6 Questions About Pressure For U.S. Women's Coxswain Katelin Snyder
Talk about dominance: The U.S. women's eight crew hasn't lost a major title in 10 years. Every time a gold medal has been at stake at the Olympics or world championships, the U.S. boat has finished first.
In Rio, the team will try to extend its streak, but this time, a new Olympic coxswain will steer and call the shots. Mary Whipple, who led the U.S. to six of its 10 titles (including the last two Olympic gold medals), retired in 2012, so look for 28-year-old Katelin Snyder in the hot seat. Snyder may be an Olympic rookie, but she is hardly a novice. The University of Washington graduate coxed the U.S. eight to the other four titles in the streak, but those were all at world championships. Rio will be different. The Olympics are the largest sporting event in the world, heavily scrutinized, and the entire nation will be expecting victory in August.
That's pressure! Or is it? Snyder explains.
Ten years is a heavy legacy. What does the pressure feel like?
I don't feel any pressure. At all. Part of it is because it's not something that I've done myself -- or any of us have done by ourselves. It's not my 10-year streak. I wouldn't even say it's the women's eight's because we're all interchangeable on the team. Almost everyone has raced in the eight, either at a World Cup or at a world championships, and we've all definitely practiced in the boat. I would say it's the women's team streak.
Also, the incredible place we're at now has a lot to do with the 2004 women's eight. They took silver at the Olympics, and it was the first medal for the U.S. in that boat category since 1984. Those women did some pioneering! That's hard. What we're doing is just continuing to raise the bar just a little bit from what they had to really lift up and do themselves.
If not pressure, what do you feel?
The feelings I have at the starting line are: guns are blazing. We're like race horses. We just want the gates to open and go.
For us, I think, it's so much harder being at the race course [days before a race]. At that point, we're in the taper so we have a lot more energy than usual, we're practicing less, there's more free time, your teammates are racing because it's race week, and you're just kind of waiting for your turn. That's when thoughts of tension and pressure can kind of creep in.
But as soon as you put your boat in the water, it's just like: Game Face. You're ready, you're stoked, and you want nothing more than to get through the warm up, get to the line, have the flag go down, and row your race.
The Olympics are the next big moment. Do they mean something to you or is it just another race?
It's going to mean everything to me! And the really cool thing about rowing is that I have learned more about coxing from my teammates than I have from my coaches or from myself, combined.
When we're in the boat together, they will tell me, "Hey, Katelin, can you make a call to maybe 'sit up'? I feel like we're all diving down at the catch." I will take the moment to think about how the boat felt, make the recommended call, and there will be a shift in the way the boat is moving. It's like a lightbulb. If I do that enough and I'm paying enough attention, then I can start to make those calls myself. That's direct help.
Indirectly, they teach me how to motivate them. I do that by watching them motivate each other -- because they're saying to each other what they want to hear. Also, they work so hard and are so persistent that if I'm ever wondering: What can I do to be a better teammate or a better leader? Those are the people I look to and get my cues from. So to go to the Olympics and compete with the people that made me who I am? I don't think there's anything better than that.
Have you ever worried about letting your crew down or thought about someone else winning at the Olympics?
I really believe in visualizing what you want, and I don't want to lose, so I'm never going to spend time visualizing a loss. But I have lost before. And I think the nature of the sport is for everybody to turn inward, thinking, "Man, if only I went harder in this part of the race." For me, it's like, "Man, if only I'd made this call a little sooner, or I was a little more aware of what was going on around me, or if I was a little bit calmer." I could go on and on and on, and that's okay because those are the times when you're really forced to learn. Even though it sucks, it's generally a good thing if you can deal with it the right way.
Who do you confide in when you might not be so confident?
When I was first on the team in 2009, I had zero confidence in myself whatsoever. I knew I was a good college coxswain [at the University of Washington], but six of the women in the eight that summer had just won a gold medal in Beijing and, to me, that was the most overwhelming thing. I felt like: How am I going to give them technical advice when I know they're better at rowing than I am? What the heck? I can't do that. That was horrible.
I turned to some of my good friends on the team and in hindsight that was probably not the best move. As a coxswain and as someone trying to be a strong leader, you can't spend a lot of time complaining to -- or really even confiding in -- your boat-mates. I believe in them, and I believe in myself, and in the middle of the race, I don't ever want there to be any doubt about that because the races in my life that have been the most important or the closest or the come-from-behind wins have always been won with that little extra boost that confidence gives you.
Like at the 2014 World Cup in France, we were "open water down" to Canada at the halfway mark, which is like being down three touchdowns in the last quarter. I think the only reason we won is because we really believed we could do it -- yet there was no reason to have believed that because we were so far down. The belief in each other was the extra spark. I really want to maintain that, because when you're oxygen-deprived and tired, I want my team to know they can trust me when I say this is what you need to do to win: ready, go. If anyone is thinking, "Ehh, Katelin has said this before," or remembering a time when maybe I didn't feel very confident, then it's not going to work.
Any advice for athletes who might be feeling a ton of pressure to uphold a team's success, or their own?
Yeah! Only control what you can control, because there's no way to 100 percent make sure you never let anyone down.
But it's really hard to self-critique in a positive way. It's easy to say: Oh, I suck.
So when I want to move forward, I'll take something I'm doing well -- and I don't stop working on it. I want my strength to be even stronger. Then I'll pick one or two things that I'm struggling with and put those on my plate as well.
In the end, regardless of the outcome, you're going to at least feel good that you did your best. That sounds cheesy but I have been in situations where I've lost or I haven't gotten what I wanted and you definitely feel better when you've gone through that mature process of analyzing.