Story and video by Justin Ayer
It’s a cold, brisk, predawn morning at Coventry Lake. The air hits like a thunderbolt. There’s not a soul in sight, except for the singing of hungry birds waking up to be fed. Houses surround the lake; there are no signs of life. At 4:45 a.m., everyone is sound asleep. It is a beautiful sight of nothingness. The water is calm, the air is thick, the trees are still.
That is until the UConn rowing team arrives, ready for another grueling practice.
Jun Takeda, the leading coxswain on the team, is the opposite of this quiet setting. Her job as a coxswain is unlike any of her teammates, whose main tasks are to row.
Her job is to yell.
“STEER RIGHT!” “GET OUT OF THE WAY!” “MOVE!” “PADDLE LADIES, BIG LEGS!” are just some of her calls.
Takeda is not the biggest person on the team, nor is she the tallest. She is 5 feet, and only 100 pounds. A coxswain over 110 pounds is prohibited; otherwise it would be “dead weight” in the boat. She calls herself the brain of the boat, and the extension of the coach. As the person sitting in the back, she steers the boat to make sure it remains on a straight path, yells the instructions, and guides the rowers in hopes of making it to the finish line with a winning time. While off the boat, Jun tells the rowers what they are doing right and wrong, explains how they can improve, and illuminates how they can be stronger and faster in the water.
Intimidating as it may seem to be yelled at in pitch darkness on a cold lake, Takeda’s teammates look past all of that.
“I’m not going to lie — it’s not one of the best experiences you will have,” said Sarah Norman, a senior rower. “As much as it sucks to be out there at 5 a.m., it is really endearing when someone is motivating you in really hard workouts. I feel like I couldn’t be motivated unless Jun was aggressive.”
Norman said being a rower has many tough experiences, most notably the physical pain and all of the different emotions she encounters while racing.
“We are working with four or eight other girls. Even though she’s not rowing, Jun needs to understand how to motivate each person individually but also know how to get our boat to the finish line as quickly as possible,” she said. “So whether a person responds in an aggressive way or needs to hear something endearing- everyone is so different, but as rowers, we need to be able to work together,” Norman said.
Motivation has played a big factor in Takeda’s life. It is not the easiest task in the world to wake up at such a daunting hour and practice for a solid three hours. When Takeda is done practicing, she walks back to the bus, travels 20 minutes to campus, and hits the shower as quickly as a jackrabbit. She gets to her first class at 9 a.m., and grinds it out as a student until 4:45p.m. Immediately after, she proceeds to her next practice, usually a 5 p.m. indoor workout with the rest of her teammates.
“Even though I’m just a coxswain, I still do the same workouts as the other rowers, like the rowing machine and free weight exercises,” Takeda said. “I need to know what the rowers go through on a daily basis, which completely makes sense because they put everything out there every, single day.”
Just as Takeda’s teammates look up to her, Takeda looks up to her teammates. She said they drive her to wake up and go to practice every morning.
“I only get about five hours of sleep a night, which is unfortunate because I love to sleep,” Takeda said. “If it wasn’t for my teammates, I don’t know what I would do.”
Alison Abrams is the head coxswain coach, and Takeda’s right hand person for advice.
Abrams said coxswains have to be mentally strong to know how to push the other rowers, and to make the right calls.
“It goes beyond being the cheerleader and saying, good job you got it, but being able to pick out the technique, the motivation tools, the strategic calls, and making sure that every call is effective as they go through the race,” Abrams said.
In Abrams eyes, the role of the coxswain is about research and reflection in practice.
“In every practice, the coxswains have an opportunity to write down everything that happened, how something didn’t work out so well and what worked to their advantage, and take that research over time to devise a race plan that will be affective against our competitors,” said Abrams.
Given standards for a coxswain, she said Takeda has great engagement techniques with the rowers, a pivotal skill of a coxswain.
“She really gives the other rowers the information that they need to know, and unifies them so they know what they need to do together, rather than eight people doing different things at different times,” Abrams said.
Takeda is a junior, double majoring in communication and sociology, a plan of study she just picked up this year. Last year, she rushed Alpha Kappa Psi, a professional business fraternity noted as the premier developer of principled business leaders. She was also named to the 2015-2016 American Athletic Conference All-Academic Team.
Her love of coxswaining began at the Kent High School in Kent, Connecticut. Originally from Ridgefield, CT, Kent attracted her due to its private, co-ed education, the 1200 square feet of beautiful landscape filled with cross-country trails and iconic scenery, and most importantly, the fact that it was founded on the Housatonic river, a 149-mile river that extends through Western Connecticut all the way up to the western peaks of Massachusetts. Rowing has reigned supreme compared to the other sports the school offers. She decided early in her freshman year that she was going to give coxswaining an attempt, and try out for the team. She hasn’t stopped since.
Although she is involved in so much, her main focus is community service. While in high school, Takeda did a year and a half of service in Harlem for City Year, an AmeriCorps program that aids in developing educational skills and experiences in people in poverty stricken areas.
