The brain behind the boat: Brett Cataldo is a born leader

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Catharyn Hayne - KLC Fotos/Courtesy
April 17, 2021; Oakland Alameda Estuary, Oakland, California, USA; MRow: California vs UC San Diego; Varsity 8; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne - KLC Fotos

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Imagine being an athlete who competes at the highest level to an unseen finish line. This is the task of the crew in a competitive rowing boat. That is, except for one member: the coxswain — the eyes and brains behind the operation.

Now what is a coxswain, one might ask? At one time, Cal men’s rowing coxswain Brett Cataldo had the same question himself. During his freshman year of high school, when Cataldo was walking around campus, the assistant coach of the rowing team approached him and told him that coxing would be a perfect fit for him — likely due to his naturally short stature. Cataldo wondered, “What the hell is that?” The rest is history.

Cataldo, who is a huge Derek Jeter fan, grew up in Connecticut playing baseball up until high school. His father landed a job at Kent School in Kent, Connecticut, which led Cataldo to attend the school. He participated as a team captain in three sports: rowing, cross country and diving.

Kent had always been a good rowing school, but during Cataldo’s junior year, things began taking off for both himself and Kent rowing. Kent was invited to the world-renowned Henley Royal Regatta in England. While there, the team won only one race against collegiate rowing teams, but it was an eye-opening experience for Cataldo.

“It was so intense and doing it at the college level when I was in high school was pretty intoxicating,” Cataldo said. “I realized I could do this every day in college.”

Part of Brett’s reasoning for choosing to row at Cal was his desire to get away from the East Coast and enjoy a change of scenery, not to mention the opportunity to cox for an elite institution; Cal men’s rowing held 17 IRA National Championships at the time Cataldo made his decision.

“This is the place to come if you want to be a real contender, so that was driving my decision for sure,” Cataldo said.

As for his position, Cataldo, who is 5’0” and 125 lbs, is not physically doing any of the work that the rowers are doing, nor does he typically do any physical activity at practice. Cataldo’s physical training comes on his own time during which he either bikes or runs to stay light, a key feature of a coxswain.

Instead, Cataldo is in charge of steering, yelling commands and giving race information while also making sure everyone is mentally ready to go.

“It’s a high-pressure situation. It’s high stakes. I’m not physically doing anything so I can’t flip around and make the boat go faster,” Cataldo said. “You’ve got to have the confidence to lead the guys in the right way and lead them in the way that you know how.”

The pressure is twofold for Cataldo.

“I look at it like this. The guys wake up at 5:30 in the morning every day. They’re training at an elite level. They’re working so hard and I have the potential to not give them an opportunity to race and showcase that skill,” Cataldo said. “That’s where the pressure comes from. And then you have the race day pressure of not saying the wrong things and making the wrong calls. It would be crazy if I told them there are one hundred meters left when there is actually one thousand.”

Reflecting on his time thus far at Cal, Cataldo reflects on the biggest challenge that he has had to overcome in the transition from high school to collegiate rowing.

“The biggest challenge for me was developing my own voice. I wasn’t used to being myself in the boat, being who I wanted to be in the boat, but once I got over that by the end of my freshman year, I started to see the success that I wanted and [that] I can just be myself,” Cataldo said.

Cataldo notes the position calls for more of a mental prowess than a physical one. It’s a fine line between being enough of a coach and being too much of one. You have to understand what the crew is going through. You have to be respected in the sense that if you give technical feedback, people listen to you and feel that it’s correct. You ultimately have to earn the trust of the rowers in the boat. Cataldo has to feel both their excitement and exhaustion.

“A good coxswain has an athlete’s mind; definitely not the physical skill of these boys but the same mind,” Cataldo said.

And Cataldo’s results show that he knows what it means to be a good coxswain. In his third year at Cal in 2019, Cataldo led   the Bears’ second boat to an IRA National Championship with their fastest time being 5:37.32 for the 2000-kilometer race. Head coach and former Olympian Scott Frandsen noted that there were numerous lineup changes in the days leading up to the national championship and highlighted Brett’s role in the crew coming together promptly.

“Brett was a big part of that crew gelling very quickly and the race that they put together in the final, to go on and win in dominant fashion,” Frandsen said. “Brett’s energy and enthusiasm were a big part of that.”

Cal’s second varsity eight boat had recorded a faster time than Cal’s first boat in the regatta. Cataldo noted this is a feature of the culture set at Cal.

“The guys that were in the varsity made us faster; that’s a hundred percent accurate, and I like to think that we do the same thing,” Cataldo said. “The boats that we go out in every day are making each other faster. We all push each other to the level of success that we got.”

Following this outstanding accomplishment, Cataldo and the second boat crew were honored at a reception hosted by Chancellor Carol Christ at the University House as well as during halftime of a 2019 Cal football game against Arizona State.

“It was awesome to have our success recognized because rowing is a sport that’s done behind closed doors. All the training is done when no one is really paying attention,” Cataldo said. “It was cool to have people recognize that we are one of the best, if not the best rowing school in the country.”

T hings were off to a great start during Cataldo’s fourth year until the pandemic hit; COVID-19 abruptly ended what would have been his final year on the team.

“It was probably one of the most devastating sporting feelings that I’ve ever had. We were all in the room and Coach stood up in front of us and he couldn’t even say it,” Cataldo said. “In a sense, it was just sad, but you do realize how important the sport is to the people there.”

Due to COVID-19, the NCAA is adding an extra year of eligibility for all athletes, which is allowing Cataldo to row this year.

“I was looking for that competitive edge anywhere I could get it. I’m looking forward to getting out, side-by-side with another crew and battling it out. I miss the competition,” Cataldo said.

Frandsen acknowledged just how vital Cataldo is to the team, not just for his brains but for the passion he clearly brings to Cal rowing.

“He’s been a big influence on keeping us focused through all the ups and downs. It’s been a difficult year, but Brett has been a steadying voice that has kept us on point,” Frandsen said.

Aside from his rowing endeavors, Cataldo is currently in a cohort titled “Cultural Studies of Sport and Education” within the Master’s of Education program at Cal. He is specifically interested in looking at mental health with regard to student-athletes and how they navigate mental health at the Division 1 level. His interest partly stems from his position as a coxswain.

“I try to find a balance of keeping the guys ready and a lot of that is making sure they’re squared away and ready to go – not just physically, but in the right state of mind. Just being aware,” Cataldo said.

In his future, Cataldo hopes to stay close to rowing, potentially in an athletic development role so he can help those who are going through what he has been through as a student-athlete himself. The sport of rowing requires great mental fortitude, which is exactly what Cataldo loves about it.

“It’s pretty much impossible to understand what these guys are going through unless you’re at practice every morning,” Cataldo said. “That’s what’s so cool about rowing is that it’s a sport of margins, it’s a sport of inches, it’s a sport of 1%. If you work 1% harder than the person next to you, then you’ve got a better shot at winning.”

As the Bears continue their season in Redwood City, California, this weekend, Cataldo will be at the forefront, leading them as he was born to do.

“He brings a positive, fun energy to the team,” said Frandsen. “(He’s) someone (who), in his role, (built) the trust of the guys in the first few months of his career here. They’re not worried that Brett isn’t going to do his job. He instills that confidence in the guys that he’s got his role and all of the things that he can take care of are going to be handled very well.”

Conner Parker covers rowing. Contact him at [email protected].