Photo courtesy of Paxton Graham

CLASS OF 24: Senior Paxton Graham guides rowing team to finish line

“Let’s go, ladies!”

The steady cadence of senior Paxton Graham’s calls punctuated the grunts of the rowers in the Capital Crew varsity boat as eight bodies drove oars through the frigid water.

As they pushed through the still lake, the opposing boat started inching ahead, causing Capital to lose their lead.

But Graham had coached this crew through too many comeback wins to lose hope. 

“You’ve got this — power 10 now!” 

Digging deeper, the rowers responded, pulling in unison.

The Capital boat shot forward, now neck-and-neck with its opponent.

“Keep charging!” Graham urged. Stroke by stroke they edged ahead, crossing the finish line first by a narrow margin.

“The adrenaline rush at the end of a close race makes it all worth it,” Graham said. “I’ll keep chasing that feeling.”

Graham started rowing in middle school when their parents encouraged them to take up a sport. After exploring options, they chose rowing, an evident selection as it is a sport that often begins at the end of middle school and the start of high school.

Graham rowed singles, a one-person boat with two oars, at West Sacramento’s River City Rowing Club for two years, beginning in eighth grade. They continued until after the COVID-19 pandemic, when Graham was able to join teammates in larger boats.

However, Graham hit an obstacle in their rowing career during varsity year when they realized they likely would not qualify for one of the top boats.

This predicament stemmed from rowing’s typical emphasis on height and strength. At 5 feet tall, Graham did not meet the stature considered optimal for rowers, putting them at a disadvantage for those elite boats. However, their small size made them a great fit for the coxswain seat, providing a rare opportunity to participate in a team sport as a shorter athlete.

Still passionate about the sport, Graham set their sights on taking over the coxswain role instead.

The coxswain sits in the sternum of the boat where they have a good view of all the rowers and oars. They are able to correct technique and keep track of elements that the coaches wouldn’t keep track of, such as switching and counting strokes.

Many coaches may describe the position of coxswain as the coach of the boat, but the role requires additional tasks off-water. 

At River City, Graham would handle a lot of the work behind the scenes such as collecting erg scores for the rowers, which are results and times recorded on indoor rowing machines, known as ergometers or ergs. 

Graham also serves as an advocate for their rowers.

For example, while they were at River City, the coaches were trying to cut a very important race from the program against the team’s wishes, and Graham stepped up to speak for the team.

Graham explained to the coaches that the team had put in a lot of hours preparing for this race and they deserved the chance to compete. 

Although Graham had successfully convinced the coaches to keep the race in the program and stepped up in their leadership role to advocate for the team’s needs, the transition to coxswain had not been easy. 

Prior to finding their confidence to speak up, Graham struggled to gain acceptance and find their way in the new position, as they did not have any true guidance and were on their own in navigating the boat.

“I hated it. I didn’t know what was going on and I was constantly confused,” Graham said. “Everyone hated me because I was new to it and I did not know what I was doing.”

Graham struggled to balance directing rowers on the water with befriending them on land. 

As coxswain, their job involved  commanding respect to lead the boat, yet building camaraderie off-water was key to gaining the rowers’ trust in their guidance. 

“I struggled with being that person on the water that was down to business,” Graham said. 

Their shy personality at the time also made bonding with teammates nerve-wracking.

Feeling isolated from the team because of their inexperience, Graham became discouraged. 

“I just kind of made a deal with myself. If I still hated it by the end of my sophomore year, I would quit.”

Then came the spring season of their sophomore year, which would put Graham’s resolve to the test. In February, their first-ever sprint race — a 2k with staggered starts — marked a turning point. Surrounded by splashing oars and boats jostling for position, Graham felt a competitive fire spark within them. 

This intense race was the first time they felt truly connected with and impassioned by their role on the team.

“When you’re neck-and-neck with six other boats, it’s hard to not be excited,” Graham said.

That was the moment that Graham fell in love with the aggressiveness and competitiveness of the sport, and they decided to stick with it.

Graham remained a coxswain at River City throughout their junior year in the second-best boat, and when their senior year arrived, they transferred to Capital Crew, located at the Sacramento State Aquatics Center.

This time around, Graham made the conscious decision to be open to the rest of the team and not accept isolation just because they were new.

“Sure, these people have known each other for two, three or four years. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to know me,” Graham said.

As for the time commitment and competitive rowing calendar, the year consists of a fall season which spans from September to December and a spring season that starts in January and ends in May. 

At River City, Graham practiced 5 days a week, but when transferring to Capital Crew, they had an increase in practice.

Graham has practice six days a week at Capital Crew, from 4-6 p.m. on weekdays and 7-10 a.m. on Saturdays. 

With such a substantial time investment, Graham must exert more effort to manage their academics as well as deal with the consequences of having to put off assignments.

“Everything gets done, it’s just a matter of when that happens,” Graham said.

Despite the considerable amount of practice time required by the sport, there are only a few races per season. During the 2023 fall season, Capital only participated in one race. Last year, Graham participated in a total of six races.

While the sport involves a small number of races per season, its impact on college recruitment opportunities is substantial. 

The quality of performance in these few events can significantly influence the attention of college recruiters and open doors to athletic scholarships and other opportunities for aspiring athletes.

Athletes begin the recruitment process after nationals during the summer before junior year.

While at River City last year, Graham attempted to be recruited, but because the club did not have a high national ranking, it was difficult to attract the attention of college recruiters.

However, Graham feels that they are positively received at Capital, a result of the club’s national recognition and relationships with college crew teams. 

Graham was put into contact with the University of California, San Diego’s rowing coaches after submitting recruitment questionnaires and coxswain call tapes by email. Additionally, they went for an official visit to the campus.

When student-athletes inform coaches of their strong interest in joining the team, the coaches compile a recruitment list with the names of prospects. This list serves as a request for the admissions office to facilitate the evaluation process for recruited athletes.

The admissions office then reviews the prospects’ academic transcripts to ensure they meet the necessary criteria for admission before granting approval.

As Graham awaits the admissions decision, they eagerly envision the opportunity to bring their passion and competitiveness to college rowing programs.

Wherever the currents may carry this adept navigator next, Graham will continue chasing and rising to each new challenge with blazing confidence and spirit. 

The water is their home, and they’ve only just pushed off from shore.

By Zema Nasirov

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