Zachary Williamson, the coxswain for the rowing team’s eight-man varsity boat, is short and slight of build—5 feet 6 inches, 125 pounds—but what he lacks in stature he makes up for in sheer grit.
“I’ve always had to be more aggressive and competitive to compensate for being smaller than most other people,” he explains, noting his childhood love of skiing, soccer, and basketball. “I really hate losing.”
For this coxswain, moral victories don’t exist: “either your boat’s very fast,” he decrees, “or it isn’t.”
On the water, Williamson is charged with commanding his crew and steering a 2,400-pound, $65,000 carbon fiber and Kevlar shell for the winning men’s rowing team, which went 6 and 2 last season. The rudder, he says, is no bigger than the “size of a credit card.”
Each teammate dwarfs him—by up to 16 inches. But, as Williamson puts it, “People with Napoleonic complexes don’t last long in rowing. Nor will rowers respect someone who believes it’s their job to get pulled around for a ride without making a contribution.”
The North Andover, Mass., native—a fourth-year communications major—took up rowing during his freshman year at the Lawrenceville School, a coeducational boarding school in New Jersey. His science teacher, who doubled as the women’s rowing coach, encouraged him to hit the water, telling him, “You’re small, and loud.”
In the summer prior to his senior year of high school, Williamson was invited to participate in the United States Rowing Junior National Team development camp, which was held at Henderson Boathouse, Northeastern’s rowing home. It was there that he met the university’s former freshman rowing coach, Brogan Graham, who later recruited him.
Williamson recalls the meeting fondly, noting, “I knew Northeastern was where I wanted to go, and I’ve been having a great time ever since.”
Rowing, he says, is a physically demanding sport for both crew and coxswain. By the end of a 2,000-meter, six-minute race, the rowers are physically exhausted, building up as much lactic acid in their muscles in six minutes as a professional basketball player would in two consecutive games, he reports.
Williamson is also spent, having depleted most of the air in his lungs—so much so that he struggles to breathe—from barking orders in the required nuanced cadence that he has fine-tuned over the course of thousands of hours of practice on the Charles River.
Williamson says it’s not uncommon for a few members of the crew to pass out or get sick. “It’s my job as a coxswain to unlock that next level of speed for the rowers,” he explains. “I have a massive amount of respect for them because it can be very painful. So I have to know when to push and when to pull back.”
John Pojednic, head coach of the men’s rowing team, praises Williamson’s booming voice, which gets amplified through a set of speakers in the tricked-out boat.
“You can tell by his voice and demeanor that Zack has fun rowing,” he says. “His voice has a natural rhythm and his calls, which are indeed at times loud and aggressive, are appropriately placed as races unfold.”
But his greatest attribute, says Pojednic? Self-confidence. “Zack doesn’t allow himself to be derailed by outside factors, nor does he allow adversity to blur his focus,” he explains. “Among the athletes I have coached, his level of resiliency is a 10 out of 10.”
Jason Kornwitz is a staff writer and editor.