On Sunday 2 April 2017 two Trinity students will take part in rowing races that attract 250,000 to the banks of London’s Thames and millions worldwide on television.
The rowing competition between Oxford and Cambridge began in 1829 for men and in 1927 for women. 2017 will be the 163rd Boat Race and 72nd Women’s Boat Race – both taking place on the Tideway.
Imogen Grant, a third-year medical student, is in the Women’s Blue Boat, and Hugo Ramambason, in his third year of chemical engineering, is coxing the Men’s Blue Boat. Both students have been rowing in the University squads for some time, but this is their first year in the Blue Boats.
Imogen was in the 2016 women’s reserve boat, Blondie, which beat Oxford’s Osiris. This year, she says, feels very different.
Last year, everything was new and exciting. It was my first year trialling for the university squad and I had no idea how I would measure up. I had no goal, and everything that went well was a bonus. This year, I knew what I wanted – to make the Blue Boat.
With that comes more pressure, of various sorts. For Imogen, it’s the global interest in the historic race, and the attention that comes with it.
‘The build up to the Boat Races is big, and the part I find most challenging is staying focused while we go to the weigh in, have photos taken and do interviews.
It’s easy to get caught up in it all, when your job is to train, row and hopefully win. The training and coaching doesn’t change though, so that’s a constant and always keeps me grounded,’ she says.
Hugo, who was in the men’s reserve boat, Goldie, in 2015 and 2016, says the most difficult thing about coxing is making the right decisions under pressure.
When we’re racing and there are people watching, be it coaches or others, there’s a lot of pressure to make the right decision and not make any mistakes. That can be steering – in recent years steering incidents have decided the race – or it can be more general tactical calls.
But, says Hugo, that’s what the training prepares you for.
There’s much less pressure when you realise that you’ve spent a whole season preparing to race. Beyond that I like to forget about rowing when I’m away from training, especially as we come towards racing, so I’ll just chill out with my team-mates, who are also great friends.
Last year the Cambridge Women’s Blue Boat took on water in some of the worst conditions endured by crews for years. But extensive training means Hugo and Imogen are prepared for anything they encounter on the Tideway this Sunday. ‘There are no conditions too windy or too fierce to keep us off the water. I know that my crew can handle anything,’ says Imogen.
Hugo agrees. ‘We never go into races with rigid race plans. Once we’ve come off the start and we’re in the rhythm that will sustain us for 20 odd minutes we don’t think much, it’s just about churning on. Poor weather and rough water are variables to throw into the mix – beyond those it’s just about being confident racing through whatever the weather throws at us.’
Learning how to deal with the pressure helps with other areas of life too, says Hugo.
Between the pressure of getting selected, the pressure of managing a hectic schedule and the pressure of racing, nothing else ever feels that stressful. It’s easy now, when I’m challenged, to just breathe and remember that I’ve stepped up and dealt with much tougher challenges before.
I also think that being a cox has made me better at organising my thoughts and explaining them very clearly. When you’re racing and you have a very short time frame to explain something to the crew, it forces you to think quickly and condense what you have to say.
And being in the University squad forces you to organise your time well, says Imogen.
Balancing rowing and work isn’t easy, especially when at times you want to do one more than the other – whether that’s trying to stay later in the lab to finish an experiment, or catch an extra five minutes talking to a coach. Studying and rowing are related – I love all of what I do and the passion I see in the lab and at training motivates me to push myself.
The Cancer Research UK Boat Races take place on Sunday 2 April. BBC TV coverage begins at 16:00, with the women’s race at 16:35 and the men’s race at 17:35.