Bruno Cipolla, the ‘Rower Whisperer’

by Giuseppe Lamanna (translated by Gillian Shaw) source text

He who rules the waves, writes history. This quote entered the collective memory via the British Naval Admiral, Horatio Nelson, but which is now more closely linked with one of the most important but least considered roles in rowing: the coxswain. What’s more all eyes are on the rowers during races and not on the ‘little’ great men who ‘whisper’ from the bows or the stern.

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The legendary Bruno Cipolla

The rowing stroke is like an unbroken chain of instants and rowers live from one to the next, without really taking much notice of what has just or is about to happen. A luxury denied to the cox, because their job is not to ‘enjoy’ the journey, but to predict the future and to change the final outcome by using their voice. And this is just what Bruno Cipolla did in 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, who as cox steered the coxed pair of Renzo Samba and Primo Baran to Olympic gold.

The ‘Rower Whisperer’

Bruno Cipolla’s story is not just one of the past, it is even more valid now. After almost half a century has passed since that medal, this great athlete continues to have fun in boats; his purpose is to pass on his passion and experience to the youngsters who have recently taken up rowing.

Are coxswains born or made, Bruno?

“I would say they are born. As for me, I got into rowing by accident. At the time I played football with the local football team, near Treviso. One of my teammates was also a rower and one day he suggested I went with him to be a cox. That was it, the start of my career”.

His win at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics with Baran and Sambo has an odd prologue: when you were weighed, you must not be over the 50kgs stated in the rules. Is it true that to avoid racing with ballast tied to your back, you would drink water until you reach the right weight and then when you passed the test, you would run and sweat to lose all the extra fluid?

“Yes, it’s all true. That was how I did it. I tried to keep myself to about 48.5/49kg, so I didn’t have to wear the ballast – at the time it was rather unpleasant. They used to use bags of sand, that could even unbalance the boat. So, I would drink a litre and a half of water and then get rid of it on a long run”.

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You were only 15 years old in 1968, when you won the gold medal. Is it true that while Baran and Sambo were on the podium, crying like babies, you were the only one who was laughing?

“Oh yes, I had all the innocence of my 15 years. When I found myself at the top of the podium I thought I really had made it big. Even more so because in those days, there were hardly any kids who were coxes. If I remember correctly, there were only three of us: me, a Kiwi and a French lad. So it really was something”.

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From the outside, the role of the coxswain is much underestimated. What are the qualities you need as a athlete to to this role really well?

“Now, there is only the 8+ left at Olympic level. And in this particular boat, the role is crucial. The coxswain must be able to understand which tactic to use in the race and know when to change it.  Then, a lot depends on how much the cox trains with the crew. If they train together, the cox will know perfectly what he can ask of them, and above all when to ask for it. On the other hand, if the cox is unaccustomed to the crew, it’s enough to have someone who can steer straight, but the result will never be as good”.

At the National University Championships, you were the cox for a crew having spent less than 2 days with them. Was it harder 46 years ago for a 15 year old to shout commands at two expert rowers like Baran and Sambo, or today for a 60 year old to make himself heard by the kids?

“At the time it was really difficult. But despite my youth, I was already had a certain confidence. In one sense I ruined my adolescence, because I grew up so quickly. Now, though, I have the advantage of having an Olympic medal and white hair, they all listen to me even when I say stupid things”.

 Compared to rowers, do you feel fulfilled as a coxswain?

“Of course, because you tune in with the rowers and become one of them. I’ve seen it with the youngsters at St. Cristoforo RC in Milan. After a few days we are all working in harmony. If we had more time to train together we would be far ahead of the others. In the end, we all congratulated each other with no discussion about who had rowed better or worse, or if I had made mistakes.  It’s fundamental to being a team”.

Have you ever wanted to try rowing yourself?

“I did it a few times for fun, but it never really interested me. I enjoy what I do, and that is my role. Every time I go out in a boat, even a sailing boat, I go straight to the rudder without being asked”.

 Even to a spectator, the coxswains seem to shout terrible things at the rowers. What do they say really?

“Nothing offensive, thank goodness! They set a bit of rhythm – the catch and the finish – or if the cox can feel the boat movement and notices a lack of leg drive, that will be a call.  It important to remember tactics too. The race becomes really critical when you are bow ball to bow ball with your opposition or you are trying to come back at them”.

At the end of your career you graduated in Sports Psychology, working along side athletes who have achieved greatness with your help. From your experience, how does an amateur rower manage to achieve their most tricky goals?

“I chose to study Sport Psychology because it was what I wanted to do after being a cox and coach. I was the Psychologist for the national team from 1976 until 1980, and then I moved on to other disciplines. I worked with the Benetton basketball and the Sisley volleyball teams, following so many athletes at their individual levels. But they are professionals. As for amateurs, it needs to be a different discussion. I see so many Masters who rush into becoming strong straight away, but it just isn’t possible. You need to be patient and rebuild your body a little at a time. After so many years of no activity, moderation is the best approach, because trying to leapfrog stages of development can pose huge risks to your health. For this reason, don’t be in a hurry. Train well and consistently and you will see that once you have overcome your ‘mental’ boundaries, or really the idea of feeling tired, you will succeed in the technical and physical challenges”.

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