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In the Driver's Seat, with Danielle Swan
April 12, 2022
John FX Flynn

Swan and the URI 2V, 2021 NCAA Rowing Championships

Next up In The Driver's Seat-row2k's column that sits down with the folks in our sport who keep the shells straight and add that extra something to the teamwork of a crew-is coxswain Danielle Swan.

A senior at Rhode Island, Danielle coxed the 2V as a junior, winning an A10 Championship on the way to competing at the 2021 NCAA Championship. In high school, she coxed for Nutley HS in New Jersey.

Let's take a ride with Danielle, In The Driver's Seat:

row2k - What are the three most important things to being a successful coxswain?
Danielle Swan - Awareness, attitude, and consistency. For me, awareness is key to many thing: being aware of where you are steering but also being aware of your boat. I think learning to know your rowers and what makes them tick ties into awareness as well.

Finish of C/D Semi at NCAAs
Finish of C/D Semi at NCAAs

Attitude is really important to me because I think any coxswain should be able to hop into any lineup with the mindset of making the boat go fast. The worst thing a coxswain can do is believe they are above coxing a certain boat and not take the time to learn from a different crew. I also really like to work closely with my coaches and I think a positive attitude plays a large part in fostering that connection.

Consistency is key in a race, when you're demanding that your crew stay on their split, but also in the overall role of a coxswain. I think any crew or coach would prefer to work with a coxswain that consistently "does their job" (as both the New England Patriots' and my coaches phrase it). Being dependable is huge for a coxswain in the development of trust and the all-important relationship between rowers and their coxswain.

row2k - What is your favorite drill to run with your crews? Any tips on how to do the drill well, for maximum effectiveness?
Danielle Swan - My favorite drill to run with my crew is the "Pop and Float" drill. We just started doing this drill this year after our head coach, Shelagh Donohoe, brought it back to us from a summer of training her Paralympic PR3 Mixed 4+.

The Pop and Float drill has the rowers move up the slide at half the speed they normally do: this is where the "float" comes in, since the recovery time is overly exaggerated. Then the rowers put their blades in and move through the drive at a normal speed: the "pop" is the quick catch and return to a normal drive speed.

The most effective way to run this drill is for the coxswain to talk through it. There is not any counting really involved, besides keeping track of when the crew is to be rowing regularly or with Pop and Float, so there is room for the coxswain to employ boat feel and talk to the the crew about how it should feel. Usually we do 1 minute of Pop and Float then one minute of regular rowing at steady state, so the rowers can feel the exaggeration of the recovery in the drill and apply what they feel to their regular stroke. This drill can really help a crew to understand how to be more direct at the catch-end of the stroke (the "pop") and lighter on the footboards during the recovery (the "float"). For a coxswain, this drill helps fine tune your own boat feel skills: I have to really listen to what the hull and adjust my calls accordingly.

Celebrating A10 hardware
Celebrating A10 hardware

row2k - What's some of the best coaching advice you've received about your coxing?
Danielle Swan - Some of the best coaching advice about my coxing I have received is to be flexible. It is important for a coxswain to have a solid understanding of the race plan, but they have to be able to be both knowledgeable and flexible enough to make a call on the fly when a situation in a race demands it. I think this also circles back to the development of boat feel and knowing what a specific boat needs while staying within the general parameters of a race plan. My CRI U23 coach, Kynan Reelick, gave me this advice this summer and I think it has made me rethink the way I cox and what I stress over and what I just learn to adapt to.

row2k - What is a mid-race call or move that you've made that you'll remember for the rest of your life? What did it involve and how did you call it?
Danielle Swan - One mid-race move that I will never forget happened at the 2021 Atlantic 10 Championship, in the final for the 2V8+ with our biggest competition directly to my right.

