Jackie Stein stands at 4 feet 11 inches and literally has to look up to her teammates as a freshman on the Gophers varsity rowing team.
Off the water, Stein comes across as shy and doesn’t attract attention. Before practice Tuesday, she sat quietly in the boathouse while her teammates’ conversations blared around her.
But in the boat, an internal switch is flipped, and Stein takes on a new persona as the coxswain of the first varsity four crew.
The coxswain is responsible for the safety and direction of the boat. While her teammates row, Stein lays flat in the boat with her feet to the front and her head out just enough to see the motion of the boat. She serves as the eyes for the other four rowers, as they face the opposite direction with their backs to hers.
She serves as a coach on the water, yelling out commands and encouragement but faces similar pressure to a quarterback with the decisions she has to make in competition.
In essence, she is the jockey and the boat is her racehorse.
“I like to have the control, and I know I can influence a boat in a positive way,” she said. “There is a lot of pressure with that, but it’s just part of the job, and I love it.”
While in the boat, Stein can’t see her teammates’ faces, and they can’t see hers — the boat is guided solely by the voice of a 4-foot-11 freshman.
Talk about trust.
“She is really responsive to what is happening in the boat even though she can’t see it,” senior Leah Rogotzke said of Stein. “She is always talking to us and really incorporates how we feel.”
She is loud in her cadence in the boat, and her rowers are fully receptive. Stein adds some energetic remarks here and there to keep the crew focused and motivated.
“We get really tired, and it’s nice having someone who has that type of energy,” Rogotzke said. “She can get us to buckle down and focus … and she’s really stepped into that role well as a freshman.”
Stein’s role as the coxswain of a boat with four rowers differs from that of a coxswain with eight rowers. In the latter, the coxswain is face-to-face with the rowers and can build an emotional connection with them throughout the race, Stein said.
She said the hardest part of her job as a coxswain of the first varsity four is being unable to see her teammates, but she finds ways to connect with them.
“It takes a couple of years to develop a sense of boat-feel, but once you develop it, it’s pretty easy to help the boat,” Stein said.
She started rowing three years ago as a junior in high school and said she became a student of the sport. As soon as she started, she made it a goal to row at the collegiate level.
“I knew I was short enough,” Stein said, “but I had the heart and wanted to do it. I actually studied a lot on the sport to get better.”
She hasn’t stopped trying to improve, and her coaches have noticed this early in her career.
“She’s very hard on herself and has very high standards for herself and for the people around her,” assistant coach Courtney Haase said. “There’s really no limit to what she will put into being a better coxswain.”
Haase works particularly with the first and second varsity four crews and is also in her first year with Minnesota.
“We joke around because, in a lot of ways, we’re both freshmen,” said Haase, who competed as a coxswain at Gonzaga.
Stein’s boat has performed well with her leading the way, and last week she was accepted to the USRowing Women’s Freshman Camp in Seattle — a camp geared toward athletes with elite-level potential.
Stein was one of the 24 athletes from the U.S. accepted to the camp and one of just four freshmen coxswain. Her teammate Rebecca Braak was also selected.
“It’s supposed to give them a taste of what it would be like to try out for the national team,” said head coach Wendy Davis. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction for them.”
Stein said her eventual goal is to become the coxswain of the first varsity eight by her last year of college while also maintaining the friendships she has already developed on the team.
Davis said she is open to the idea of Stein leading the first varsity eight in the future, but she has heightened expectations for her young coxswain.
“She’s the complete package as a freshman, and she’s only going to get better,” Davis said. “She should try to be a champion of the Big Ten and a medalist at the NCAAs while she’s at it.”
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