Coxswain Nelson manages to lead Gophers

When the First Varsity Eight boat is on water, Katherine Nelson is the coach.

Kent Erdahl

If there was a class to teach Minnesota’s student body about the sport of rowing, Gophers senior rowing member Katherine Nelson would be both a student and a teacher’s aide.

Nelson’s role of coxswain on the Gophers’ First Varsity Eight boat not only requires steering and keeping the team together with her voice, but making decisions for a coach who can only watch while the team is on the water.

No coaches are allowed access to the team during the 45 minutes it takes to warm up for a race and the seven minutes the race takes. During that time, Nelson acts as the voice for coach Wendy Davis.

“She listens to what I’m saying as far as critiquing the athletes,” Davis said. “Then she sees the effect within the boat, and she remembers and is able to translate that on race day.”

Nelson’s contribution as coach and team member is less visible from the shore, but her performance is critical in a sport that relies on timing.

“It’s easy to look at the seat and say, ‘Oh she’s just sitting and talking,’ ” Nelson said. “But there are a lot of factors you have to take in.”

Some of those factors include acting as the eyes of the boat and making sure each of the eight other rowers are in rhythm and performing at their peaks despite having different roles.

Davis said Nelson’s role is so difficult because she must keep the various positions together despite enormous strain on the body, which results in high levels of lactic acid in muscles.

“It becomes very hard to process auditory commands when you are oxygen-deprived and not able to see well,” Davis said. “She has to be able to get through the fog to them.”

Nelson’s ability to get through to the rest of the team can be attributed to her past experience in a young program.

After walking on to a first-year program as a rower herself, Nelson decided that she was too undersized to compete after her sophomore year.

“Our team was improving so rapidly,” she said. “And at (5 feet 2 inches) you can only get so big.”

Davis said Nelson has continued to train hard physically. In last year’s Twin Cities Marathon, only Nelson’s second ever, she qualified for the upcoming Boston Marathon.

It is Nelson’s training and experience as a rower that has helped her communicate with the team, Davis said.

“She knows what the athletes are going through,” Davis said. “When she demands a power move late in the race, she knows what it is going to take.”

Nelson agrees that she benefits from her past, but she also cites her relationship with fellow senior stroke Jackie Gagner as a key to her success as a coxswain.

Gagner has sat directly in front of Nelson on the Gophers’ First Varsity Eight boat for two years, and the two have developed a special type of communication.

“When we have hard races, it’s hard for me to talk,” Gagner said. “I usually give her some sort of facial cues if we need to change something.”

Nelson said reading her teammate hasn’t been all that difficult.

“We’re not speaking Spanish to each other or anything,” Nelson said. “But she just may blurt out a word and I’ll interpret that for the rest of the boat.”

No matter the language, class will be in session on Saturday when the Gophers kick off their Big Ten schedule with a dual at Iowa.