“Attention! Ready to row! Row!”
The diminutive girl’s commands aren’t intimidating but convey a military tone. Four male high school seniors in the boat with her, all about twice her weight, spring to action simultaneously.
They’re practicing on Lake Wylie at the Catawba Yacht Club on a mild and cloudless April afternoon, members of the Charlotte Youth Rowing crew with Siskey YMCA.
To some, 14-year-old Jenna McGrath of Tega Cay may look out of place shouting orders to these college-bound athletic specimens. But to Jenna, her coach and teammates on perhaps the best youth rowing club in the Carolinas, she’s a fish in water.
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Jenna is in her first year as coxswain – a kind of coach who steers and makes important decisions for the rest of the crew, whether it’s four or eight others.
“It’s fun because you get to see everyone improve, and it helps you improve also,” says the Fort Mill High School freshman.
Well under 5 feet tall and weighing about 85 pounds, Jenna clearly isn’t intimidated by full-grown athletes often three years her senior. Maybe that’s because she’s been active in karate since she was a toddler and is a black belt. Maybe it’s her affinity for fencing, which she took up a couple years ago. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s a straight-A student who takes honor roll classes.
She’s not showy or loud while giving commands. She doesn’t have to be.
“Jenna’s always been kind of a take-charge girl,” says her father, Jay McGrath. “Even though she’s small, she’s deceptively strong. As a black belt, she’s sparring with police officers who weigh 250 pounds.”
Says Jenna, matter-of-factly: “Most of the time, everyone’s pretty good (about following orders) because they know the cox is looking out for the best for them.”
Many hats on the water
“Jenna! South at the lighthouse!”
At the same time, Byron Walthall is looking out for all of them from a small motorboat. The club’s 59-year-old coach – a Pineville doctor known as “Doc” – says Jenna shows promise in a demanding role.
“You’ve got to be a cheerleader, a jockey, a racecar driver – all of the above,” he says. “It’s about leadership, and some strategy and knowledge of the sport. It’s knowing how to encourage them, keep their heads in the game – when to call them out.”
The timing of that psychology can be crucial as well, keeping crew members motivated when they’re exhausted near the end of a 2,000-meter race. Jenna says there are different strategic and psychological strategies for various junctures.
At the beginning, “You need to give them time to warm up with their speed. Toward the middle, you want them to ease up so they can save their energy for the end. That’s when they have to give everything they have left.”
Choppy water known as wakes – often caused by nearby motorboats – can add to a challenge that entails constant monitoring and adjustments. Coxswains use an on-board device called a cox-box, which provides the current stroke rate per minute and helps measure how rowers are keeping up.
Part of a winning team
Jenna can often be heard shouting the command to do 10 power strokes. She says the hardest part of being a coxswain isn’t her primary responsibility of safety for all but “learning all of the commands, knowing what to say and when” – not to mention all of the things to remember.
“You also want to make sure they put their oars in the water at the same time so that you won’t have different power at different times in the boat, or that the boat’s wobbly. You want to keep it as balanced as possible.”
The psychology of leadership can fluctuate, depending on whether she’s coxswain for a boat of boys or girls: “Sometimes with women, you can’t be as hard on them because they get upset more easily. The men, you can usually just tell them like it is.”
The boys and girls get along well and thrive under the personable leadership of Walthall, coach of the club for 11 years. This spring, they finished second among seven teams at the Augusta Invitational; were third among 22 teams at the John Hunter Regatta, medaling in 10 of 16 events; and had three first-place medals at the Dogwood Regatta. The team, which wraps up its regular season in early May, hopes to qualify a crew for the nationals in Oak Ridge, Tenn., for a seventh straight year.
Charlotte’s first and largest youth rowing team, with about 60 members, “is the best in the Carolinas,” Walthall says.
The fun, challenge and successes have resulted in a 10 percent annual growth rate in the club, Walthall says, despite a commitment that requires challenging daily practices. Some teens make an hourlong trip from north Charlotte after school each day.
“There’s a commitment by everyone,” Jenna says. “I’ve really been excited to be a part of this. All of us are having a great time.”