Leading The Way

April 29, 2009

By Larry Watts
Contributor, BigTen.org

Erika Benford's specialty is sitting. And the Ohio State sophomore has documented proof.

"I was taking a human nutrition class and we had this (computer) program where I had to log in every meal I ate and my activities, and it would show how many calories I was burning," she says. "I don't burn many calories, walking to class is about it. Then I had to pick an activity level, so I picked low, and it didn't match up.

"I was surprised, so I picked moderate and it still didn't match. The program then told me I had to pick sedentary. That was really insulting, but I'm all right with it. The joke around here is I'm known as the 'sitter."'

That's just fine with the Ohio State rowing team, where as the coxswain for the First Varsity Eight boat, the 5-foot-3 Benford fits in perfectly as the sitter.

"As the coxswain, my only physical goal is to be at 110 pounds, and being 5-3, that really helps," she says. "If I'm less than 110 pounds, I'm not pulling my weight and the officials have to put sandbags under me to bring my end of the boat up to 110.

"The rowers have to be a little more conscious of their weight. They always carb up before a race. You just do whatever you have to do to make you pull hard."

Not having to watch her weight is good news for Benford, who admits ice cream is near the top of her food chain.

"I was sitting in the cafeteria last year when (coach) Andy (Teitelbaum) brought a recruit through and I had a big batch of ice cream right in front of me," she says with a laugh. "He came over to my table and I told him, 'I'm just sitting here eating my salad."'

The effervescent Benford says she got into rowing when she entered her freshman year at nearby Dublin High School.

"I was looking through the school pamphlet for a club to join," she says. "I had done karate for six years (where she holds a black belt) and I had been in lacrosse during middle school, but I was looking for something to do before lacrosse season. I thought rowing would be canoeing, which would require big arm muscles and I've got some arm muscles.



"I went out to my first practice and it was nothing like I thought it would be. All these girls were taller than me and they made me a rower at first, and I wasn't one of the good ones. I wasn't sure I wanted to do this, but I was 14 and one of the girls in my neighborhood offered me a ride to and from school every day, so I stuck with it and fully planned on going out for lacrosse in the spring."

But during the offseason, her Dublin coach made her an offer she couldn't refuse. He told her he was planning on switching her to coxswain.

"I said, 'You mean I can just sit there, yell and steer?"' she says. "He said, 'Yep.' I figured I could do that."

From that point on, Benford became a rowing fanatic. She did crew in the summer, fall and spring while taking part in winter conditioning. And she also taught rowing for the Greater Columbus Rowing Association during the summer.

As the coxswain, Benford sits at the end of the boat wearing a microphone wired to speakers along one side of the boat. As she shouts instructions to the crew while operating the rudder, she has to keep an eye on a small computer, which keeps track of such things as the rowers' speed, the current and pressure.

"It's my job to make sure we are doing everything efficiently and not spinning our wheels," she says. "The rowers can't see where we are on the course, so I have to let them know the markers we pass and when to make our move. People think I'm just the one sitting there yelling, but there are a lot of things I have to do. If I see one of the girls lunging and getting too deep into the water, I have to make sure I let her know."

Benford admits she was a bit surprised to find herself in the First Varsity Eight boat as a freshman, but she was eventually moved to the second boat, which wound up placing second at Nationals. This year, she is back in the first boat, which is ranked No. 8 nationally heading into the Big Ten Championships this weekend.

"I came into Ohio State with a big head," she says. "I kept asking Andy when he was going to put me in the first eight, but I was only kidding. I really didn't know where I fit in because I was one of six coxswains and I was the youngest with another freshman. I was in shock when he put me in the first boat right away. I really didn't think I was ready, but I had no choice.

"I stepped up to what I could do, but I think the stress and nervousness affected me. I got bumped down, but I was kind of relieved and I wanted to make the second eight as fast as I could possibly make it."

Although 13 members of the Ohio State rowing team are from foreign countries, Benford says she has no problems communicating with the other rowers since they all have to pass an English proficiency test before coming to Columbus.

"I'm going to be living with a girl from Scotland, two Norwegians and a girl from England next year," she says. "It's a lot of fun learning about different types of people and their customs. And it's definitely a big perk because I'm building up my list of countries I can eventually visit!"

While her teammates are busy training on ergs (rowing machines) during the offseason, Benford's job is to record their performances and make sure they are doing the workouts to their best ability.

"I'll stand behind them and cox them, trying to motivate them to their best numbers," she says. "They're all working up a sweat while I'm standing there and the funny think is they all seem to be OK with it. But I really don't know what they're thinking in the back of their minds while I'm pushing them through these difficult workouts. It all comes down to the relationship you build with the rowers."

For someone who is called "the sitter," Benford is hardly an idle person when it comes to leading her rowing team in community involvement. The women's rowing team currently ranks fourth among all the Ohio State teams in community service hours.

"Andy decided we needed to do more community service," she says. "Before, we would do something like four events, but I was only a freshman and I was not aware of the different opportunities. He knew I was big into community service work and asked me in October to be the chair of our community service projects and I found out we could do as many as we wanted."

The rowers' first project was a walk called "Light the Night," where they raised $2,500 in just one week for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. They have also performed projects for Habitat for Humanity, spent time reading to elementary students in inner city schools for the illiteracy program 2nd & 7 and have volunteered to work with sick children at Children's Hospital in Columbus.

"I don't look at these projects as tasks," says Benford, who is the co-rounder of Pink for Life, which is a breast cancer fundraiser linked with the American Cancer Society and Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research. Stefanie, the wife of former Ohio State football All-American Chris Spielman, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998.

"When I have the free time, I look for a community service project," Benford says. "I really enjoy it; it's not a burden.

"Our team has never been in the top five for service hours before. We may be fourth, but we're No. 1 in our hearts!"

Although it has been eight years since she earned her black belt, this perky brunette says she hasn't had to rely on her martial arts skills.

"Now I would probably scream first because being a coxswain has prepared me to be a good yeller," she says with a laugh. "I would tell them not to touch me because I'm crazy. Hopefully, that would put the fear of God into them."

A business and marketing major, Benford will be doing her third internship this summer at a capital and investment bank in New York City. Keeping an eye on a berth on the U.S. Olympic team in 2012, she says she wants to eventually move to the Big Apple.

"I love working; it's a lot of fun," she says. "I keep telling everyone I'm going to be a CEO right away."

It's a perfect job for someone who likes to sit.