By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At 5-foot-4, she’s the shortest of the nine young women in her boat, and the lightest, too. She doesn’t have a commanding physical presence or a booming voice. But when the UVa rowing team’s No. 1 boat, the Varsity Eight, is in the water, there’s no question who’s in charge: coxswain Sidney Thorsten.
“You don’t want to get on Sid’s bad side,” Martha Kuzzy said, laughing.
Kuzzy, a senior, is in her third year as a Varsity Eight rower. Her classmate Thorsten has been the boat’s coxswain for four years. In one of the nation’s premier rowing programs, she’s gone from being the only freshman in the Varsity Eight to the boat’s most experienced member.
“I can’t even wrap my head around the fact that my time here is coming to a close,” said Thorsten, an Atlanta resident who has been named All-ACC twice.
Her role in the boat is often misunderstood by people not familiar with the sport. The rowers, well, they row. A coxswain sits in the stern of the boat, facing the rowers, and directs the operation, wearing a headset with a microphone over which she issues instructions to the crew. Nothing too tough about that, right?
“I hear that a lot, and I’ve gotten better at brushing it off,” Thorsten said. “You get, ‘Oh, you’re just a coxswain. You don’t do anything. You just sit there and yell at everyone.’ And then a lot of people actually aren’t aware of the fact that we steer. They ask, ‘What do you do?’ And I say steering’s the No. 1 thing.”
The coxswain, Virginia head coach Kevin Sauer said, must “be like a mother hen. You’ve got eight different personalities in the boat.”
Thorsten said: “You definitely can’t be afraid to yell at people, and I think initiative is something you need. Good communication skills. You’re kind of the liaison, I guess, between the coaches and the rowers. I feel like my psychology major has helped a lot, actually.”
Kuzzy said: “Sid is very calm in the boat when she needs to be. In stressful situations, she’s very good at remaining calm and in control, which is a tricky balance.”
The Cavaliers, ranked No. 1 nationally, will compete Saturday morning at the ACC championships in Clemson, S.C. Virginia is favored to win the ACC title for the 12th time in the event’s 13 years. The NCAA championships are May 25-27 at Mercer Lake, N.J.
As a coxswain, Thorsten does not follow a training regimen as grueling as that of UVa’s rowers, but “she knows what they’re going through, to a degree,” Sauer said. “I think that’s another reason the kids like her. She realizes that she needs to drop the hammer sometimes, but she can give them a little grace sometimes. She can let them make decisions on their own sometimes. That’s where a really mature crew really starts to make a difference, when they own the experience.”
In the fall of her first year at UVa, Thorsten “was in the background a little bit, not real vocal,” Sauer recalled. “But as we got into the spring and started getting on the water, you started seeing that her boats were just a little sharper. They were just more together.
“I tell coxswains all the time, ‘Your No. 1 priority is to steer the boat straight. Don’t run into anything, the dock, a bridge, another boat. Just drive the car, right?’ Like with your 16-year-old. You say, ‘Here’s the keys; just bring it back with you in one piece and the car in one piece.’ Same thing with a coxswain: ‘Take the boat out. Make sure all the rowers are still in the boat when you get back and the boat doesn’t have any damage.’
“And then once they kind of get that, we say, ‘OK, now keep your boat with the other boat that’s out there, keep level, don’t go off on a tangent. We can’t coach boats when they’re 100 meters apart.’ Then the next step is, ‘OK, when you can do that, now we’ll give you some technical things, like bladework or oars or the timing.'”
By the spring of 2009, Sauer recalled, his veteran rowers were talking up Thorsten’s coxing ability. “They started seeing that maybe this kid’s got something. She’s not one that yells and screams all the time, from the get-go. She gets the guys rowing and then she lets them row, and then when she needs it, she jumps in and gives it to them. Because if you yell and scream all the time, then they’re not going to listen to you. They tune you out. You have to be selective with that.”
Coxswains are often compared to jockeys, and it’s an apt analogy, Sauer believes.
In a boat, he said, “you’ve got this unit of human beings that are powerful but sometimes don’t know exactly what they’re doing, and a horse wants to just go. The jockey has to hold him back sometimes, whip him sometimes, guide him sometimes, and the coxswain does that a lot with the crew, too.”
Thorsten, a second-team All-American in 2010, was introduced to the sport as a ninth-grader, after an unsuccessful tryout in softball. She rowed that first year, but her size was an issue.
“My coach said, ‘If you ever want to go anywhere with this sport, you need to switch to coxing,’ ” Thorsten recalled. “So she taught me how to cox, and I’ve been coxing since.”
Her mentors during her first year at UVa included rowers Bridget Fowler, who was a senior, and Jenny Cromwell, a junior. Thorsten and Fowler had been teammates in the St. Andrew Rowing Club in Atlanta.
“It was really cool the way it worked out,” Thorsten said. “Because when I came in, [the Varsity Eight’s rowers] were all older, and they kind of taught me the ropes. And then when they graduated, it was a really young boat, and then I was the old one, which was strange.”
This summer will find Thorsten in London at the Olympic Games, working as an intern with the sports marketing firm Helios Partners.
She hopes to head to England as an NCAA champion. With Thorsten at coxswain, UVa’s Varsity Eight has placed second, second and seventh, respectively, at the NCAA championships. The Wahoos finished the 2009 race about three-tenths of a second behind winner Stanford.
A year later, at Gold River, Calif., UVa was crowned NCAA team champion for the first time after finishing first in the Varsity Four, second in the Varsity Eight and fourth in the Second Varsity Eight.
At the NCAAs, the Varsity Eight winner gets 48 points, the Second Varsity winner 32 and the Varsity Four winner 16.
“My big thing is, I really want to win the 1V,” Thorsten said. “And with the depth that we have, if we win the 1V, I think the team [title] will fall into place.”
Sauer said: “Selfishly, I would like to win the Varsity Eight, too, and we have a shot. This is a good group of kids, and they’re going pretty well. They’re in the top four or five [nationally] right now, and when you get in that realm, you’ve got a shot.”
This is the fastest Varsity Eight she’s coxed at UVa, Thorsten said. “At the beginning of the year a lot of people were nervous about that. They were saying, ‘What if we peak too early? What if we’re not supposed to be going this fast this early?’
“My take on it was, ‘We’re trying to do something we’ve never done before, which is win the Varsity Eight [at the NCAAs], so we need to be going faster that we’ve ever gone before.’ “
Spoken like a true leader.