Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2009 | People

A Boatload of Respect: Emily Melvold

By Tina Owen
"Who's nervous?" asks novice rowing coach Chuck Rodosky.

As a student-athlete at the UI, Emily Melvold exemplifies commitment, discipline, and teamwork. No wonder she earns a boatload of respect.

Eight hands shoot into the air. "There's no point in any of you being worried," he reassures the novice Hawkeye rowers. "If you lose this race, it'll be because of Emily."

Chuck's exaggerating—rowing is all about teamwork, which is one of the reasons I love it. But, as a relatively new coxswain, I still feel the pressure and responsibility of being in charge of eight high-powered athletes and one very expensive boat.

What is a coxswain? Before I joined the UI rowing team, I probably couldn't have told you. Rowing is that rare university sport where you don't start honing your skills in childhood. Fortunately, I had all the other attributes of a coxswain: a love of water sports (thanks to family vacations on the Mississippi) and a petite physique and motivational attitude (courtesy of my time as a high school cheerleader). According to my dad, once a rower in his glory days at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I also possess perhaps the most important quality of all: a big mouth.

When I joined the team last year, everything was new to me. I had to learn obscure terms like "Weigh enough!" (stop) and "Let it run!" (hold oars off the water and let the boat glide to a halt). I had to earn the respect and trust of rowers with the advantage of superior experience, height, and muscle. Aside from my big mouth, I'm by far the smallest person on our team. To keep up with the others, I usually take three strides to their one. When we walk around campus, I sometimes feel like they're my pack of bodyguards. Actually, they'e much more valuable: they're some 30 amazing women who are my friends, my teammates, my home away from home.

Together, we've survived the "Hour of Power," an excruciating, intense, nonstop 60 minutes of running laps around the track and rowing on the ergometer. Together, we've experienced the thrill of competition and the agony of defeat. Together, we've pushed ourselves past our limits and discovered unsuspected levels of strength and resolve.

In each race, there comes one crucial point in the last few hundred meters when my teammates know the work is almost done but their bodies are telling them to shut down. That's when my job as motivator becomes critical. My voice crackles with adrenaline as I yell, "Shut off your minds right now. Turn on the machine and listen to my voice. . . ."

The rowers respond with a surge of energy that shoves me farther back into the bow and lifts the boat out of the water. All their well-practiced techniques come together in a perfect set of sounds and motions: the clank as the oars rotate, the swoosh of the sliding seats, the synchronized dip of blades into the water, and finally the click of the oar locks at the finish of the stroke.

Sometimes, when I'm trying to simultaneously steer, yell, listen to the coach, critique, and motivate, I long just to sit in a rower's seat. But the truth is, I wouldn't trade spots for a second. I'm right where I want to be.