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University of Colorado-Boulder student and coxswain Samantha Kelly, far right, tells the men of CU Crew what to do at the 2011 Wichita Frostbite Regatta. Courtesy photo.
University of Colorado-Boulder student and coxswain Samantha Kelly, far right, tells the men of CU Crew what to do at the 2011 Wichita Frostbite Regatta. Courtesy photo.

Though this is her fourth year on the University of Colorado’s rowing team, Samantha Kelly hasn’t rowed a boat for CU. Instead, as a coxswain, she tells the guys on the team — who are a lot bigger than her — how to steer and race the boat.

“Most of the guys are over 6 feet tall,” said the 5-foot-3 coxswain.

At the Wichita Frostbite Regatta in November, Kelly coxed two CU boats to proud second-place finishes — the varsity men’s four-plus A-boat, and the team’s only varsity men’s eight-plus.

We caught up with this mechanical engineering major after the regatta to talk about what a coxswain does, why it pays to be able to yell and why she’s glad some rowing traditions have been, um, thrown out of the boat.

Learn more about CU rowing at

Were you involved in crew in high school?

No, I was not. I grew up in Colorado Springs. There’s no water there. (laughs)

How did you get involved at CU then?
When I transferred here, I found out there was a club team. I wanted to row, but I’m kind of short. So I didn’t have high expectations of that working out, because height really matters. When I heard they were short a coxswain, it worked out.

So you never rowed?
I’ve never actually rowed in a boat. They teach you how to row on the erg machines…I tried out for the women’s team, and they needed a coxswain, so I coxed for them for that week.

But there are weight limits for crew. You’re kind of dead weight in the boat, you’re just sitting there, talking. The women’s requirement is 110 (pounds)… I’m pretty close to 120, which is close to the men’s requirement.

What does a coxswain do?
The best description is, the only things needed when you cross the finish line at a race are your bow ball and your coxswain. Years ago, coxswains used to jump out of the boat before the finish line…that isn’t done any more, which is good because I can’t really swim. 

The guys are going all out. So it’s my job to think for them. I call the race plan, I tell them what the other crews are doing, I steer…steering is actually pretty complicated. On top of that, you have to remember your race plan. And it’s kind of like chess — you have to listen to the other coxswains around you. I do most of the strategy stuff.

What are the qualities of a good coxswain? Be tiny and yell loudly?
You have a thing called a cox box that’s like an amp system — there are speakers in the boat. If an oar brakes, they’ll stop the race for you. But if the cox box breaks, you have to yell. Regattas get really loud, you have to be able to yell over people, and the boat is 60-feet long.

Confidence is really important. The guys have to trust you.

Do you have to be a little bossy?
That’s another thing — it’s not really being bossy. It’s kind of like herding a bunch of cats, but they’re all bigger than you.

Since you’re graduating in May, do you have advice for the next person to do your job?
The biggest thing, I think, is to respect the guys and the time they put in. I don’t row, I’m not actually doing all of the workouts. So it’s really easy to assume they’re not trying hard enough or putting in enough time.

It takes having that respect for what they do for them to have respect for what you do.

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