By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– She works in Major League Baseball for the Oakland Athletics. At the University of Virginia, however, Colette Lucas-Conwell’s sport of choice was rowing.
For her final three years in head coach Kevin Sauer’s program, she was the coxswain on the Cavaliers’ top boat, the Varsity Eight, which won the ACC title in each of those seasons. At the NCAA championships, the Varsity Eight placed third in 2015, when Lucas-Conwell was a sophomore, fifth in 2016 and 10th in 2017.
As coxswain on the United States’ U23 Women’s Eight, Lucas-Conwell won world championships in 2015 and ’16.
In addition to working for the A’s, for whom her title is senior coordinator of operations, Lucas-Conwell continues to compete in rowing, at the highest level. She’s among the rowers and coxswains at US Rowing’s national training center in Oakland, where she’s competing for a spot on the U.S. men’s team.
In October, at the prestigious Head of Charles regatta in Boston, Lucas-Conwell coxed the United States’ B boat, which edged the U.S.’s A boat for first place in the championship race. That made her the first woman to cox a men’s boat to victory in that storied event.
Lucas-Conwell, who grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., graduated from UVA in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Her colleagues with the A’s include another UVA alumna, Haley Alvarez, whose title is assistant director, scouting and baseball operations. Alvarez, who was s student-manager for Virginia’s baseball team, graduated from the McIntire School of Commerce in 2015.
“We always talk about our time at UVA, because we did overlap for a couple years,” Lucas-Conwell said in a recent phone interview.
Lucas-Conwell, 24, is the latest former UVA student-athlete to be featured in this VirginiaSports.com series. The highlights of our conversation follow.
You recently returned to Charlottesville for the first time since your graduation. How was the weekend?
Lucas-Conwell: “It was great. It was good getting to see everybody. It’s been a couple years since I’ve been back, so it was nice to walk about the Lawn and look at the Rotunda and get some Roots and hang out. I’d really missed it. And it’s funny, because not too much has changed. Obviously, U-Hall was imploded, but apart from that, nothing really changed that much. It’s funny, just stepping right back into time.”
What career path have you followed since graduating from the University?
Lucas-Conwell: “I was in New York for seven months, working at Third Bridge, and then when I was invited to train with the U.S. national [men’s] team in Oakland, that’s when I got this job with the Oakland A’s. So I’ve been with them since June 2018, so just over a year. It’s been amazing so far.”
What’s your daily schedule like?
Lucas-Conwell: “I go to rowing practice in the mornings, and then during the day I’m at the office. It’s only a 10-minute drive from the boathouse, so it’s super convenient. It’s a great job. A lot of [the A’s employees] are former athletes. So if I need to go to Boston for the weekend [to compete], or go to Chula Vista for a week [to train], they will work with me on that.”
What’s your role with the A’s?
Lucas-Conwell: “I work in the office of the president. So I report into the chief of staff, who reports into Dave Kaval, the president of the Athletics. I work really closely with them on the political and community engagement of this new ballpark project that we’re working on.
“We’re trying to build a new waterfront ballpark at Howard Terminal, which is this piece of land right on the waterfront. It’s right by the downtown area of Oakland. I’m helping them out with that side of the project. How do we gain support from the politicans and also the regional and public agencies that will be approving this project, and how do we partner up with the community groups that are nearby? This is a project that not only benefits us as an organization but the entire community as a whole. It’s a fascinating project.
“I do some work during the baseball season that’s related to baseball as well, but I’d say 95 percent of what I do has to do with our new ballpark project.”
How did you end up training with the U.S. men’s team?
Lucas-Conwell: “So I was with the women’s team, and my goal had always been to go to the women’s training center in Princeton. But in 2017, [the International Rowing Federation] changed the rules and allowed women to be coxswains on men’s teams and men to be coxswains on women’s teams. So that summer of 2017 is when I switched over to the men’s team, and while that was happening, I was committed to being in Princeton. That was kind of going to be the plan, and in August the [U.S. men’s head] coach, Mike Teti, started discussing getting us out to the West Coast. There had been kind of a small center out here in Oakland, but it wasn’t a full-fledged center with coaches and the whole team and everything, with a support system [which is the case now] … By the time it got to April 1, 2018, the whole team had moved out to Oakland.”
What appealed to you about coxing for the men’s team?
