By Alex Cassara | LSU Student
While slicing through turbulent waters, the males of LSU's rowing club need all the motivation it can get, especially last weekend. Danielle LeBlanc has sought to provide that. And no, she's not a cheerleader.
As the only female member on the men's varsity boats, LeBlanc serves as the on-water coach and drill sergeant of her vessel and led her four-seater to defeat in-state rival Tulane at last weekend's Louisiana State Championship Regatta at City Park in New Orleans.
LeBlanc grew up listening to her stepfather tell stories of his time as a collegiate rower, so when she arrived at LSU she decided to study the sport along with petroleum engineering. She wanted to follow in his footsteps, but her doctor disagreed, pointing to her scoliosis. Her 5-foot-2, 120-pound stature wasn't conducive to the position, anyway.
It made her the perfect coxswain, however.
"A lot of people see the commercial, where the fat hamster sits in the boat and says, ‘Row! Row!'" LeBlanc said, referring to last year's Geico spot. "But it's so much more than that."
Sitting in the stern of the boat facing the rowers, the coxswain doesn't row but acts as navigator, steering the boat while assessing the competition around it. For that reason, coxswains tend to be lighter, so as to not make it harder on the ones propelling the boat anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000 meters.
The coxswain also has the responsibility of correcting and motivating his or her rowers for the duration of that exertion. Whether a rower is doing something right or wrong, he or she should hear it from the coxswain, who should know the crew well to say the right things. They must push through the pain.
It took her a while, but this is where LeBlanc shines. She said her personality didn't fit when she joined the women's novice team last fall, but as she learned she quickly improved.
"So much so, that when the varsity guys' coxswain decided not to come back (this year), we agreed she was the one we wanted as coxswain of our boat," said Marc Kemp, captain of LSU's men's varsity.
The men made little adjustment due to gender, as their transferring coxswain was also female. LeBlanc had to shift from the endless encouragement that Coffey said females tend to prefer, but the level-headedness her teammates saw made it a smooth transition.
"[Males] need to be supported but also kind of yelled at at the same time, and she's able to do that in a calm and controlled manner," Coffey said. "She doesn't fly off the handle at them. She stays relaxed and during an entire race, that's difficult to do because it can get really exciting for a coxswain."
As the men's varsity stroke, or pace setter who sits directly before the coxswain, Kevin Benoit's interaction with LeBlanc is frequent and crucial. Benoit said her quiet demeanor helps walk that fine line, demanding respect. She shows her commitment outside of the water by practicing for a half-marathon with some of her burlier teammates.
"I want to try as hard as they do," LeBlanc said.
Her team hit the water every day last week in preparation for the championship. It got off to a rough start in its first regatta, competing against several NCAA-sanctioned crews but won four medals through the next two races. The New Orleans race, though, was about pride, with Kemp citing LSU and Tulane's storied history.
Tulane's club has better resources than LSU's. As a private school, it attracts more experienced rowers and more money. With LeBlanc at the helm, that didn't matter.
"We're becoming more and more competitive in each of these regattas," LeBlanc said. "People are starting to view us as a force to be reckoned with, which is great. We have even more improvement in the months and years to come."