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She's at the helm

Handicap doesn't slow down Harvard's freshman coxswain

CAMBRIDGE -- When coxswain Allison Kessler has to get tough with her team of heavyweight Harvard freshman rowers, she draws on deep experience. Not actually rowing or coxing a boat, something she has done for just a couple of years.

"I have three older brothers and I'm the only girl in my family," said the Connecticut native, who graduated last year from Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford and is a Harvard freshman. "So I'm used to being around guys who could beat the crap out of me if they wanted to."

But when she climbs from her wheelchair into the boat for practice every afternoon at the Harvard boathouse, Kessler is very much in charge, the captain of her 58-foot, eight-man boat that races this morning in the youth men's eight at the Head of the Charles Regatta.

Kessler was a ski racer in her high school years, but after a crash left her with a broken back and paralyzed legs three years ago, her sport became crew. She coxed a women's four in high school, so this year's switch to a college men's eight was an adjustment of sorts.

"I'm learning it," she said. "There's a lot to know and figure out besides just communicating to the team. But they're so good, it makes the job easier."

The least important fact about Kessler when she pilots her crew up the Charles is her handicap.

"It really never crosses my mind," said Harvard freshman heavyweight coach Bill Manning. "The fact is, she's more accomplished with her steering. That's our first criteria, and right now Allison does the best job holding a straight line and getting the crew from one point to another in the shortest distance. What we're doing right now is helping her adapt to a much higher level of competition."

Kessler does not use a motorized wheelchair, and as a result her upper body is very strong, said Manning. When she arrives at the boathouse each day, she is able to climb in and out of the boat on her own, and after some initial awkwardness among her crew members, all was normal after a couple of weeks.

"The first couple of days, the oarsmen were far more worried than she was," said Manning. "They were all kind of hovering around her with all the best intentions, but it was a little awkward because they didn't know what they should or shouldn't do. But now they're over that. Whenever she needs any kind of help, Allison is able to ask -- but that's rare for her."

The job of coxing is in part inspiring and communicating with the crew, and in part the technical matter of steering, and the 3-mile Charles River course has plenty of challenges, especially when a boat gets in traffic. But there is no way to strategize how the cox must react in any situation.

"It's not really something you can plan," said Kessler. "It's not like if another boat does this, you do that. You're out there. There is no set rule for how you do things. If you want to catch another boat and you're gaining on them, you tell the crew, `Look, we're gaining on them. You can do it.' But when there are other boats around, you just react to them."

And, she says, there's also a good deal of judgment involved, much of it figuring time and distance ratios, a lesson she learned in high school.

"My first high school varsity race, I called the end of the race really early, about 10 strokes too early," said Kessler. "That got the crew all pumped up for the last 10 strokes but we still had to make it across the finish line. So, you know, it was horrible. They were upset.

"So we qualified for the next round and as we neared the end of that race, I really had to concentrate and focus. When we got near the finish, I called out, `Ten strokes left -- I promise!' I knew the crew was not going to believe me because I messed up so badly in the first race. So that was one area I had to learn."

Kessler had competition among cox prospects in the freshman class. That she won the starting role has much to do, said Manning, with her intelligence.

"I guess you could say she has the book smarts, but she also has the street smarts and common sense," he said. "She relates very well with the crew as an authority figure. It's not a buddy situation. Once they're in the boat, she's in charge. The captain of the ship. She has been able to assume that role naturally, and her crew has great respect for her."

While sprint racing in the spring is more important from a team standpoint, the longer races in this weekend's event have their own challenges. Legendary in the Head of the Charles are two well-publicized turns, the Weeks and Eliot bridges.

"They are tough turns," Kessler said. "You do have to pay attention, but if you give yourself time to prepare and your crew is ready for them, they're not as tough as everyone makes out. The only time you can get in trouble is if a boat next to you is inexperienced and doesn't know how to set the turn up. But otherwise, they're not that bad."

In the boat and around the docks, Kessler's handicap is of little consequence, hardly noticed anymore, and Manning has never really stopped to consider how it affects her ability to cox a boat.

"I really don't know whether it holds her back any or not," he said. "I don't know whether if she were completely able she'd be doing a better job or not, because she's so good at this point. It hasn't really crossed my mind."

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