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Coxswains Steer Rowing Program To Top

Nov. 13, 2000

By Lisa Nelson

On a nice fall day, you can sit on the banks of the St. Joseph River in South Bend and watch the Notre Dame rowing team glide effortlessly along the water. You hear the sound of the boat oars clapping against the water in unison and you see the motions of individuals rowing as one. It is a beautiful sight.

If you listen even closer, the sweet sounds of the oars are interrupted by a woman shouting commands at her crew – phrases like, “Be aggressive,” “Watch the bridge,” or “This is it, let’s go.” Those shouts are the driving forces behind the Irish rowing program as it enters its third season of varsity competition in 2000-01.

Ironically, those voices which are often stern in nature, come from the smallest women in the boat known as coxswains (pronounced cox-ins). The coxswains, who weigh around 110 pounds, are the not-so-silent leaders of the boats. Sitting in the back of an eight-person boat or in the front of a four-person shell, the coxswain steers the boat by warning the rest of the crew of obstacles that impede its path.

The coxswain also serves as the liaison between the coaching staff and the team in assisting with technical aspects, in addition to providing motivation and general cohesion between members of the crew in a particular boat. For the Notre Dame rowing team, these responsibilities are primarily on the shoulders of senior co-captains Claire Bula and Erin Kiernicki.

Besides being small, what traits does a coxswain need to possess?

“You have to be able to make strong decisions first and foremost, and be confident of those decisions,” Kiernicki says.

“You also need to balance many things at the same time – you have worry about the rowers and numbers, you must steer, you must interact with other people and you have to observe your crew – know when to say when and when to push people.”

Both Bula of Madison, Wis., and Kiernicki of Chicago, have pushed people to the limits during their time at Notre Dame, although both had rather auspicious starts in the sport.

As freshmen, the duo separately joined the club rowing program after some not-so-subtle hints from their friends. Bula’s sectionmates at Farley Hall were on the team and invited her to practice. She accepted the invitation and fell in love with the sport. Kiernicki, who had participated in cross country and track and field in high school, was visiting her high school boyfriend in Wisconsin when his roommate, who rowed, mentioned she had all of the qualities to be a great coxswain because she was “little and loud.” Soon, she joined the club squad. Once Notre Dame added rowing as the 26th varsity sport in 1998, both Bula and Kiernicki decided to take their participation to another level and joined head coach Martin Stone’s team.

“It is different rowing on the varsity level because it is more intense. You are not out there just to participate any more, you are out there to win,” Bula says.

As expected for any new program, winning has come slowly for Bula, Kiernicki and the Irish. Their sophomore seasons, Bula coxed the second varsity eight and Kiernicki the lightweight eight boat. The best either boat finished that season was third, although Kiernicki’s boat won the bronze medal at the Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Association (SIRA) Championships (a regional regatta against many of the top established programs in the country) and finished the season ranked 12th in the nation.

As juniors, Bula moved to the first varsity eight boat, while Kiernicki coxed the lightweight four in the fall and the second varsity eight in the spring. Bula’s crew suffered growing pains and experienced its biggest disappointment of the year when it missed the grand finals of the Central Region Sprints by only 1.1 seconds.

In the fall, Kiernicki and Notre Dame won their first rowing gold medal in history by winning the lightweight four at the Head of the Elk in Elkhart, Ind. Kiernicki then continued her success at the SIRA Championships in the spring with a silver medal, but those coveted gold medals have been few and far between.

“It was so tough to go against other teams that were established programs. We worked so hard and did all of the same things the other top programs were doing, but we just couldn’t win,” Bula says.

Until this year, that is. Two weeks ago, Bula, guiding the varsity eight and the varsity four “A,” and Kiernicki, steering the lightweight four, led Notre Dame to its most successful day in the history of the program by winning four golds at the 2000 Head of the Elk regatta. The Irish took the varsity eight, the varsity four “A” and “B” and the lightweight four gold medals. And as rowing tradition calls for, both coxswains were thrown into the water by their crews to celebrate the win.

“Winning gold was unbelievable,” Bula says.

“Finally being able to say we are a premiere program and ‘You’d better watch out for us’ is a great feeling. It is also fun to get thrown into the water after winning a race. You act like you don’t want to be thrown in, but once it happens, it is really cool.”

Both Bula and Kiernicki have already laid the groundwork and left their marks on the women’s rowing program at Notre Dame. But there is still much more work to do.

“It is fun and exciting to start a new program,” Bula says.

“Going from finishing 25th in a race of 30 teams two years ago to placing first in that same race and beating teams that went to NCAAs last season is awesome. Knowing all the work you have done for this team, and that the program is going to go on for years and years is a good feeling.”

“It is bittersweet. I was excited to participate in both the club and the varsity programs and see the development of Notre Dame rowing over the last three years. I am proud of what we have accomplished, but I wish I had another four years to compete now that we are winning and competing with the top programs in the country,” Kiernicki says.

Stone and Notre Dame wish they had both of them for another four years, too.