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Uncovering the mystery of rowing's coxswain

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LONDON – To the uninitiated in the intricacies of rowing, it might seem to be the easiest job at the Olympic Games. But there is a whole lot more to the existence of the coxswain – you know, the little guy or gal who sits at the head of the boat and yells at people twice his or her size while getting a free ride to the finish line.

Nowadays, the coxswain, or cox for short, has been shut out of most Olympic rowing disciplines. The only events on the program that still use them are the men's and women's eights. Competitors in the other events have to use their own willpower and sense of direction to make it to the line. Although they do have the advantage of not having to lug another, albeit tiny, human being from one end of the lake to the other.

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Speak to any crew member, though, and they will tell you the importance of having an experienced and wise cox in the boat. Not that the appreciation prevents the poor cox from being hurled into the water at the completion of each victory, a time-honored tradition that no one intends to break anytime soon.

"She is as integral to the boat as the rowers are," United States coach Tom Terhaar said about American women's cox Mary Whipple. "They can't do it without her."

So what does the cox actually do apart from all that screaming? And does it really make a difference?

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"Of course, there is the motivational factor," Great Britain men's cox Phelan Hill told Yahoo! Sports. "You need to know how to push the buttons of these guys who are going through personal physical hell. You need to know what to say and when to say it to get them to squeeze that last fraction of effort form their bodies before they are completely spent. That is learned from working with people over time. It doesn't just happen."

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Olympic coxes receive a medal, just like the competitors. If their role was merely to yell encouragement, that would not differentiate from many coaches, who are not rewarded with official hardware.

"There is a lot more to it than that," said Whipple, a cheery 32-year-old Californian. "A huge part of it is the tactics. I have to keep my eye on what everyone in my boat is doing, but also what the opposition is doing at the same time. If I sense a weakness in one of the other boats and need to get the crew going, I will make that judgment call."

The U.S., exhorted on by Whipple, clinched gold at Eton Dorney, the Olympic rowing venue just outside London that has attracted large and loud crowds. The U.S. beat a Canadian team that secured a fifth Olympic medal for its cox, 52-year-old schoolteacher Lesley Thompson-Willie. Germany won the men's event.

Watching the teams celebrate the national anthems was one of the more amusing sights of the Games. A miniscule cox – Whipple is 5-foot-3-inches, a foot shorter than many of her rowers and Germany's men's cox Martin Sauer is a similar height – make for an incongruous picture when compared to rowers with enormous shoulders and bulging biceps.

Finally, coxes must be aware of technique. While they may not be rowing experts themselves, spending vast amounts of time in the presence of their athletes and coaches will enable them to pick up a certain level of technical expertise.

"If a rower's stroke is a tiny bit off, then it can affect the whole performance," former Olympic champion cox Garry Herbert of Great Britain said. "You need to be able to pick it out, and let them know how to fix it immediately, otherwise it could all be over.

"That is how you earn your place on the boat. That's where your value lies."

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