Coxswain Caite Soper prides herself on keeping an even keel
Strange though it may seem, a legitimate argument can be made that the most valuable member of the University of San Diego’s Women’s Varsity-8 Rowing team never has to put an oar in the water.
Counterintuitive? Perhaps, but when you consider that the goal of this particular sporting endeavor is to have eight women row in perfect synchronization as fast as they possibly can toward a finish line they can’t see, the suggestion might have at least a small amount of merit to it.
And speaking of small — at 5 feet 3 inches, USD coxswain Caite Soper ’13 certainly doesn’t cast the longest shadow on the 2012–13 women’s rowing squad (she’s about six inches shorter than her varsity teammates’ median height), but she’s living proof that good things come in diminutive packages. Just ask Women’s Rowing Head Coach Kim Cupini ’03, who sees Soper’s contributions as an invaluable component to the team’s impressive recent accomplishments.
“Caite’s my coach in the boat, pure and simple,” says the four-time West Coast Conference (WCC) coach of the year. As one of the most accomplished female rowers in USD history, Cupini knows what a critical role the coxswain (pronounced COX-en) plays in the team’s success. “Above all else, a good coxswain has to be passionate about what they’re doing, and Caite absolutely is. She works very closely with me to try and get the best out of each and every one of our athletes, both in practice and on race day.”
In the Varsity-8 boat, a coxswain sits at the back — or, in nautical terms, the stern — and his or her primary function is to steer with hand or foot controllers that adjust the boat’s rudder (in the smaller varsity-4 boat, the coxswain steers from the front, or bow). As the only member of the team facing forward, she is, in a sense, the brains of the operation; executing race strategy, keeping the crew on task and in time, and, when need be, serving as the resident drill sergeant in order to motivate rowers to give it everything they’ve got — and then a little more.
Upon first impression, Soper doesn’t look or sound anything like an intimidating competitor. Sweet and spritely by nature, she’s quick with a smile, and possesses a voice that is definitely more mouse than lion — something that was a bit of an issue for her early on in her tenure with the team. “The coxswain that I was freshman year is totally different than the coxswain that I am now,“ says Soper, now a senior. “One of the first things coach wanted me to work on was being a stronger personality in the boat. I’m not a big yeller, but you don’t have to scream to make a point, and I think the girls know when I need them to step it up.”
Under Cupini’s tutelage, Soper has learned some very valuable tricks of the trade, and in her three years as a USD coxswain, she’s had a front-row seat to the most successful run in USD Women’s Rowing’s history. “We’ve won the WCC championships each of the three years I’ve been here,” Soper says without braggadocio. “To be able to win it again in my last year, I mean, how can it get better than that?”
Actually, it can. Another WCC title would send the squad to the NCAA Women’s Rowing Championships for the first time ever, an impressive and important accomplishment in and of itself, but made more so by the national exposure it provides for USD’s up-and-coming program. Top-level recruits who may have previously thought that west coast rowing begins and ends with the likes of Stanford, USC, Washington and UC Berkeley, might be persuaded to take a chance on a team with a whole lot of upside, as Soper did.
“I didn’t want to go to a team that was already established, I wanted to go somewhere where they were building something,” she recalls, smiling. “When I got here, I just could feel that there was something special happening. It’s not just about rowing in this program, it’s about being grateful for the whole opportunity that you’re given, and I think everyone really buys into that.”
Coaches and teammates alike admire, and on occasion, marvel at Soper’s ability to keep calm and carry on in even the most hectic of circumstances, which helps explain why she’s been named a team captain twice in four years. When asked to recall a specific circumstance when her cool and collected approach was a key to victory, she blushes and politely declines, choosing instead to highlight the successes of a team that clearly means the world to her.
“This program has made me a better person, and I’ll always be grateful for that. Gratitude is just a big part of what we are; being grateful for the efforts of the girls who came before us, and being grateful that we have this opportunity to be exceptional.”