The McLean boys’ first eight rowing team was huffing and puffing through choppy waters on the Potomac earlier this month when Coach Bobby Meeks, trailing in a small motorboat, ordered a grueling practice called the “Dying Mosquito Drill.”
Some of the shirtless boys groaned, but Meeks’s coxswain, senior Andrea Pappas, sitting in the stern of the boat and wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, gave him a thumbs-up. Pappas then turned her head to her crew and, before uttering a word, made her message clear: Get to work.
(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post) - McLean coxswain Andrea Pappas gathers her gear prior to practice.
Pappas is the undisputed leader of McLean’s best male crew team, a collection of hulking boys who all tower over her in height and nearly double her in weight, but still hang on her every word. She is also just one of a few females who lead a male varsity boat in the area this spring. Some would chalk that up to her small and light physical stature. But any diminutive girl could hop into a boat and not hinder its glide; where Meeks found the assurance that Pappas would be much more is derived from her obsessive study of the position, and a quiet strength that emanates confidence and demands respect.
“Even when I tell other people that I’m on the men’s team, they’re always like, ‘Is that even allowed?’ ” said Pappas, who will lead the Highlanders at the Stotesbury Cup on Saturday in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s preeminent high school regattas. “It’s interesting to be out on the water and to see the other boats . . . whenever a men’s boat sees a woman coxswain, it’s kind of like an, ‘Oh. Whoa.’ ”
Proving her mettle
Pappas started her high school crew career as a rower her freshman year, and the next two seasons she served as coxswain for the women’s first four. McLean, a relatively young team established in 1996 by a group that included Meeks, usually fields up to 90 students a year in the crew program and has always been open to using females in male boats, and males in female boats. But when one of the coxswains for the boys’ first eight didn’t show up last year during the Thompson Boat Center Tussle on the Potomac, Pappas was on the dock, walking by, when the McLean coaches asked her to fill in. Pappas took control in her first race with the boys, as McLean earned second place and ended up with one of its strongest finishes of the year.
“The race went so well, and it was very exciting. The men’s boat was always just so much faster than my women’s four,” Pappas said. “It’s such an energy rush being on such a fast boat. It was definitely the start of me thinking about going to a men’s team.”
It was also the beginning of the underclassman boys on the team trusting in Pappas’s leadership style, said senior Erik Thomas, who has been under the direction of both male and female coxswains during his career at McLean. What separates Pappas, he said, is her creativity on the boat. Teenage boys are renowned for having short attention spans — so she uses trigger words like “pry” and “pounce” when calling out strokes such as the three quarter half and the three quarter full. She comes up with new ways to call out commands, and picks her spots when to interact with the boys on a personal level.