Seattle Olympic gold medalist goes from driving boats to business
Mary Whipple’s used to getting the most of her teammates. As the coxswain for the the United States Olympic and University of Washington rowing teams over the past 15 years, she helped lead her crews to two gold medals, a silver and three NCAA championships.
“I just don’t consider myself anything separate than my teammates. We worked together and we accomplished our goals one after another and all of a sudden we ended up at the top,” Whipple told Jenni Hogan on her Next Big Thing podcast.
After an illustrious career guiding rowers from the back end of the boat, she’s retired from the sport and shifting her focus to helping businesses and employees get the most of their effort.
“Every task is relatable to the success of a company, just like rowing,” she said. “We all have a task, but it’s a collective power input to make our boat as fast as possible.”
Still, somebody has to take the lead. How did the diminutive Whipple (she stands a mere 5’3 and weighs just 108 pounds soaking wet) inspire the much bigger rowers to push themselves far beyond where they ever imagined the could go?
“It’s hard. You have to make them believe that what you’re saying is going to work and everyone has to do it at that same time.”
Whipple said that starts with actions, not words. She showed up at every practice, training alongside the rowers each step of the way, even though she didn’t have to. And she encourages business leaders to do the same.
“Your actions are more powerful than words,” she said. “If your actions aren’t authentic, your words aren’t going to be authentic. No one’s going to care unless they value you as a person.”
Whipple and Hogan shared a boat for several years at the University of Washington, where Jenni rowed while Mary coxed the team to two national championships.
Both agreed that praise and positive reviews can go a long way toward getting the most out of people.
“Just acknowledging somebody’s effort, acknowledging that what they did helped somebody else succeed, helped the company succeed, somebody else have a better workplace environment. That kind of positive affirmation, it completely uplifts people and it feeds off each other,” Whipple said. “We’re so critical of each other we forget to tell people what they did right.”
As for the secret to all her success, it’s actually no secret, Whipple said.
“Winning takes care of itself. You just have to make sure you put in the work and you’ve got to love what you’re doing and usually success will follow.”
And with the ups come the downs. Whipple encourages business leaders to remember nobody’s perfect.
“Everyone makes mistakes. You have to plan that something will go wrong and then if something does go wrong you’re like sweet we’re normal. It’s whoever makes the least amount of mistakes and who can just recover from those the best.”
In rowing and life, Whipple said the key is to quickly focus on the next task and keep moving, and ultimately, just like in the boat, every team member matters.
“As long as you are successful and then you bring up your team with you, then you’re going to be way more valuable and your team and your business is going to be way more valuable.”
Along with speaking to businesses, Whipple has devoted her life to training the next generation of coxswains through her organization 9th Seat and coaches aspiring athletes as an instructor with Flywheel Stadium Cycling in Seattle.