Black rowing coach never had one

Photo courtesy U of M Victoria West coaching U of M rowers

She gets to teach others the sport she loves

Rowing has been around since as far back as the early 17th century. Faster than simple paddling, it is one of the oldest Olympic sports, beginning in 1896. It’s open to women and men from amateur to university level to elite, either as individual competitors or on teams of eight.

University of Minnesota Assistant Rowing Coach Victoria West recently offered a quick rowing tutorial: A good rower “is someone who is willing to work hard…willing to just try their best and be OK with failing sometimes,” she began.

“Imagine the boat like a semi-truck in the water,” explained West, a Gopher assistant coach since 2019. The rowers sit facing the stern of the boat and use the oars to propel it forward.  There’s the “bowman” or “bow”—this person is the number-one rower. The “strokeman” or “stroke” help set the rate and rhythm for the rest of the rowers. The “coxswain” faces the bow, steers, and coordinates the power and rhythm of the rowers. That person can sometimes be seen holding a megaphone as they call out commands to the rest of the team.

The middle rowers “are really strong athletes power-wise,” noted West. Every rower must work together. It’s the ultimate team sport,” West said proudly.

Like most non-traditional sports, rowing at most levels lacks diversity with some exceptions over the years. Anita L. DeFrantz was the only Black member on America’s first women’s Olympic team that won a bronze medal in 1976. A PBS documentary came out earlier this year on the first all-Black high school rowing club team in Chicago in the late 1990s.

Photo courtesy U of M Victoria West

Asiya Mahmud, the associate head women’s rowing coach at Drexel, began rowing back in high school and also at Drexel, the only Black female on the team. Friends at her high school in Ann Arbor, Mich. basically dared her to try out for the rowing team, not giving her much chance that she could make it, said West.

“I just got involved and I loved it,” she recalled. “I love being in the water and just how it kind of really clears your mind.”

“Not many,” West said when asked how many other Black rowers she’s seen. “Rowing is a predominately White sport. I never lost sight and my parents never let [me] lose sight of the fact that I was one of the very few Black people on my high school team. There were just three of us.

“Then in college—I spent the majority of my college career at Grand Valley State—I was the only one. I never had a Black coach. I remember once seeing somebody from Chicago [at a regatta], and she was another Black rower.”

After college, West said she worked as a sales manager in the hospitality industry. She has a degree in hospitality and tourism from Grand Valley State and a business minor, but eventually wanted to get into coaching rowing.

“My husband went back to coaching when he was in grad school, and I got really jealous,” admitted West. “So, I went back for a year [and coached] at Grand Valley along with a full-time job.”

It became a distraction, she said. “I was spending too much time at my daytime job focusing on practice. At that point my boss talked to me and [said] if you’re going to make a career shift, it has to happen now.”

“I’ve never been happier,” she said of that decision. “It doesn’t feel like a job.” Her main responsibilities with the Gophers are with the novice rowers, “people that have never touched a boat [before],” she pointed out. “I get to teach them this sport.”

West said she wants more Blacks to get into rowing. “That’s a big reason why I coach, because I want other Black female athletes to see me as a coach.”