn’t stop. “It’s hard to have that relationship with another cox, but the team means so much to me that when I’m not here or I don’t make it, I’ll know the team is in good hands. I want her to have everything she needs to be successful.” Guregian sounds more like a coach now than someone who races for her seat every season. I ask her if Warner knows she feels this way.

    “I don’t know,” she answers, “but it’s good to have her here.” Maybe this is Guregian’s way of placing her blade in the water and applying pressure to move the boat, even though she doesn’t have an oar. There may only be one coxswain and eight rowers in a boat, but there can be 10 people. It’s Guregian math.

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