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Friday, August 3, 2012 - Page updated at 12:00 p.m.

London Olympics: Mary Whipple's golden voice drives U.S. women's eight

By Meri-Jo Borzilleri
Special to The Times

The eight women in front of her have long arms, oars and the leverage of 6-foot-tall bodies to propel the boat.

Mary Whipple has only her voice. On shore, it's normal, vaguely childlike, friendly. On water, it's something else.

"When she coxswains, the tone, it just changes," said U.S. rower Caroline Lind, a member of the 2008 Olympic gold-medal women's eight crew, the first American team to win the title in a non-boycotted Games. "It becomes her boat voice, full of an aggressive energy that leads us down the course. It's pretty powerful."

She rarely uses that voice on land, but pity a slow-moving clerk at a deli or grocery store.

"Whoa, that was your boat voice!" crew teammates tell her.

Hard to believe it comes from someone 5 feet 3 ½, 106 pounds. Her command of the 55-foot racing shell and powerful crew is heady, in more ways than one.

"When I'm around my teammates I feel like I'm 10 feet tall," she said. "The teammates get to make the boats move fast with their muscles, me with my words and my brain."

Sitting in back, she does more than make sure everyone's rowing is in sync. A coxswain is the boat's eyes, the only one facing forward. The coxswain's role is to steer, motivate and inform. Whipple's team — they've been living and training together in Princeton, N.J., full time for two years — trusts her completely.

"The beauty of having Mary is she's so good and so confident," said Lind, Whipple's teammate since 2005. "You don't have to worry about anything."

The toughest competition for the crew, favored for repeat gold at the 2012 Games in London, is expected to be traditional powers Romania, Canada, the Netherlands, Great Britain and up-and-coming Australia.

Whipple, a 2002 Washington graduate, was also in the ninth seat when the U.S. team won Olympic silver in 2004, ending a 20-year medal drought for the boat. Since then, the U.S. women's eight has won the past five world championships and returns five rowers from 2008.

Still, anything can happen.

"It's going to be an incredibly tough race," Lind said. "The women's eight is not a slacker field."

It would be the perfect topper for a career that will end with the final stroke on the 2,000-meter Olympic course at Dorney Lake. Whipple, 32, has said she'll retire after the Games.

Whipple wants to start a camp for coxswains and do motivational speaking. In the months leading up to the Olympics, she was also finishing up a different kind of race — orchestrating her September wedding to Ryan Murray, owner of a backcountry skiing operation in Leavenworth, where the couple plans to live.

Whipple is considered the best coxswain in the world, and planning has something to do with that. She's not just along for the ride. Whipple built respect from teammates by working out with them and also having the right touch.

"She has to tell the athletes what to do but somehow doesn't drive everyone crazy," said Tom Terhaar, the U.S. Rowing's women's coach.

Whipple studies audio tape of her calls during practice and races. Is her voice too high-pitched? Is she talking too fast? Is she using the right words?

"They have to hear one message," she said. "I love trying to figure out what is going to push their buttons.

"The best moment in the boat is when it clicks — the rhythm, the pressure, everything is going right, you want to pull harder. ... When everything clicks, the boat just flies."

Some of Whipple's best moments, however, are when something's gone wrong. In the 2006 world championships at Dorney Lake, the U.S. team won, setting a world record despite catching a "digger" — when a rower's oar blade gets stuck in the water — that slowed the boat while leading. Whipple immediately told them no one else had caught up, which calmed and energized the crew.

Her finest hour might have been a race the U.S. boat didn't come close to winning. In 2003 Olympic qualifying, the top five boats would get berths to Athens. Halfway through, an oar stuck in the water so badly that Whipple quickly made the call to completely stop the boat. In a race, that's usually suicide.

"We have to qualify," she said firmly. "Top five. Top five. Sixth place is a full boat away and we have 1,000 meters. Belarus is the fifth boat."

The U.S. caught Belarus to qualify, and went on to win silver in Athens.

"She has the ability on the fly to figure things out," said Jan Harville, Whipple's UW coach, now retired. "If you're just a cookbook coxswain, that's great when the recipe works. If something is a little off ... you've got to know how to make it happen. Mary's a make-it-happen kind of person."

So is her family. Her twin sister, Sarah, is an associate head coach at California. Sarah and the family will cheer on Mary in London. Parents Al and Meg have been to every Olympics and world championship.

"It's a magic-carpet ride," said father Al, a physical therapist. "We're going to enjoy the stuffing out of it."

For Whipple's teammates, London will be bittersweet.

"I pretty much only want to have Mary as my coxswain," Lind said. "I wish she would be around forever."

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