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.
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.’ ”
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.
“Firm but calm,” Thomas said of Pappas. “I’ve had a couple of coxswains, where they’re just really frantic on the boat if we’re losing. . . I’ve had a couple coxswains fight on the boat.”
By the time Pappas was invited to lead the boys’ first eight this spring, she was already a devoted student of the position. She spent hour after hour rehearsing stroke calls with her twin sister, Lauren, who is a coxswain for the girls’ first eight lightweights at McLean. She practiced and practiced, listening to tapes online, trying to hone her vocal chords to develop a deeper voice that would boom over the water whenever she needed it to. She had the advantage of making close friendships with many of the boys on the team in her prior three years at the school, which gave her an understanding of the boat’s personality and the wisdom that each boy required a different tone of criticism. And the repetitions from running the girls’ first four the last two years taught her how to steer the boat and motivate at the same time.
“She’s Greek. I was married to a Greek woman. They are fiery. But ’Drea has been just so calm. She’s very level-headed,” Meeks said. “It’s not a common thing (to employ a female coxswain on male boat), but when you find one that works, it works well.”
McLean doesn’t have the fastest boat in the area. The team barely missed the final cut at the Walter Mess Regatta on the Occoquan earlier this spring, took second at the TBC Tussle on the Potomac and third in the Charlie Butt Regatta in April. But the team’s identity, with a blend of seniors, a promising sophomore and a female coxswain, is among the most unique. Pappas turned down an opportunity to compete at the University of Michigan next year, preferring to stay close to home and attend Virginia Tech.
This is the final month that she runs her own male boat. After the team got out of the water after practice last week, Pappas’s job wasn’t done. In her hushed low tone, she commanded the boys to lift the boat above their head on the dock, and steered the boys up past the Thompson Boat Center to the team’s storage station. Pappas was soaked, carrying a green box full of water bottles for her team. One of the boys carrying the boat quickly flipped off a sandal as he was walking in front of Pappas, and she reached down to pick it up and throw it in the box. She embraces a stern-but-motherly role, which is rare to find in male high school sports.
“Andrea is shy when you first meet her. It takes a little bit to get her out of her comfort zone,” said her twin sister, Lauren. “But that’s more of on land. A coxswain sort of becomes a different person when they’re on the water.”