Winning the 2V at 2021 A10s
Winning the 2V at 2021 A10s

The Cooper River is set up such that I could hear every call the other coxswain was making and I heard her call a "power ten for her seniors" in the third 500. We were about 4 seats up on their 8+ at this point in the race and I knew I needed to counter the move. We only had one senior in our 8+ (7 seat Erin Shober) so I decided to call a "ten for Erin." As we began to counter our competition's move, we were dead even, with 700 meters to go. By the end of the 10 strokes, we had four more seats on the other boat and we took that momentum into the last 500m to win the A10. Even though we did not discuss this ten for Erin beforehand, we all collectively knew how important it was that we win the championship for the seniors who had built our team up for the last four to five years. After we won the A10, I took the same "ten for Erin" to the NCAA Championship and I used it in our final race where it was just as effective as it was in the A10.

row2k - Can you tell us a bit about how you learned to steer straight?
Danielle Swan - Since I started coxing in high school, I definitely think steering is one of the biggest things I have been constantly aiming to improve. I think learning to steer depends on the environment in which you cox. In high school, I coxed on the Passaic River in Kearny, NJ, which is wide and more open, so smaller steering mistakes are less noticeable and less likely to put my crew in danger. At URI, we practice on the Narrow River, which definitely lives up to its name.

Steering in such a narrow space has taught me to always think at least three moves ahead in terms of steering. My coaches also like to do pieces with boats very close to each other to create a competitive atmosphere, so always having a boat very close to me on an already small river has made me more aware of my steering (but not so aware that I overthink it). I also spent this summer coxing for CRI in Boston and I had to work to learn all of the turns and maneuvers that would keep my crews safe there. The biggest points to steering straight to me are: planning ahead, remaining calm, and not overthinking it.

Coming of the line at Sarasota, 2021 NCAA Championships
Coming of the line at Sarasota, 2021 NCAA Championships

row2k - Best race/practice you've ever had?
Danielle Swan - The best race I have experienced so far was the finals of the Atlantic 10 Championship in 2021. My boat had had some really incredible practices leading up to this race as well as some really difficult ones but once we were on the starting line we knew what we all had to do.

Eyeing the course at Overpeck
Eyeing the course at Overpeck

The best practice I had was this past summer at CRI, coxing the U23 men. This was mid-season and just the second time I had gone out with the men, since I usually coxed the women. We were doing race pieces in an 8+ to prepare for the Independence Day Regatta in Philly. Since I have only ever coxed women, I remember feeling incredibly intimidated, but we were doing 250m pieces--and my personal favorite thing to do as a coxswain are short, high energy race pieces. I remember finally finding my voice and getting loud (which I think was unexpected, considering how quiet and timid I am on land) and the energy was electric. Even though I didn't race with the men at IDR, I think that practice definitely showed them and myself exactly what we were capable of when we stepped outside our comfort zones.

row2k - Worst race/practice you've ever had?
Danielle Swan - I don't have a worst practice that I can readily think of because I think there is a lot to be learned even from a "bad" practice, especially for a coxswain. For me, all of my bad practices just reiterated what my boat needed to focus on and ultimately helped me focus on what was important going forward.

My worst race was last spring on the Charles River in Boston versus Northeastern. I was in our Varsity 4+ A and it was my first time ever being on the Charles. The conditions were very normal for the Basin, though I thought at the time that they were ridiculously bad. I remember going through the wrong arch, adding a penalty onto our time, and overall being so nervous to race on the Charles. I think this experience is what made coxing for CRI this summer so important to me because I really wanted to learn the intricacies of that river and be confident the next time I raced on it.

This year, I raced the Foot of the Charles in our Varsity 8+ and received countless compliments on my course and steering. Even though the NU race was my worst one, it turned into a vital learning experience for me and showed me how, even if the first time I try something it doesn't go well, that doesn't mean it will never go well. Hard work and dedication will always pay off in the long run when it comes to coxing.

Thanks for riding along with Danielle and remember, this column is open to all "drivers" out there, so if you are an experienced coxswain at any level--from juniors to masters--and would be willing to invite row2k to join you in your ride, just contact us here. We'd love to hear from you about what see from the Driver's Seat.

With URI 1V, back on the Charles for the Foot, Fall 2021
With URI 1V, back on the Charles for the Foot, Fall 2021

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