After a life-changing arm and neck injury, former Heron rower Hannah Bilton ’22 is now coxswain for the Statesmen. A triple major in international relations, biology and political science, Bilton reflects on her shift from the Herons to the Statesmen.
When did you start coxswaining?
In the summer before my senior year, there came a point where I hit the wall with my injury. I was still grinding it out in the weight room and in my mind I was still a top athlete. But I was breaking myself to do it. I started going to physical therapy five days a week, and then I was off all activity. For two months I just sat and watched practice. That’s when I truly felt like the identity I had developed as a rower for the Herons for the past three years was no longer there.
Coach and I both realized it wasn’t working, and he suggested I become a coxswain. At first, it was hard to learn a completely new role in the middle of a racing season where everyone needed a good coxswain and where everyone expects you to be 10 times better than you are.
Tell me about your first practice with the Hobart team.
I stayed on campus last summer to work in the Office of Admissions. William Smith had wrapped up for the season but I was going to practice to watch the three coxswains for Hobart. They were all seniors and they were incredible. We call them the Holy Trinity because they’re that good. I wanted to sit and watch and learn. And that day, one of the coxswains couldn’t make it to practice so I got called in.
We went out on the lake and it was the first time I felt like I had it. I mean, my steering was off, but it was the first time the entire spring semester that I felt happy at the boathouse. After the second day, my teammates were calling me a Statesman and saying, “Hannah, this is your family.”
What’s it like to transition to a new position with Hobart?
As a coxswain, I have to make calls when we’re out there. So after practice, I ask, “What can I do better? What call do you want to hear?” I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback.
There was one incident where one of my teammates just did not want to listen to me. Once we docked the boat, I said, “There’s only one coxswain in this boat. You either choose to listen to me or you get out.” And that was the right call, because we moved on after that.
I’m a strong believer in the idea that you belong in any room you put yourself in. If you demand respect, you’re going to get respect. It helped that the whole team wanted me to be part of their family.
Can you reflect on the move from the Herons to the Statesmen?
People’s identities change as they evolve. It’s not necessarily outgrowing; it’s just changing shape. You take what you’ve learned from your past experiences and move forward. I didn’t fit with the Herons anymore, but I still use everything I learned from my life then to lead a life of consequence now.
My drive, my competitive spirit – I got from being a Heron. And that’s what has allowed me to thrive as a Statesman. I learned how to speak up for myself. Through my injury, I learned how to find my voice.
How do you balance being a triple major and a student athlete? And have time for all of the other stuff you do on campus?
I like to be the most efficient person I can be. After practice, I know I’m dead. So I build my schedule so that I’m finished with my coursework by the time I get to practice. During my first year, I met with our assistant coach all the time to make sure I was on track. From the beginning, I had a lot of support. I think the coaches really make an environment where we are student-athletes and life is more than just rowing.
As a rower, Bilton had several podium finishes for the Herons, including a bronze medal performance in the varsity four at the 2019 Liberty League Championships. She made her debut as a coxswain in the Statesmen novice 4+ at the Touchdown Regatta on the Cayuga Inlet last month.
In addition to being a triple major in international relations, biology and political science, Bilton is minoring in writing colleagues. She is a choreographer and dancer and recently performed in the Kinetic Dance Collective Fall Showcase. She works in the Office of Admissions and the Athletics Department.