Mary Whipple Murray, one of the most decorated and revered coxswains in the history of rowing, got her start one hot summer Washington day as a middle-schooler. Mary and her younger sister, Sarah, were both bored and driving their mother crazy. Their resourceful mom thought of a solution and enrolled the sisters in a rowing camp at the local aquatics center— after all, their mom rationalized, rowing should be fun for a couple of spindly sub-five footers.
The sisters’ mom was so right.
“We took the six lessons, and then the coach told us we might be great coxswains,” said Mary. “We were confused about what he called us, and then intrigued, and before we knew it, we were on the high school team.”
After high school Mary earned a spot in the coxswain seat for the women’s eight rowboat at the University of Washington. The wins piled up for Mary and her teammates—her team only lost twice. At the next level, Mary built on that impressive collegiate success as the coxswain for the US team from 2004 2012. “True, we didn’t lose much at those levels,” said Mary, a member of the Shaklee Pure Performance Team, “but I lost so much in high school that early on I learned really valuable lessons about leadership and overcoming adversity.”
Beginning with her high school team, Mary followed a direct path to the pinnacle of her sport’s achievement: three Summer Games medals, with a silver medal in 2004, gold in 2008, and gold in 2012.
Conducting a winning rhythm
The coxswain sits at the stern of the boat and faces the eight rowers. The rowers each wrap their powerful hands around a 12-foot-long oar and sit with their backs to the bow. The coxswain is the only one in the boat who can see ahead but also the last to cross the finish line. “I’m the coach in the boat, the race strategy manager, the tactician, and race status reporter,” Mary explained. And she is the undisputed leader of one of the most successful teams in Summer Games history—in any sport.
All the members of the women’s eight agree that the mighty heave of each rower—pulling nearly 25 tons of force during their 250 strokes in the 2000-meter race—would yield just lots of disorderly splashing without the leadership and race management skills of their diminutive coxswain. “She’s a powerful personality in that small frame,” said rower and fellow member of the Shaklee Pure Performance Team Caryn Davies, who sat directly across from Mary for all three of their medal runs in the Summer Games. “We rowers might have pulled to the medals, but no question that she pushed us there!”
What are some of the leadership principles that Mary employed to help take her teams to victory? Here’s a glimpse at the concepts Mary believes can help leaders inspire their groups to higher achievements:
- Demand—positively! “I describe my leadership as ‘positively demanding.’ Being on a team means we’ve agreed to a culture, to giving our best. I set and enforce the standard that we’ve promised each other.”
- Consistency: “Leaders need to be consistent in their actions and in decision-making. If there is any variance then you need to explain why you chose that action or decision. It is simple transparency that helps everyone understand what to expect and then work without fear or uncertainty.”
- Vision: “I’m the only one who can see ahead in the boat, but we all can keep the ‘big picture’ in mind. If we know the broader goals then it’s easier for us to overcome adversity and to work harder in spite of tedium, lack of immediate gratification, or minor setbacks. Look ahead, see the big picture, and share the vision with everyone.”
- Validation: “My teammates pull in the same motion thousands of times a day in perfect unison. It would be easy to feel lost in it all, so I make sure that each person knows the value of her contribution. We all want to know that our small part is important to the whole, so I ensure that everyone feels valued. If a leader sees the group losing quality, first check that the motivation level is right by providing validation to what the members are doing. Whether it’s with a spouse, team member, or partner, every little bit of validation is good. And necessary.”
- Love: “I’m so fortunate,” exclaimed Mary. “I absolutely love what I’m doing, but in a way that might surprise you. I’ve learned that you need to own the process, stay authentic to the process, and love the process. We take pride in our technique, and even take pride in the mundane steps. You quickly enjoy what develops, and before you know it, you’re saying, ‘How did I do that great thing?’ The answer is that you loved all the little steps.”
Beyond leadership, Mary believes that health and fitness are critical for top achievement in any endeavor. “We should want to be the best version of ourselves, to feel strong and energetic,” she explained. “Strive to stay active and loose and use the body you’ve been given. That’s one reason I love Shaklee— it’s about putting the proper nutrients into your body, fueling it correctly so that you can enjoy more of your life.”
Mary has certainly enjoyed those proud moments with her teammates, standing on the pier with them after the medal ceremonies, a culmination of leadership, teamwork, hard work, and lots and lots of strokes. The victory tradition is to toss the flailing coxswain into the water after the ceremony. It’s happened many times to Mary Whipple Murray.
And she makes a very big splash indeed.
A special thank you to Mary Whipple Murray, Gold Medal winner in the 2012 Summer Games and 2008 Summer Games, Silver Medal winner in the 2004 Summer Games, and Member of the Shaklee Pure Performance Team. Mary’s favorite Shaklee products include Vitalizer and Shaklee Physique.