Two-time Olympic gold medalist Mary Whipple shows what it takes to push a team to victory—both in a rowing race and in the workplace.
Name: Mary Whipple
Claim to fame: You might expect a two-time Olympic gold medal-winning coxswain to have a bigger bark. But Mary Whipple, who coxed the U.S. women’s rowing team of eight to victory in both Beijing and London, proves that you don’t need to have a booming baritone to get results. With a pitch somewhere above Katie Couric’s and below Kristin Chenowith’s, Mary has been coxing—and winning, most of the time—for 18 years, since she first discovered rowing at age 14.
The 5’3” Mary—shorter by about 11 inches than most of her U.S. teammates—took a learn-to-row class the summer before her freshman year in high school near her home in Orangevale, Calif. She and her twin sister, Sarah (now assistant women’s rowing coach at the University of California-Davis), had become intrigued by the sport after seeing crew practice on a lake near where they lived. While the learn-to-row class focused on sculling (rowing with two oars, instead of one), Mary and Sarah caught the attention of the coach, who urged both to try coxing.
“I was sort of bummed at first that I wouldn’t get to row,” Mary says.
But her disappointment faded quickly when she realized the crucial role a coxswain plays in a team’s performance. “The cox filters and delivers what the coach is saying so that we can get eight people on the same page,” she says. “I realized that my words could make the boat go faster—that’s why I stayed.”
Mary, now 32, did more than “stay.” She coxed her crews to a new level, helming the United States women’s eight for 11 of the past 12 years, including five world championships and a silver medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, in addition to the two golds. So what are those magic words Mary uses to bring her crew together and rocket towards the finish line? She says there are no canned, pre-programmed phrases (although she has been known to say, “Bend those oars,” and “Sit up. Breathe. Just go.”)—otherwise, good coxswains would be a dime a dozen. No, the trick to effective coxing is knowing what her rowers need to hear, when they need to hear it, and communicating clearly at the just the right moment.
And that could be different for different members of the team, she says. “What motivates one person may not motivate another person,” Mary says. “So I might say something for the whole boat, but then follow up with a call for an individual rower. As a motivator, you need to be willing to step up and say something at the right time. I’m not afraid to make decisions and communicate those decisions.”
That this bit of wisdom can be applied as much in the workplace as on the water is not lost on Mary, who has a masters degree in athletic leadership from the University of Washington, where she also earned her undergraduate degree. “It’s basic middle management,” she says.
And that may just be one line Mary follows, now that she has officially retired from the sport. “I’ve gotten enough fulfillment and enjoyment from competition,” she says. In addition to organizing kids rowing camps focusing on coxes (“because they’re such a big part of the team”), Mary hopes to draw the connection between coxing, motivation and corporate leadership for audiences as a professional speaker. “I’m excited to share my story on how to lead and motivate,” she says.
Philosophy: “Each person has a job to do in their seat, but we all have to come together to make the boat go. I’m just one little piece of the puzzle. We’re all in this together.”
Vitamins and supplements: Fish oil, vitamin B12, vitamin D
Favorite workout: Running and lifting weights. I love being active. Since the Olympics, I’ve gotten into mountain biking and will take spin classes during the winter.
Favorite healthy meal: Mexican food (without the meat). “I was raised a vegetarian,” she says.
Favorite Olympic moment: “Being at the starting line. You’re filled with so much emotion and stress, but you’re so focused. Everything you’ve worked for is about to begin. There’s no place I’d rather be. The possibilities are endless. It’s time to perform.”