Rowing at Cambridge is one of those things that almost everyone I mention it to has vaguely heard about, but interest in the subject tends to dwindle quickly as soon as it transpires that No, I won't be on TV racing Oxford in the Xchanging Boat Race in London. Nevertheless, I get asked a lot about why I bother rowing for the University, so I thought I'd try to give a bit of an insight into the motivations behind wanting to row for Cambridge. After all, it is more than legitimate to wonder why someone would give up a large proportion of their life to train 10 to 12 times a week, including at hours of the morning which few would consider humane, and to lose 20% of their body weight in the process, when there is little tangible, immediate benefit to be derived from doing so.
The Boat Race, after all, tends to evoke prejudices of huge hunks with no brains getting into top Universities for being good at sports and getting a free degree without having to do any work (MSc Water Management, anyone?). While this isn't the case, it's also besides the point – the point is that there are two other clubs which are practically unknown outside the (student) rowing community – the women's (CUWBC) and lightweight men's (CULRC) rowing clubs. These clubs also race their Oxford counterparts in late March/early April every year, but there is no such thing as media coverage, or general public interest. This is, to some extent, understandable, given that what attracts huge crowds to the Boat Race is not the rowing but the immense tradition of the event itself. It is a shame, though, because the Henley Boat Races – where the women and lightweights race – is characterised by the same all-or-nothing, winner-takes-all attitude. This poster, made a few years ago, sums it up well:
The heavyweight men's Boat Race crews regularly feature a number of international oarsmen and rowers from top schoolboy crews around the world and can compete at the highest level, e.g. in the top open events at Henley Royal Regatta. The „other“ University rowing crews cannot usually boast such a track record – this may make them less attractive from a sensationalist, glamorous media perspective, but it makes rowing for these clubs an entirely different experience.
Last year, I briefly trialled (i.e. tried out for selection) for the heavy men's Boat Race with CUBC, and while the brevity of this episode may mean that I don't have as much insight into this club as I would like to, this experience has significantly influenced my decision to trial for CULRC this year. While there was no such thing as being looked down upon for having only learned to row at Uni or being far less experienced, I felt a little...out of place. Maybe, given my experience of just two years, I was, but this, at the same time, is what makes CUBC somewhat different from rowing at Cambridge University as a whole. While people who learned to row at Cambridge sometimes make Goldie or even the Blue Boat, CUBC is generally dominated by extremely high-standard oarsmen who are often doing an MPhil or a PhD – and there is nothing wrong with this, it's not like they're not legitimate students or shouldn't be around or anything. It's just that for the majority of people who didn't row before coming to University, representing one of the other University Boat Clubs is the pinnacle of their sporting career during their time in Cambridge.
At CUBC, I felt like a bit of a tag-along – nobody made me feel unwelcome or useless, but it was impossible to shake off the feeling that the coaches had made up their minds about some of us fairly quickly and for the few sessions that we did get to go to, we were taken because a suitable time had not yet been found to cut us.
The most enjoyable aspect of rowing with CULRC for the last three months has been the contrast to this experience – feeling like an equal member of a squad of people with a reasonably similar background to mine. Being accessible to far more people on the basis that less experience is required and because it does not have a reputation that may daunt many potential triallists allows for a more diverse crowd. It's fantastic to compete for a place in the squad with people I can relate to, and who I know are ultimately gunning for the same goal I am: a place in the Blue Boat and a win against Oxford.
I realise this post may seem like a bit of a shout for attention from an „inferior“ athlete who didn't make it into the „top league“, but I hope it also goes some way to conveying why I have decided that it is a good idea to give up most of my free time - and food - for a chance to compete in a race that few know exists. It may not be everyone's thing, but it's certainly mine.