Lucas-Conwell: “It wasn’t even an option that crossed my mind until they changed the rule in 2017, and I think I was just in the right place at the right time, where the coach said, ‘I’m open to having you be the first woman here and trying out for the spot.’ For me, it was something where I loved going fast, and obviously men’s boats go faster than women’s boats, so that was really cool.
“Also, being part of a new group and kind of being a trailblazer in this really enticed me. I just saw more opportunity in going to the men’s team than the women’s, and also there was the fact that on the women’s team, Katelin Snyder, who went to the 2016 Olympics, was coming back, so she would be the returning coxswain and would obviously have an advantage. Versus on the men’s team, the 2016 Olympic coxswain did not come back. So it was a totally open, anybody-can-try-out kind of situation. So that was why I went with the men’s team, and I’ve loved it. The guys are great. They’ve been super-inclusive. I’m still the only woman at the training center, but I’ve barely noticed.”
What the biggest difference between coxing the men’s and women’s teams?
Lucas-Conwell: “It’s funny, because I’ve been asked this a lot. On the women’s team, I always feel like there is a need to constantly be talking and giving feedback and making sure that every person has something that they’re thinking about during every part of the practice. Versus on the men’s team, Mike [Teti] is the coach, and the coxswain does not talk unless we’re in a racing piece. So I’m there to steer the boat, I’m there to make sure the rowers are safe, and then when the time comes, I’m there to motivate and give direction. But it’s not as much of a constant feedback loop. It’s much more, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do, and we’re going to do it now.’ On the women’s team, it was more, ‘This is how the boat feels. We need it to feel a little bit faster. Let’s do it this way.’
“Definitely on the men’s team, I talk 80 percent less than I used to in a women’s team boat. It’s different. I’ve learned to be quieter on the men’s team, which is kind of nice. It gets me to focus more on steering straight and making sure we’re not going to collide with anything. It’s been a transition.”
What are your goals in the sport?
Lucas-Conwell: “The 2020 Olympics are my big goal right now. We are in training right now and in selection over the next year or so. June 3rd will be when they nominate the Team USA team that will go to Tokyo. So right now my only focus is June 3rd –– being nominated as the coxswain for the Men’s Eight and going to the Olympics. Past that I’ve already in my mind committed to also going to the Paris 2024 Olympics and trialing for that.
“When you start out in this, you kind of figure out, ‘OK, am I in this for one Olympic cycle? Two? Three?’ I think so far the system works out really well where we can all have jobs and we have our own apartments and we can train. So two Olympic cycles doesn’t sound too crazy. Maybe I’ll change my mind later.”
What did you take from your four years in Charlottesville?
Lucas-Conwell: “My time at UVA had a huge impact on me. From when I went to UVA to how I graduated and what kind of person I became, being on the rowing team and being a student-athlete had a huge impact on who I am today.
“Kevin [Sauer] was an amazing coach, not just in the sport of rowing, but shaping us to be good, hard-working people outside of college. One of the phrases that I always say is humble and hungry, and that’s something that he kept repeating. Now it’s across all sports. Everyone uses it. That and uncompromised excellence are kind of the two phrases I tell myself almost every day. Keep working hard, keep showing up. The uncompromised excellence is something I use not just on the water, but also at work. How can we the best at everything we do in the best way possible when we look at the whole picture? Not just myself as a person, but as a team, as a part of a community. That community aspect has been huge. It’s something that at UVA was really, really strong, and it’s something that I carry into the U.S. team and at the A’s.
“Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about UVA. It really shaped me into who I am today, being as hard-working as I can be. That whole ethos came from the people that I met at UVA –– my coaches, my teachers, everyone –– just pushing us all to be better people. It really had a huge impact on my life.”
Between rowing and your schoolwork, you had a full schedule. Did you have time to support other teams at UVA?
Lucas-Conwell: “Yes. I always went out to UVA baseball games. We had an amazing team. The 2015 [NCAA championship team] was amazing.
“We went out to as many [athletic events] as we could. I know we had a crazy schedule, but I remember the UVA rowing team, we’d be like, ‘OK, who’s going out to baseball tonight. Are we going to basketball this weekend?’ We always tried to support each other, and I had some good friends who were on all the teams, so it was always fun to cheer for them and then they would cheer for us as well. It was a really good community.”