“Service has always been a huge part of my life but the work I did in Harlem was life-changing,” Takeda said. “I believe that everyone who has the ability to give back should give back. Most of us live in a bubble whether or not we realize it and service puts everything in a completely different perspective. It has made me a more aware and empathetic person.”
Harlem, New York is no place for the faint of heart. Although it has the reputation as a dirty, crime-ridden part of the city, Takeda embraced her time there. While at City Year, she worked with sixth and seventh grade students. Her special students, the “starfish” students, as they are so uniquely called, are the students who Takeda and the rest of the City Year mentors personally connected with. Takeda had two, seventh grade, starfish students who completely changed her view of the world before she went to college.
One starfish student, Kaylah, struggled in school, but was incredibly bright. Her home-life was tough, both parents surrounded by drugs everyday. Kaylah met Takeda in sixth grade, a kind-hearted girl who came from an environment ridden with drama. Her parent’s outlook on education was unimportant compared to the constant euphoria they could receive off of their next heroin injection. Money was tight in her household, and Kaylah was on a path to nowhere if it wasn’t for the engagement of City Year and the impact of Takeda on her life.
“When I met her in sixth grade, she was at a fourth grade reading level and by the time she completed seventh grade, she was above track at the ninth grade reading level. She had a lot of drama all the time, but she was always willing to learn and talk it through,” said Takeda.
Another one of Takeda’s starfish students, Xzvaion, was frustrating for her at first. Like Kaylah, his home-life was on the verge of collapse. His parents never looked out for him, or for any of his two younger siblings. Xzvaion became the second father, having to bathe, feed, and clean up after his siblings on a daily basis. Due to his unstable home, Xzvaion began to struggle socially in school, willing to drop out at any given second. Xzvaion was a quiet kid, and didn’t have any friends. This caused him to act up quite a bit in school, getting angry at himself and lacking any drive to succeed. His lack of willingness in the beginning gave Takeda the hope that she could make a difference, as hard as it may have seemed. She began to have sincere talks with him, telling him how bright he was and how he could be successful if he just changed his mindset.
“You can be great as long as you put all of the negatives aside and do what is best for you,” she told him on a daily basis. Her advice sunk in.
“He had a math quiz pretty late into his seventh grade year and he got a 100 on it, which had never happened before,” Takeda said. “He was so happy. He finally changed his outlook on school and even asked me to go with him to buy binders and pencils for school so he could get more organized. Xzvaion made me really appreciate my education and what I’ve had in my life so far.”
Just as she motivates her City Year students, Takeda has to motivate the rowers.
“In a sense, there is a connection between the two,” Takeda said. “I have always felt confortable in the position of supporting other people.”
Takeda said she wishes she had more time to do everything that she wants to do in college.
“Time is probably the hardest part about my schedule because I want to do so much,” she said.
Takeda said she wants to study abroad before she graduates, and participate in UConn’s Jumpstart, a 300-hour per-year, community service program that aids in helping young children in low-income communities enter kindergarten and get on the right path to succeed educationally.
When she graduates in spring 2018, she plans to apply to Teach For America, a two-year program for recent college graduates to teach and effect change for children’s education in poverty-stricken schools.
Like most of the experiences in Takeda’s life, she didn’t come to UConn right away. A transfer from Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN, she was inspired by her long-time friend, and current UConn rower, Kate Lavrentios.
“Kate is my best friend from high school who went to UConn. She told me it was a great school and that I should definitely row there. So I came up after a year at Macalester, met the coaches, met the team, and absolutely fell in love,” she said.
Takeda added, “I never considered joining or being good enough for a D1 team, but the coaches saw potential in me.”
The UConn rowing team is an NCAA D1 program that competes in the American Athletic Conference. Some of the team’s biggest events include the Head of the Charles, the largest two-day regatta in the world, consisting of 11,000 athletes from all over the world on the Charles River, a river separating Boston and Cambridge, MA. Takeda’s boat finished sixth out of 59 boats in the Women’s Club Four this year. Only the top five athletes on the team could compete in this race.
“It was a lengthy process selecting the top five athletes from our team to represent UConn at this regatta, and they did not disappoint. It was a great performance with great results and I couldn’t be more proud of how they handled various challenges along the way,” said head coach Jennifer Wendry.
Takeda’s biggest challenge is achieving the right mindset before the race.
It’s race day. Nerves are at an all-time high. Takeda wakes up after a well-rested night, knowing her role that morning is of upmost importance. She arrives to the bus, bright and early. It is filled with all of the other rowers.
“What’s funny is that I don’t get nervous until race day,” Takeda said. “When we are traveling to the race, I usually listen to our team Spotify playlist. It’s filled with hip-hop, pump-up artists, like Drake and J-Cole. I really don’t think about the race until right before it starts.”
Takeda said rowing is unlike any other sport.
“Rowing is an interesting sport. You have to work completely in sync,” said Takeda. “There are no plays. You just have to go out and row. It’s very repetitive and many people don’t understand how people find a love in that. In the end, it always comes down to your team.”