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row2k Coxswains Corner
In the Driver's Seat, with Lizzie Johnston
April 16, 2024
John FX Flynn, row2k

Lizzie Johnston, lining her Spartan 1V crew up at the start of the Sunshine State Invite

Next up In The Driver's Seat--where we hear from the folks who keep the shells straight and the crews fast—-is coxswain Lizzie Johnston.

A senior at Michigan State, Lizzie coxes the MSU Varsity 8. She got her first races in that crew back in her freshmen year, and has been a mainstay for the Spartans in the top eight the past three seasons.

She got her start in high school, helping to found the team at The Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and also coxed with Cleveland Masters Rowing Club before getting recruited to Michigan State. Last summer, Lizzie raced with USRowing's Selection Development Camp at Summer Nationals.

When she finishes up her degree in Animal Sciences at MSU, Lizzie plans to pursing a masters degree in the UK where she will keep on coxing at Oxford Brookes.

Coxing the USRowing Selection Dev Camp at Summer Nationals in 2023
Coxing the USRowing Selection Dev Camp at Summer Nationals in 2023

Let's hop In The Driver's Seat with Lizzie:

row2k - What do you see as the three most important things for being a successful coxswain?
Lizzie Johnston -
1. Passion/Drive - The eagerness to learn and always get better. As a coxswain, I have learned that you can always get better whether that is with making calls, running practice/drills, or steering. Rowing is a special sport in that there is no one out there who is perfect and that goes for rowers and coxswains. There is always going to be something you can improve, and having the passion and drive to get better every day I think is really important.

2. Calm/Clear - I think so many people think coxing is about yelling at the rowers all the time. I have learned that the majority of the time it is better to be calm and clear than to be just yelling and repeating words. The rowers focus on your tone so if you are nervous, tense, or flustered they will pick it up and most likely translate that to the rowing.

3. Steering/Safety - As a coxswain, you are in charge of the boat and making sure everyone is safe. Being aware of your surroundings all the time is important because you may be doing the right thing but someone around you may not. Also, being able to stay off the rudder is important for keeping the boat set and making sure not to add extra meters to your course. On our river at home that has some big turns, I think it's important to always plan for all of your strokes.

Driving the MSU V8 down the course at Benderson
Driving the MSU V8 down the course at Benderson

row2k - What is your favorite drill to run with your crews? Any tips on how to the drill well, for maximum effectiveness?
Lizzie Johnston - I enjoy making the boat do eyes-closed rowing. I think there is a lot to learn when it comes to feeling the boat. The shell is made to move forward and go fast and a lot of the time we are doing more to slow it down than to move it forward. Doing eyes closed makes the rowers relax and makes them focus on the feel of the boat. Being able to feel and hear the slides move together, the oars place together, and the boat send under you is beneficial to a crew rhythm.

Racing with Michigan State (photo courtesy of Michigan State Athletics)
Racing with Michigan State (photo courtesy of Michigan State Athletics)

row2k - What's some of the best coaching advice you've received about your coxing?
Lizzie Johnston - This past summer I went through the U23 selection process and did not make the selection camp but got invited to the selective development camp. I learned so much at the Select Dev camp in Ann Arbor under Grace Latz and Kit Bennett. My biggest takeaway is that a coxswain is a facilitator, not a motivator. Especially at the higher level, everyone is internally motivated and wants to be the best, and with that it is the coxswain's job to make the boat move as effectively and efficiently as possible down the race course.

row2k - What is a mid-race call or move that you've made that you'll remember for the rest of your life?
Lizzie Johnston - Throughout my time at Michigan State, we have faced a lot of adversity but I think that has made us stronger as a team.

At the beginning of my sophomore year, we lost our captain Olivia Long. After she passed, the university, the team and her family created a scholarship and donated a boat in her honor. Last year we raced this boat in the 1st Varsity 8+. At the Big10 Championships, a coach pulled me aside before we launched and said to remember that, whatever the outcome of the race, now you don’t just have 8 people in the boat pulling, you have 9.

MSU's Olivia Long shell (photo courtesy of Michigan State Athletics)
MSU's Olivia Long shell (photo courtesy of Michigan State Athletics)

The race was very back-and-forth with us and Wisconsin and at the 1000-meter marker, I called a move by saying to channel why we were here and that we were rowing for something bigger than ourselves and to pull ahead for Olivia. After that call, we moved 2 seats on Wisconsin, and seeing that push forward was huge for our boat and our team.

While we did not finish the race the way we wanted, we made a step from the previous year and closed the gap on our Big10 competition. In addition after finishing the race, we came off the water and Olivia's parents were there. When I told them about the call and the impact Olivia's legacy has had on our team, the smile on their faces reminded me why I am here, why we row, and why I love being a Michigan State Spartan.

row2k - Can you tell us anything about what you've learned about how to call a the sprint?
Lizzie Johnston - I think it is always important to take a re-gather before I call the sprint. Toward the end of the race, the technique starts to not be the focus, so I call a reset on sitting up and breathing and any other technical focus the boat has been working on.

From there I tell the boat where we are on split, meters and rate, where we need to be, and how we get there. I will call out my stroke seat to get the arms out faster and the legs faster off the footboard, then I call to 7 seat to back her and then build through the boat. Once we are on target split and rate I focus on power-based calls, with loud sounds as well as calling out the boat members to bring the energy up.

Summer Nationals in 2023
Summer Nationals in 2023

row2k - Tell us about the best race/practice you've ever had?
Lizzie Johnston - The best racing memory I have had at Michigan State was last year at the Big10 Invitational in the 1st Varsity 8+. We were in a heat with Minnesota, one of our biggest competitors, and we started down off the start and were able to walk back half a length at the 1k marker. Minnesota picked up a very strong sprint to get back even and the last 300 meters we fought till the last stroke, keeping our bow in front. This was the first time our 1st Varsity 8+ beat a Big 10 team that season, so this was a very big win for us.

Racing at the 2023 Big10 Invitational (photo courtesy of Michigan State Athletics)
Racing at the 2023 Big10 Invitational (photo courtesy of Michigan State Athletics)

Thanks for riding along with Lizzie -- 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 you see from the Driver's Seat.

If you enjoy and rely on row2k, we need your help to be able to keep doing all this. Though row2k sometimes looks like a big, outside-funded operation, it mainly runs on enthusiasm and grit. Help us keep it coming, thank you! Learn more.


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