With the 2020 Paralympic Games on the horizon, silver-medal-winning Paralympic coxswain (pronounced COX-in) Jenny Sichel sat down to discuss the joys and challenges of competitive rowing and her fervor for advocating for those with disabilities.
Have you always enjoyed sports?
Yes—when I was younger, I played soccer, softball, and basketball, and I also did gymnastics and swimming. In high school, I played softball and did marching band, which I consider a sport. (The way we did it, at least.)
When did you start rowing?
Going into college, I wanted to play softball, but the colleges I applied to and the one that I chose, Bryn Mawr, didn’t have softball teams. The only sports that I could join at Bryn Mawr were rowing and badminton. I’d heard about rowing and thought it seemed like a weird, cool sport, so I became a rower. In my sophomore year, I got injured, and that’s when I switched over to being a coxswain.
How did you get involved in the Paralympics? How are you involved today?
In college, I was invited to cox for Vesper, a boat club in Philadelphia. At one competition, I was coxing a race with a woman who later invited me to development camp for the national adaptive rowing team. (It turns out she was a coach for the team.) From there, I competed in World Championships and, eventually, the Paralympics—for the rowing events, the coxswain doesn’t need to have a physical impairment.
Today, I work for the Ruderman Family Foundation, specifically in a branch called LINK20. It is a global social movement for the younger generation of activists who advocate for people with disabilities in society. For example, Major League Baseball changed its disabled list designation to injured list in part because of a letter we wrote to them.
I also advocated for equal medal pay for Paralympians. I brought it to LINK20’s attention that I only got one-fifth of what an Olympian got for my silver medal in Rio in 2016. That was part of the tipping point that pushed the USOC to change it to equal medal pay retroactive to 2018.
It’s about awareness. Nobody could watch my Rio race on TV here, for example. People will also assume that I’m with the Special Olympics, but that’s separate from the Paralympics. I want to be known as a Paralympic athlete. I was proud to represent the US in the Paralympics, and I don’t think I’d ever want to try to switch over to the Olympics side because I love the Paralympics so much.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Right now, I’m just getting back into the water after taking a brief hiatus. It’s a little bit more relaxed. I usually get up at 4:00 a.m., am on the water by 5:00 a.m., row until 7:00 a.m., and then work a full day. Depending on whether the club needs a coxswain that night, I’ll go for a 6:15 p.m. practice.
And that’s more relaxed?
Yeah. [Laughs] Previously, I’d practice three times a day. I probably have an extra hour or two in my day now.
It seems like this sport would provide an amazing full-body workout. Does it?
Absolutely. Rowing gives you a total workout—you use over 85 percent of your muscles when you row. A lot of people think it’s just your upper body, but you mostly use your legs. Your feet are stationary in the boat and your oars move, so you’re prying against the water when you’re trying to take a stroke. Only the last 20 percent or so of the stroke is the body and arms.
It takes a lot of finesse, too. Someone once told me that using a rowing machine is like running against blacktop in sneakers, but when you’re rowing on the water, it’s like running across wet grass in high heels.
What are your top responsibilities as coxswain?
For me, steering is first and foremost because I keep us on course, and I don’t want my team to row more than they have to. After that, it’s giving my crew information: Where are the other boats relative to us? Where are we in the race? Are we about to enter the final sprint? The third is the motivational aspect of it—helping the rowers reach into the pain cave and then push through it to that extra level that they have.
What does it feel like when the rowers are in perfect sync?
As soon as you asked this, I got a smile on my face. I can explain it in two ways. First, think of a perfectly flat body of water, and it’s silent except for a rhythmic sound as the sun is rising and steam is coming over the lake. It’s this beautiful, ethereal scene. At times like this, rowing doesn’t seem like the hard work it is. It just comes naturally, and it feels like the sky’s the limit.
The other way I can feel it and hear it happening is you get tiny bubbles under the boat because the boat actually lifts up off the water. It’s easy to steer the boat and you don’t feel any lurching—it feels like hydroplaning. It’s so relaxing, yet so powerful.
Is teamwork vital to rowing success?
Yes, 100 percent. If you are not in sync, you’re not moving fast. A boat is very unstable and literally the slightest ripple in the water or an easy breeze can disrupt the boat. In one race, we came in second by .26 seconds, which goes to prove that the slightest thing can cause you to lose. It’s not a game of who came closest—it’s who wins.
As a coxswain, I have a different role, but I’m an athlete just like everyone else. I can’t survive without my rowers, and they will only row faster with me. It’s a symbiotic relationship in that sense.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a coxswain? About rowing in general?
People sometimes think that I just sit there and don’t do anything but yell “Row!” In reality, it’s so much more than that. After a race, I’m just as tired as any rower—maybe more mentally than physically because it’s so intense.
As far as rowing, there’s a misconception that it’s a sport only for the upper class, but that’s changing. In many places, there are programs for everybody. You can be a seventy-year-old grandmother or a high-school student and learn how to row. It’s becoming more broadly available in high schools and colleges.
What’s been your biggest challenge on this journey?
In college, I developed a mental health disorder, which has made life a ton more difficult. It affects me every day, but it’s also made me who I am and as competitive and meticulous as I am. Would I ever want to change it? No. But I do want to speak out about it because I know there are a lot of people out there who have mental health challenges. It’s not necessarily about the challenges themselves—it’s about what we do with them. If I can be a role model in this way as an athlete, it would make all the time, effort, and struggles worth it.
For more info, visit teamusa.org/us-paralympics