In his role as a rowing coxswain, Zach Vlahos is the jockey U.S. coach Mike Teti hopes will direct his eight-man crew to a successful run at the London Olympics.
"It's like you're riding this horse in the Kentucky Derby and have all these horses around you and you have to maneuver your horse and get to the finish line," said Teti, who also coached Vlahos at Cal. "You have to be able to steer the boat, make the correct calls and keep a cool head. Zach fits that bill."
Vlahos, a 23-year-old native of Piedmont, understands his role in the equation. The race is 2,000 meters of adrenaline-fueled muscle. There will be six boats in each heat on the waters of Eton-Gorney, beginning with Saturday's first-round races, and Vlahos must be the rudder, computer and motivator.
"It's really about the rowers," he said. "These guys are working pretty damn hard. What can I do to make it better?
"You want all the information on what's going on around us coming from me. They've got to have trust in me. The tough part about it is to keep everything simple so they don't have to think too much."
As the latest in a long legacy of Cal men in the eights boat at the Olympics, Vlahos has the endorsement of Pete Cipollone, coxswain of the gold-medal crew at the 2004 Athens Games. Cal teams representing the U.S. also won at the 1928, '32 and '48 Olympics.
Cipollone, 41, watched as Vlahos steered Cal's varsity eight to the 2010 national crown over a favored Washington team. He also was impressed by victories Vlahos helped generate at the under-23 world championships in 2011 and at the final Olympic qualifying regatta at Lucerne, Switzerland, in late May.
"It sort of forms a pattern. The crews seem to perform to their potential when Zach is their coxswain," said Cipollone, who has served as a mentor for Vlahos. "That's not that common when you have a coxswain who is young and has not been to the Olympics. Zach acts like he has."
Certainly he's well-prepared. At Cal, Vlahos majored in organizational behavior, which he describes as "business psychology ... kind of getting people to do what you want them to do."
Vlahos' mother, Nancy Cutler, might have benefitted from those classes when her son was growing up.
"He's always been the kind of kid who if you told him to do something he might not," she said, "but if you told him it was his job he took it very seriously."
Cutler said Vlahos embraces every aspect of that commitment. At 5-foot-9, 121 pounds, he is careful not to eat too much, and his focus on the team is such that he won't divert his attention right now even for family activities.
"I understand that," Cutler said. "He went in not knowing any of these guys, and had to get their trust, make sure they understood he was up to the task."
Vlahos downplays the connection between his academic major and his crew assignment, but Teti buys in. "That's probably the perfect fit for this situation," he said.
Teti, beginning his fifth year as Cal's coach and headed to his eighth Olympics as an athlete or coach, describes Vlahos as organized, low-key, methodical. "He's a teammate," Teti said.
And that's the trick for a coxswain -- to be accepted by the rowers as just one of the guys. Vlahos went to great lengths to establish that connection.
Despite the fact that he has an apartment in San Francisco, Vlahos spent several nights a week at the house in Orinda that USA Rowing rented for the team while it trained in the Bay Area this spring and early summer.
"You've got to work together even off the water," Vlahos said. "We're a really tight group now."
How that translates on the water remains to be seen. The U.S. was the last of eight boats to qualify for London and faces severe competition from the likes of Germany, Canada and host Great Britain.
Vlahos expects his coach to have the crew ready to peak by race day. Teti said being ready is all the team can control.
"You're going to have to have the best day of your life on the day of the final," he said, "and hope that's enough."
Contact Jeff Faraudo at firstname.lastname@example.org.