Princeton's Parris Proves a Quick Study In Steering Top Women's Crew to Henley
By Bill Alden
In the world of crew, the coxswain plays a vital role, acting as the on-the-water coach through exhorting the rowers and steering the boat.
But how can one fill such a pivotal seat with aplomb without having any racing experience?
That was the dilemma facing Michelle Parris in the spring of 2002 as she jumped into a four at Boston's Head of Charles in her debut as a cox for the Princeton University women's open crew program.
The veteran rowers in the boat did little to allay Parris' anxiety as she took her maiden voyage. "The four girls had been rowing for years and they said don't mess it up for us," recalled Parris with a chuckle.
Parris overcame the butterflies flying around her stomach and led her boat to a memorable victory in the prestigious race.
The diminutive but toned Parris hasn't looked back from her auspicious debut, rising up the ranks to steer ¬Princeton's top women's open boat to the Eastern Sprints championship this May.
This week, Parris is culminating her amazing crew odyssey by coxing the women's open boat in the Remenham Challenge Cup race in the world-renowned Henley Royal Regatta in England.
Parris, a field hockey player in high school at the Spence School who got interested in crew through hearing boathouse tales from some friends in the program, acknowledges the challenges she faced in learning the technical aspect of her new job.
"It's really difficult," said Parris, who earned first-team All-Ivy recognition this spring and was named as a second-team All-American by the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association (CRCA).
"We have rowing tanks and the coaches helped me learn the different strokes and the calls to improve technique. Then you get in the boat and learn how to steer."
But when it came to actually competing, Parris had no problems adjusting. "I just love racing, that part came naturally," explained Parris, who hails from Laurelton, N.Y. "I'm more of a competitive racing type of cox than a technique coach type of cox. I try to get them pumped up."
Princeton head women's open coach Lori Dauphiny is amazed at how far Parris has come in her three seasons with the program.
"She's had a lot to learn and she's made an effort to find out what she needs to know," said Dauphiny. "Some kids are more at ease in that seat, others aren't. She's one that was pretty comfortable right from the start."
As much as Parris has progressed technically, it is still her competitive fire that sets her apart. "I think she's learned a lot about technique," added Dauphiny.
"I would say her strength is in her inspiration and her tenacity. She is a fighter, she loves to race. I hear from the other rowers that Michelle is more nervous in the warm-ups that when she's actually racing. When the gun goes off, she's on."
Parris will tell you she's hardly alone when it comes to competitiveness in this year's top open boat. "Everyone in the boat is incredibly feisty and has a competitive spirit," said Parris. "I always recognized that in all my teammates."
Parris is relishing the chance to take that fire across the Atlantic to the prestigious Henley event.
"We developed something special," said Parris, who credits the steadfast support shown by Dauphiny, assistant coaches Wendy Levash and Ed Hewitt as well as the assistance from the program's alums as key factors in the boat's success.
"As seniors, we've developed a chemistry and to be able to take advantage of that and to row a little more with a special boat means a lot. To be able to extend that out and have a few more precious moments together is really great."
For Parris, competing at Henley will culminate the process triggered by her fateful decision two years ago to wander down to the boathouse.
"Crew has been the defining experience of my college career," said Parris, who plans to work as a legal assistant in corporate litigation for a New York City law firm after returning from England.
"I've learned so much about other people, myself, about competing, about multi-tasking, about time management."
And in the process, Parris has taught her teammates plenty about how far one can go with a heavy dose of tenacity.