On May 3 in Oklahoma City, 2010 Lansing High School and University of Kansas graduate Abbey Lozenski won a Big 12 Championship by .14 seconds.
Lozenski was a three-year state qualifier in cross-country at Lansing, as well as an All-American cheerleader and a four year letter-winner in basketball and soccer. Yet, the championship trophy isn’t for any of those.
When Lozenski crossed the finish line at the Oklahoma City Boathouse that day, she crossed it as a rower.
The Lansing graduate had never experienced the sport when an assistant coach of the Lions basketball team informed Lozenski of her daughter’s success with KU rowing.
A recruiting questionnaire and school visit later, the athlete who had never experienced a sport as an athletic novice was signed to be on the rowing team for the Jayhawks.
“Ultimately, I didn’t have any knowledge of rowing,” Lozenski said. “Prominent stuff like a hard work ethic are really enforced. Most of the people who were on the recruiting visits with me or were going into the class had never rowed before either. That was pretty common, and oftentimes, their best girls had never rowed before.”
Rowing is a sport that demands supreme physical strength and size. Head KU women’s rowing coach Rob Catloth said when he looks for rowing recruits, he’s generally looking for athletes 6-foot or above. But as a 5-foot former cheerleader, Catloth said Lozenski happened to fit the build of a coxswain perfectly.
The coxswain position doesn’t actually do any physical rowing. Seated in a lowered position at the end of the boat, the coxswain is in charge of the mental aspect of the — namely motivating, critiquing rowing strokes, executing warmups and practices, steering the boat and keeping tabs on the race to make sure all is going according to plan.
Catloth said it was this aspect that gave Lozenski the most trouble in her first few years as a coxswain. Finishing high school with such a successful athletics career, she had never had experience on the sideline. And even though she wasn’t technically on the sidelines as a member of the rowing team — she wasn’t swinging the oars.
“She was a physical participator (in high school athletics),” Catloth said. “As a coxswain, she was a mental participator. … She was very competitive and I think she had a hard time learning how to harness that. But when she did, it became very effective.”
Lozenski said the position of the coxswain can be boiled down to a student coach that sits in the boat with the rowers and is a full member of the team’s roster. It’s a position that requires excellent motivational skills, Catloth said.
“When it gets to the second half of the race, when the rowers are sort out of oxygen and not thinking right, they’re the ones that actually have to keep all their minds working together,” Catloth said. “When the body is saying no, the coxswain has to be in the head of the rowers motivating them to continue to go hard.”
But it’s much more than motivation, Lozenski said.
With a microphone attached to her head and speakers at every rower’s feet, she said she has to be completely in tune with each individual rower and individually critique their performance during the race for maximum output.
“I was in a bowloader boat (this spring), so my back faced the rowers,” Lozenski said. “I’m looking directly down the course and I don’t see any of the rowers. … I’ve been with them so long that I knew exactly what was going on. Who took a bad stroke, who was doing what wrong. I knew who to talk to specifically during races.”
When Lozenski finally took to the position, the results came ten-fold. The hyper-competitive former Lion was at the helm of the boat that took the Big 12 championship by a nose over Texas, and her performance this season earned her the title of KU’s coxswain of the year.
In high school, she competed in state championship races and games, was a Kansas Governor’s Scholar and her class valedictorian. But after four years of motivating and shouting orders at rowers as a Jayhawk, Lozenski said she has no doubt what experience has been her hardest.
“People laugh at me when I say it so I don’t say it often, but I would say a coxswain is the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life,” Lozenski said.