(Mary Whipple was the coxswain on the USA team that won the women's eight gold medal on Aug. 1 in London. This article was originally published July 13, 2011 in the Sacramento Bee.)
With her high-pitched speech and diminutive stature, Mary Whipple could be mistaken as an Olympian of another kind, a gymnast perhaps.
But Whipple is now well into her second decade in a sport where her size, commanding voice and high energy level provides the ideal athletic dichotomy.
Now age 31 and possessor of Olympic silver and gold medals, the Orangevale-raised Whipple will be named July 25 to the U.S. team that will be competing at the World Rowing Championships in August in Slovenia.
The same squad will also compete, barring the unforeseen, in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
The U.S. team won the gold medal in Beijing and will defend its title — with Whipple again as the coxswain — in July 2012 at Dorney Lake, 25 miles west of London near Windsor Castle.
Among the 14 Olympic rowing events, only the men's and women's eight boats have coxswains. Often called the "ninth seat," coxswains are the smallest occupants.
For a boat to succeed, however, a coxswain must maintain a commanding presence over the remaining eight crew members — some nearly twice their size.
"At the Olympic or national level, there are a lot of boats without coxswains, but even in those boats someone is calling the shots," said the 5-foot-3, 106-pound Whipple, who splits time between Seattle and the national team training center in Princeton, N.J. "Someone is calling the race plan and the moves; they're in charge. My take is that on this level someone has to keep everyone organized, and somebody has to call the shots.
"In each boat everyone has a job. It just happens in the eight boat, my job is to steer. My job is to suggest things that I hope they will do. I pretty much lay out the scenario, 'We need you to do this for us to go faster.' Usually, they buy in. They allow me to tell them what to do."
Whipple and her twin sister became coxswains via happenstance.
Just prior to entering high school, they enrolled in a sculling class at Lake Natoma. A coach thought the twins were good coxswain candidates and both sisters began competing for Capital Crew, the regional program for high school athletes.
Sarah Whipple, now an assistant coach at UC Berkeley, guided UC Davis to a Division II national title in 2002.
Mary Whipple, who attended Casa Roble High School for two years before graduating from Sacramento Adventist Academy in Carmichael, led Washington to the NCAA Division I Championships in 2001 and 2002.
A decade later, a teenager who didn't know what a coxswain did when she was encouraged to try it, is now world renowned.
"You haven't seen me in a boat, yet," said Whipple, chuckling. "I think that's why at lot of my teammates appreciate me. I know how to turn it on and turn it off. More important, when I say something it really needs to happen when I say it needs to happen for us to maintain our boat speed or increase our boat speed."
Although Whiple runs and lifts weights with teammates, she doesn't row. Regardless, Whipple's responsibilities, like the task of any good coxswain, are revered.
"I rowed for almost 20 years and anytime I got in a boat with a coxswain, they're in charge," said Toby Johnson, former collegiate rower at Washington State and Sacramento State women's head coach. "It's kind of ingrained in your system from when you start rowing that the coxswain is in charge.
"A lot of people think they just say 'stroke, stroke, stroke.' You know from watching race, that's just not true. They're in there steering, they're motivating. They're in charge of getting everyone to the race on time. It's a huge weight that's on their shoulders. Even though they're not actually working out (in the boat) they're a huge contributing factor to whether a boat could actually win or lose."
Tricia Blocher, a master's coach at the River City Rowing Club in West Sacramento and the former women's coach at UC Davis, stated the coxswain's role more succinctly.
"The coxswain is the eyes for the boat," Blocher said. "They sit in the front of the boat and drive it whichever way it's supposed to go."
Two years after her success at Washington, Whipple made her first Olympic team, with the U.S. finishing second in Athens, Greece.
"All four years of my first Olympic cycle just seemed like my rookie season," said Whipple. "In that era and going into the 2004 Olympics, the U.S. women's team hadn't medaled in 20 years since they won gold in 1984.
"But since the distance increase to 2,000 meters had just gone home from the Olympics empty handed. We were underdogs, but we came second. We felt like the goal was to get to the podium and then start chasing the colors of the medals."
A year later, Whipple was questioning her decision to stay.
"We came in fourth at the 2005 World Championships, and I was like, 'this is risky. I'm coming back, the team is young is kind of very young. Is it worth it? Is it worth sacrificing four more years with girls I hadn't formed a both win?
"I decided to do it one more years. The '06 year was magical. All of a sudden we came together as a group and it went from there. We won the '06 World Championships and the '07 World Championships. And then in the journey to the 2008 Olympics we weren't scared. We were excited to perform."
Now Whipple has her third Summer Olympics within a year's focus.
Regardless, with the eight seats on the boat undetermined through winter training camps and more recent sessions in New Jersey, Whipple was the only coxswain being considered.
Yet she preferred to wait until the team was announced to confirm her status.
"I think what separates me from other coxswains is that I value my role as a teammate first," Whipple said. "So I think I've created enough trust in rowers so that if I'm going to the saying something, it's not just because I'm going to fill silence. What comes out of my mouth really means something."