The Accidental Dream Job
By Catie Staszak
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – It’s 6:37 a.m. As the sun peaks through the clouds over Indian Creek, three boats push off from the dock at the Miami Rowing Club boathouse. As the boats make their way down the canal’s channel, twenty oar blades break the plane of the otherwise-still ocean water. Twenty female rowers rhythmically thrust their arms back and forth in synchronization. They row backwards, but their boats move forwards.
Off to the side, Andrew Carter sits in his motorboat, taking in the scene. His wizened eyes examine each minute detail of the rowers’ strokes. Better than binoculars, they detect any and all errors in technique that could be modified to increase the boats’ – and the rowers’ - speeds. His voice, amplified by his ever-present megaphone, booms, breaking the quiet, but he does not yell.
“Ready, ready? Go!”
The rowers respond. Suddenly the intensity of the strokes increases. Despite the cool morning temperature, beads of sweat perspire on the rowers’ foreheads. Concentration shows on each face. You would think these girls were in the heat of competition by the effort they put forth, perhaps pushing themselves towards the finish line in the final 500 meters of a big race.
But it is only a routine practice for the University of Miami women’s varsity rowing team. These girls just want to please their coach.
Andrew Carter smiles in appreciation. If you ask him how all of this came to be – his head coaching position at the university, all of his successes in the sport – he will chuckle and give you a four-word answer that requires explanation.
“It was an accident.”
Carter can’t remember the exact day that it happened. It’s not because he tries to block the event from memory, though at the time it frustrated him to no end. But one afternoon in the late 1980s, Carter’s career as a rower essentially ended.
Young and over-eager, Carter, while running to his local boathouse in Nova Scotia, lost his footing. He rolled his right ankle and sprained it.
It wasn’t a serious injury, but the joint swelled to the size of a large grapefruit. Carter knew he’d be out of commission for several weeks.
But he couldn’t stay away from the boathouse and the sport he had grown to love since he was 17 years old. Carter continued to maintain a presence at the boathouse in support of his fellow rowers and neighbors.
That’s when he got his first coaching job.
“There was a junior women’s pair there, and one of the rowers was the younger sister of a guy whom I was rowing with,” Carter recalled. “They didn’t have a coach, and they asked me to help them since I couldn’t row because they were training for the Canadian Secondary Schools Championship, which is a very big regatta.”
Carter agreed and worked with the pair – Kim Oxner and Jennifer Sanders – for two weeks. They went off to their regatta and finished an impressive third.
“It seemed to just evolve from there,” Carter said.
It was both a career and a personal evolution. Carter started coaching all of his peers, including a neighbor who would end up making three Olympic games. Although Carter did row again, he soon found he could not dedicate himself fully to both competing and coaching. Ultimately, he chose to focus on coaching.
And personally, Carter gained a lifetime partner. Kim Oxner now shares a last name with Carter as his wife. The two were married in 1995.
“He blames me and gives me credit at the same time for getting into coaching,” Mrs. Carter said, laughingly.
Carter the Teacher
Carter followed his career track to the United States in 1996 to coach the Vassar College rowing team. As the possessor of a master’s degree in kinesiology, he also took on a teaching position at the school, leading courses in biomechanics, physiology and applied anatomy.
At the University of Miami, Carter only has coaching duties due to the large size of the program, but he doesn’t let his strong academic background go to waste.
Carter is a numbers guy, a man all about logic. It shows in his daily routines and coaching methods.
For instance, last week Carter gave his rowers a physics lesson to justify why the girls needed to adjust their strokes and blade positions in the water. He wanted them to bring their blades from the feather position – when the blade is parallel to the water – to the square position – when the blade is perpendicular to the water – later in their stroke. He took to a whiteboard and wrote out the formulas for velocity, cadence and arc length and explained with numbers how this would help improve their boats’ times.
“About three of them listened,” Carter said, laughing.
Carter also uses a lot of numbers-based rowing technologies. On each of his crews’ boats is a device called a “Speed Coach,” which uses magnets to detect the boats’ constantly changing speed and stroke rate. Every day Carter gives his crews a desired speed that they must maintain during practice, and he monitors it on his own Speed Coach device. Also occasionally used are “Smart Oars,” which act as stroke analyzers. These wireless transmitters detect the force curve for every stroke an oar makes. Carter can tell which of his rowers are rowing strongest and which are struggling with their stroke.
“He’s a great mentor to have just because he knows so much about the sport,” said Meredith Razzolini, assistant coach of the rowing team. “He’s so bright when it comes to the physics of the sport and the sports medicine behind it. He really brings a lot to the table.”
Carter’s methods have translated into consistently faster times for his crews, both in practice and in races. In his first year at Miami, the Hurricanes finished sixth with just two boats (three are eligible for points) at the ACC Championships. In the three short years since, Carter filled an entire third boat, and his 1st-varsity 8+ crew produced two consecutive fourth-place finishes at the ACC Championships in 2011 and 2012. The 1V 8+ boat even improved its time in this event by 13 seconds between 2010 and 2012, from 7:02.6 to 6:49.6. This year, the Hurricanes already started their season stronger by earning three medals at the Head of the Hooch regatta in Tennessee.
Carter’s crew moans and groans at the mention of another math lesson in a manner similar to a daughter rolling her eyes at her father.
But that’s because Carter is like a father to his rowers.
“He has a son (Mason, a vibrant 10-year-old who refers to himself as the assistant head coach of the rowing team, involved in all aspects of recruiting), but he also has about 30 daughters,” joked Katie Guest, a junior who was part of Carter’s first Miami recruiting class in 2009.
Carter also recruited Hannah Hawks, who went on to become the 2012 ACC Freshman of the Year. She says she wouldn’t have come to Miami if it weren’t for Carter, and that he invests in every girl on his team – even on a personal level.
“One time I drove by his apartment, and my car got a flat tire,” Hawks recalled. “He saw what happened through his window and came out to help. He filled up my tire, adjusted something else on my car, and then sent me on my way. He’s so much more than a coach.”
And if you tell Carter that, he’ll modestly shrug off the compliments, citing his actions as his obligations, a part of his job.
“They’re rowers, but way before that, they’re people,” Carter said. “And they have real people stuff going on.”
It’s 8:30 a.m. After almost two hours of practice, a workout expenditure for the rowers that Carter has equated to completing three races and playing six – yes, six – basketball games, Carter whistles and motions for his boats to head back to the dock. He wants his rowers to arrive at campus in time to make their 9:30 classes.
As his boat cruises at placid pace, he gazes at the magnificent skyline before him. Then he notices an unfamiliar ripple in the water several feet ahead. Two playful dolphins emerge from the depths of the ocean, a mix of water and air emerging from their blowholes.
Carter smiles and points.
“No matter how often they swim by us, it’s still a novelty when we see them,” he says.
Carter has coached rowing for almost 30 years, but he shows an enthusiasm towards the sport as if that too was relatively new to him.
"I’ve been really fortunate to work with some great kids, and they’ve won some special stuff – from the NCAA Championships to the World Championships to the Olympic games,” Carter said. “But I don’t think I could ever point to any one of those things and say, ‘That was it.’ If I did, I probably wouldn’t be back tomorrow.”
But he will. He, his motorboat, and his crews will be back in the water tomorrow morning just around 6:37 a.m.