By Elizabeth Chan, Vikes Communications
(ISN) – VICTORIA – It was a chilly Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. on Nov. 2, when eight University of Victoria Vikes men’s rowers were poised to race the final event of the 18th annual National Canadian University Rowing Championships (CURC) on home waters at Elk Lake.
Such a race only lasts between five to six minutes, but these athletes have mastered the strength to pull hard through challenging water resistance, while maintaining pivotal stability aboard a narrow shell.
Seated at the stern of the eight-oared boat is coxswain Jacob Koudys. At five-foot- seven, this Ontario native stands almost 10 inches shorter than his teammates’ median height.
In every race, Koudys’ crew powers through to bring their most fearless performance, often having to endure extreme physical strain: oxygen-deprived muscles, burning lungs and incredibly high heartbeats per minute.
At that intensity, rowers can feel disoriented and plunge into a tunnel vision mentality, focusing narrowly on what’s directly in front of them. There’s a sense that time is slowing down. Sound is diminished. This is where they need to rely on one other member of the crew to get them to the finish line.
As a spectator, coxswains can be overlooked as they are commonly seen as just “there for the ride.” In reality, they are as integral as every member pulling an oar in the boat. Coxswains have a huge responsibility for strategizing timing and steering the boat safely and swiftly from start to finish.
As the boat’s only set of eyes looking forward in the shell, Koudys needs to inform the crew where they position themselves relative to the racecourse and to other competitors.
To do this, he is equipped with a headset and microphone, relaying timely instructions and motivating the rest of his team through speakers affixed throughout the boat. Being the only member with access to the stroke rate, he controls when to execute the next phase of a race plan.
Part of what makes the fourth-year Psychology student a good coxswain is what Aalbert Van Schothorst, Vikes men’s rowing head coach, calls having “boat-sense,” or propriosensing.
“It’s the ability to ‘feel’ when the boat is tilting and to correct a teammate’s positioning to keep the crew in sync,” describes Van Schothorst. “A good coxswain also needs to be able to get in the minds of his rowers. He needs to know the crews’ limits and to motivate them to push harder when they’re at their most vulnerable point during a race.”
Koudys, an E.L. Crossley Secondary School graduate, didn’t just lead the Vikes team safely to the finish line on that Nov. 2 afternoon; he guided the UVic eights to gold in 5:39.
“I think of my role as a ‘coach within a boat,'”said Koudys. “Tone is very important for managing the emotions of eight different guys on board. There are times to be calm, and there are times to go ballistic.”
Koudys, who previously coxed the men’s four to gold in the 2014 Under-23 World Championships in Italy, is in his eighth year of coxing.
“There’s always something that leaves me craving for another race,” he added. “The adrenal sensation laden with the emotional rapport you’ve developed with your crewmates can’t be found anywhere else.”
The 21-year-old transferred from Queen’s University for his final three years as he saw UVic as the only institution in Canada with opportunities to work alongside the heavyweight men’s national program. Rowing Canada’s national training headquarters are also conveniently located at Elk Lake.
“You train with these guys for hours everyday,” he said. “On the darkest mornings, where they can barely see their own oars and can only hear your voice, that trust is essential. It’s an irreplaceable bond.”
Apart from being a good field tactician, Koudys also takes pride in his academics. He is currently working on a Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Award with psychology professors Dr. Colette Smart and Dr. Jodie Gawryluk, investigating how a mindfulness intervention program affects the brain matter volume of older adults.
This November will mark his final CURC and his last chance for eligibility in the U23 World Championships. Koudys is also considering taking part the U23 World Rowing Championships in Bulgaria in June, or the 2015 Pan Am Games in St. Catharines, Ont., close to his native Fonthill.
Apart from relying on a member who has an incredible ability to read the race, having a coxswain on the team also has its perks. Traditionally, they are thrown into the water after a regatta win.
“Koudys is the type of person who can easily get along with the rowers,” said Van Schothorst. “On the waters, he is truly a mastermind at leading the team.”