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Finding Her Coxswain Voice: Nat Toms

Finding Her Coxswain Voice: Nat Toms

Coxswain Chronicles: From Novice to World Champion in Two Years– This is Part Four of an NK Sports Interview Series

Nat Toms is a unique cox. Not only is she a junior world champion, but she took a men's crew to gold in Paris, an increasingly unusual feat. Before the junior world championships, Great Britain only had one recognized international female coxswain (Paralympic champion Erin Kennedy). Now, they have two more – Nat and Sophie Wrightson, who delivered the girl's eight to gold.

Nat's rise from starting in the sport two years ago to becoming a world champion this summer is remarkable. She is an avid user of NK products and tells us below how she leveraged her physical and mental toolkit to run the British flag highest up the flagpole in Paris.

How did you first get into coxing?

Initially, my older brother was the Shrewsbury Boys 1st VIII cox from 2019-21, and one day in his last year of coxing the 1st VIII, he convinced me to come down to the boat house. I instantly knew I wanted to stick around, but I was skeptical as most of my friends were rowers - and I was by far shorter than them, so I knew if I wanted to leave a mark, it would have to be by continuing down the coxing route. My big brother somewhat graciously took me under his wing and coached me all the way into the coxing seat of the first-ever Shrewsbury Girls 1st VIII in 2021.

I competed alongside my brother at Henley Royal Regatta that year - myself in the brand new Junior Women's Eights event and him in the Princess Elizabeth. We both made the Friday, my eight narrowly losing out to LEH by a canvas and ever since that tight race, I knew coxing wasn't something I would be able to leave alone.

What really kept you involved in the very beginning and how has that evolved over the years?

Essentially just get to go fast and hang out with my friends at the same time. The camaraderie and familial bond that my various crews have developed has been not only invaluable in high-pressure racing scenarios, but also what dragged us all out at 6:30 am on dark, cold mornings before school.

Whether it was coxing boys or girls two or three years older or getting to have a laugh with my friends in my own school year in boats, I always endeavored - and still do - to bring an element of fun and spontaneity to whatever we were doing on and off the water whilst still carrying out the coach's plan. No matter how I feel on the water, I've learned never to underestimate the psychological power of cracking a joke in a quiet and nervy boat or before a big daunting race to ease everyone up.

What was your first club like and how important were they to your growth?

My first and only club so far is the RSSBC. Nothing short of a family, the atmosphere is unbeatable. The coaches understand when to push you and when to step back, how to build athletes holistically and how to foster a love for the sport in young teenagers. Not to mention the phenomenal facilities, equipment, and beautiful river make it still my favorite place to train out of anywhere else I've been so far.

The coaches have always been incredibly supportive of my coxing career, helping in any way they could, and every coach I've ever worked under there has supported my coxing on and off the water. They do not just expect me to steer a boat and deliver a warmup, but they also work closely with me to evolve my coxing toolkit.

How would you define your coxing style?

I like to think of my coxing style as a fine balance between innately understanding how to motivate and draw more out of rowers (even when they believe there's nothing left in the tank) and feeling the boat to make the most effective calls in training and when competing. It is a fine line between motivation and technical calls, and (as callous as it sounds) as a cox, my priority is not how the athletes feel in the race but how the hull is moving. However, sometimes there are rare moments in a cox's career where they have an opportunity to make the right call or decision that will single-handedly decide a race's outcome. These moments are absolute gold-dust, but when they come along, they define me as cox.

In your opinion, what is the most important attribute a successful coxswain must imbue?

The two words flung around the GB cox trialing process the past year were 'trust' and 'control'. As you get a chance to be around different crews, you'll realize how hard it is to separate your coxing skills from your personality and how difficult it can be to effectively manage a crew that aren't necessarily your friends or people you know. But it has been clear to me from early on that it doesn't matter if rowers like you - though admittedly, it helps - but how much they trust you, particularly in high-pressure scenarios. If you can fully gain a crew's trust, they will stand behind you in any situation.

What has been your favorite coxing memory?

Beating Westminster in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup on day two of Henley Royal Regatta 2022. My coach had specifically told me before the race, if you have an opportunity to pressure the other crew, or if they come into your water do not hesitate to steer aggressively and get them disqualified. While Westminster was not disqualified, just as they were about to break contact with us coming up to Fawley, I picked a more central line down the river. The opposing cox was slightly alarmed at how close the crews were, as he too was already infringing on my side. He pulled on the rudder too harshly and moved closer to the booms, which was detrimental to Westminster's big push.

It was one of those gold-dust moments for me and the boys. We were all religiously told if we still had contact at Fawley then the race would be over - we held them all the way to the enclosures and, knowing we had the Berkshire conveyor belt (out of the stream), I called in our finish wind for our crew to then win by 3/4 of a length.

What was the biggest learning curve during your coxing journey and how did you tackle it?

Although people don't always want to admit it, being a girl coxing boys makes me a rather small figure in a man's world and thus comes with its expected pitfalls. I have to say, overall, most people are always amicable, but occasionally in crews, there will be the odd person who finds it difficult to be coxed by a girl, as for them, it's a very different power dynamic to what they're used to. But, if you can gain someone's trust totally and fully, that becomes a very strong bond. For instance, the boys who I struggled to get a handle on as a naïve J16 are the same boys who I feel now would fight my corner in a tight spot - because I stuck out that year and for every time I didn't seem competent, I worked so that there were ten more times I proved I was.

What is the one bit of advice you'd give to a new cox trying to find his or her voice?

Learn to be moldable and understand that almost all criticism can be turned into something constructive if you choose to do so. Especially when you first start coxing, it's hard not to take things personally but when you're trying to learn how to do something, ask for all the feedback you can get and act on it if it genuinely seems helpful. In rowing, like many other things, there are only two options: win or learn.

How crucial is high-quality equipment (like NK) to set you up for success?

My NK CoxBox GPS allows me to get real-time accurate and reliable data that is crucial not only for me to relay to the rowers in racing scenarios but also to utilize in training. In a sport that comes down to winning or losing by 0.1% of boat speed, every second of a split counts. It's always easy to navigate, which becomes increasingly important when having to make quick decisions and have quick responses - plus, it's the most reliable cox box I've used, and I now refuse to cox with anything else.

“In a sport that comes down to winning or losing by 0.1% of boat speed, every second of a split counts.”

How has NK supported you on your journey to becoming a junior world champion cox?

The accuracy of the splits and rate were particularly important. The rhythm of the boat is crucial and is what ultimately brought us our gold medal in Paris. Off the start, it is up to me and the stroke man to assess whether we hit that rhythm right. Between feeling how the boat was moving, assessing and mentally comparing splits to training times, and observing that extra pip or a half on the rate, I could make and relay competent decisions when going down the track.