Senior Kayleigh Melroy and sophomore Alex Bates are both coxswains, charged with coordinating their fellow rowers’ efforts and keeping them motivated. They are also the lone women in varsity boats for the men’s crew.
Neither athlete had been on a rowing team before they came to Ithaca College and both Melroy and Bates were talked into joining the team by friends.
Bates first got into rowing when she met a friend at orientation who was on the rowing team and thought she’d make a perfect coxswain, a position that calls for a fair amount of lung power.
“My friend [sophomore Per Tvetenstrand], we met at orientation, and he was like, ‘You’re really short and really loud we need another coxswain, do you want to join?’” Bates said. “And so I tried it out, and I really liked it so I ended up staying on the team.”
U.S. Rowing’s Web site defines a coxswain as the “person who steers the shell and is the on-the-water coach for the crew.” Coxswains keep track of where the boat is going, react to the movements of the other boats and the effects of the weather, keep their teammates calm and focused and make other adjustments. Because coxswains are generally smaller than the rest of the rowers, many teams use female coxswains, though rowing is still the only male varsity sport offered at Ithaca with both male and female athletes.
As for the question of whether Bates’ gender affects her interaction with her teammates, she said she doesn’t really think it has.
“I feel like my relationship with the rest of the team isn’t really that different,” she said. “It probably should be a little different because I’m a girl, but a lot of the guys just see me as one of the guys, so they don’t censor anything around me. I’m very much a part of the team.”
Bates said being a coxswain has helped her build a solid rapport with the rest of the Bombers because of being at a different position.
“I’m not different because I’m a girl; I’m different because I’m a coxswain, and that’s how a lot of the team sees the difference between me and them,” she said. “It’s not ‘I’m female and they’re male,’ it’s ‘they’re rowers and I’m a coxswain.’”
Of the 17 teams competing against the Bombers during the 2010 season, five specifically listed at least one woman as a coxswain at some level on the roster, with the University of Michigan having the most with at least six.
Melroy got started rowing even later in college than Bates, joining the team after her first semester.
“My friend had joined the team freshman year fall semester, and he asked if I wanted to join the men’s crew team,” Melroy said. “I said ‘Sure, why not?’ … And I kind of got sucked in.”
Melroy, now the coxswain for the men’s varsity 8, was the coxswain on the men’s varsity 4 in 2008 — the same position Bates holds now.
Bates and Melroy’s teammates don’t think their gender has affected the job they have done.
“We’ve had girl coxswains and guy coxswains on all levels of the team,” senior co-captain Chris Lisee said. “Your gender doesn’t really matter if you’re a coxswain, just as long as you’re making the right calls and you’re getting the people motivated. That’s what’s important in a coxswain.”
According to Lisee, the team’s acceptance of Bates and Melroy extends just as much toward their roles as members of the team as it does toward their positions as coxswains.
“As far as group interaction goes, they’re just one of the guys,” Lisee said. “They’re just part of the team.”