Senior coxswain Katie McAuliffe sets the pace for Santa Clara row team

Senior coxswain Katie McAuliffe sets the pace for Santa Clara row team

By Joel Hafnor

Katie McAuliffe arrived at Santa Clara University hoping to make her mark as a volleyball player. The senior will instead leave behind a legacy of rowing excellence after serving as team coxswain throughout her collegiate career. In a one-on-one interview with, McAuliffe explains the fascinating nuances of leading a row team, how the strongest rowers can work against team success, and how she transformed herself from a freshman who could barely dock a boat to a senior coxswain now leading the Broncos top rowing team. 

SCB: Take us through your athletic progression: from four-year letter-winning high school volleyball player to becoming coxswain for the Broncos rowing team. What led to your involvement with the rowing team? Are there any similarities between your approach on a volleyball court and your approach on race day?

KM: Before coming to Santa Clara, I didn't even really know what crew was. I was entirely a volleyball player to my core, and was even considering playing in college. In the first weeks of freshman year, I went to the open gyms for the club volleyball team, as well as practices for the crew team. I ultimately chose the crew program because I wanted to start something new.

Before crew, I always thought of volleyball as the most team-oriented sport. In volleyball, you have six people on the court that must always be involved in every play, every point, every game, every match. You can't get very far with one or even two "superstars"; you need the entire team to work hard and to work together. Then I got into a rowing shell and realized that in comparison to crew, volleyball is practically an individual sport. In crew, you need to be nine people, but one mind, one body. Everyone must work together for the boat to move at all.

When I played volleyball, I was a setter. For people who don't know volleyball well, the setter is pretty much the quarterback. I would decide the plays we would be using, communicate them to the team and then work to ensure that the plays worked the way they were supposed to. And if they didn't, it was my job to know why they didn't work, explain that to my teammates and tell them how to make it work next time. Interesting enough, this is essentially what I do in the boat every morning as well. It is my job to see what the guys are doing, evaluate what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong and communicate that to them. But I don't just tell them WHAT they're doing wrong, I tell them HOW they're doing it wrong and how they can change to do it correctly. I need to know how to do everything they do correctly, how they might do it incorrectly, how to fix things so that they are doing it correctly and then how to constructively communicate all of this to them as individuals and as an entire boat.

SCB: Explain what your position of coxswain entails. What separates a great boat leader from his/her peers?

KM: Like I mentioned above, my role in practice is to give feedback to the guys about what they're doing right and what they're doing wrong, how they're doing it right or how they're doing it wrong, and finally, how they can change to do it correctly. Then I communicate to them whether they were successful in making the change or not. But that's just how I work directly with my rowers when we're on the water. I'm also responsible for the safety of all of my rowers, myself and all of our equipment on-and-off the water. I am constantly switching my sights between what's going on inside the boat to what's going on outside the boat, adjusting the boat either with the rowers' pressure while rowing or with the rudder. And all of this while keeping a perfectly straight course!

On a race day, the coxswain takes on a slightly different role. I'm still responsible for the safety of the boat and my rowers, which can be pretty demanding at big regattas with so many boats, crews and spectators, and for making constructive changes in my boat. But on race day, I'm also the voice that keeps these guys going even when their minds, their bodies, everything is telling them to stop. It is my job, my voice, that will not only keep them going when they think they have nothing left, but I will also spur them to go faster and to win.

SCB: Since joining the team in 2010, what is the one skill that has most markedly developed in your time at Santa Clara?

KM: When I came to Santa Clara, I had no knowledge about crew, so by learning everything from scratch, I'd say every skill of mine has most markedly developed! But if I had to pick one single thing that I'm really proud of at this point, it would be my docking. At our boathouse, we have a perpendicular dock, which is definitely one of the easier types to dock on. But as a novice coxswain, I was a really poor docker. Pretty much every practice, I'd miss the dock by at least three feet and someone already on the dock would have to pull us in with the oars. Then after a couple weeks, my novice-year coach, Andrew McFall, wouldn't let people pull us in anymore. So if I ever missed the dock, he would have me back the boat up and try again until I could do it on my own. I remember the exact practice when he started making me do this; it took me four attempts before I finally got it right. I remember being so mad and flustered and scared. But in the long run, it helped me out so much. Now I can dock effectively and efficiently without even really thinking about it, even if it's windy or if the dock is really busy. And even though docking is such a basic part of rowing and not really a huge part of race day, it is really comforting having the confidence that I will always be able to get my boat safety off the water on any course, under any conditions. Also that "do-it-yourself," "figure-it-out" mentality that my coach made me have about docking has really helped me out in all aspects of my coxing.

SCB: What are your expectations for the team in your final season with the Broncos?

KM: I feel like in the past, we've had some problems with consistency on the team. We would have a couple of really great races, but also some not-so-great races. So this year, my main goal is for my boat to improve on our finish time every single race. Last year for our top boat, their fastest time was at our first regatta of the season. But this year for the top boat, our fastest time will be our last race of the season. I am confident of that and will do everything in my power to make that happen. 

SCB: Speak to the chemistry, or rhythm, that certain teams have (or don't have) and how you identify these strengths and weaknesses while looking back at your team. Do you find that certain groups of rowers just "have it"? Or is unison a trait that can be learned and is of secondary importance to strength and stamina?

KM: I definitely think that rowing together, getting that boat-unity, -rhythm, is essential to making a boat move at all, let alone move fast. Strength and stamina are both obviously very important, but in crew, you can have the strongest guy in the boat actually making the boat slower if he isn't in time, in rhythm, with everyone else in the boat with his body and his oar. Like I said before, crew is the definition of a team sport. Pretty much, if you're not in rhythm with the other rowers in your boat, not only are you not helping the boat move faster, you're definitely slowing the boat down. There's no seat in the boat that a person can sit in and not matter, not affect the boat either positively or negatively. That said, I think that this team rhythm can be learned and in my experience, almost always has to be found frankly just through hours and hours, meters and meters of rowing together.

So far this season, we've been spending a lot of time in boats with true novice rowers—guys who had never rowed before—and the set and the rhythm can be off a lot of the time. But I know from experience with all the guys that are my age, that all of it will come with time spent rowing together. I remember coxing as a freshman and seeing the guys my age doing the same exact things that the true novices are doing now and I know that they have all come a long way in the past three years, so I have the confidence that all the freshmen will make strides as the season continues. I also know that the learning never stops, so even the seniors will only continue to get better and more in-tune with each other as this season goes on.