Liza Dickson enjoys being an underdog. Upon becoming coach of the Sarasota Crew men’s varsity team in 2009, she inherited a team that had never qualified for nationals in an 8. To her, the feeling is a familiar one.
As a woman coaching a men’s varsity team, whether actual or perceived, she says the pressures of coaching in a male-dominated sport contribute to the feeling.
“I don’t play the woman card,” she says. “But I feel like I do have to work harder than anyone else. I’ve always felt it. I don’t know how much of it is just my own perception, but I feel like I have something to prove.”
Three years after taking the helm, Dickson has more than proven herself as a coach, transforming the team into a nationally recognized force. Since her arrival, the men’s varsity team has placed ninth, fourth, and last year, second, in nationals. Most recently and for the second consecutive year, the team placed first in the Head of the Charles Regatta, in Boston.
“It’s about creating a culture,” Dickson says of the team’s newfound success. “It’s the same for any coach who inherits a team. I’ve created a culture with my athletes that they help perpetuate — one of hard work, respect, appreciation and ownership.”
At this year’s Head of the Charles Regatta, a two-day event that draws about 9,000 competitors and more than 250,000 spectators, the Sarasota Crew men’s youth 4+ team, comprised of Travis Taaffe, Ben Delaney Andrew Konecny, Ryan Hails and Grant Golub, outperformed 84 other crews to win the event by a blowout 21 seconds. The team finished faster than any other team, including those at the collegiate level.
With this success, both Dickson and the athletes are encountering a new challenge: no longer one of striving to prove oneself, but the struggle that comes with a quick rise to the top. The team’s reputation precedes them; the players feel stares and overhear whispers at regattas. They’re no longer the underdogs.
“It’s really hard,” says Dickson. “Getting to the top naturally earns you more scrutiny. This year, at the Head of the Charles, there was so much more pressure. Everyone is gunning for you, and you have to have a completely different mindset.”
According to the regatta’s rules, each team’s starting position is dictated by its finishing place from the previous year, and a new boat starts the course every 15 to 30 seconds. Starting in the first position added to the pressure, because the team had to be completely self-motivated.
“When you start first, there’s no boat to chase,” says Dickson. “You have to be motivated to push yourself. I looked at a lot of small details and specific areas where they could make up time.”
New team member Ben Delaney says that based on the team’s previous performance, he was confident that they had the strength and talent to earn a win, but that he felt the added pressure of starting first.
“We had to focus on the little details and race our own race,” he says. “It really comes down to how mentally tough you are.”
As happy as Dickson and the team are about the victory, they remain modest about the accomplishment, and they’re already focused on the US Rowing Youth National Championships in June, in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Team member Andrew Konecny says the winter months are especially tough to train in and remain motivated during, because there are few races to keep up momentum, but that they’ll continue to train to be in their best shape by the summer.
“We’ve all experienced losses by tenths of a second,” he says. “It can easily come down to feet or inches, because everyone wants to win so badly. But, we want to be national champions. We came in second last year, and second is great, but that’s not what we’re training for.”