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Abigail Parker is a natural born leader as Cambridge University Women's Boat Club president

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Cambridge University Women's Boat Club president Abigail Parker. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge University Women's Boat Club president Abigail Parker. Picture: Keith Heppell

Some might say that Abigail Parker is fulfilling a destiny as president of Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club.

When she was elected to the Light Blues role, it seemed to be a natural choice after the 24-year-old had been captain of Harvard University’s Radcliffe varsity heavyweight crew in 2016.

Although, that is not the only reason that Parker’s election to the role feels as if it was always meant to be, as she is from US rowing royalty.

Her father is the late Harry Parker, often referred to as the ‘God’ of rowing is the US having coached the Harvard heavyweight men’s team from 1963 to 2013 with a record that beats almost any successful college coach across all sports.

He guided Harvard crews to nine national championships, 22 undefeated seasons and a record of 44 wins and just seven defeats to Yale – the US equivalent of the Boat Race. He also rowed in the single sculls at the 1960 Rome Olympics and coached six men’s and women’s Olympic crews.

And Parker’s mother is Kathy Keeler, a US Olympic gold medallist in the women’s eight at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, who went on to become a coach with the national team, helping the women’s lightweight double sculls to a silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

But there was never any pressure on Parker to take up the sport.

“They are basically the best rowing parents you could imagine,” says Parker. “When I was younger, they were very gentle. I might be on the erg and my dad might say ‘you might want to think about this one thing’.

“It was never overbearing or super invested in my career. They let me do what I wanted and if I asked for advice, they would give me really good advice.”

Parker first picked up an oar in high school, although, as would be expected, her earliest memories are from the Harvard boathouse.

“A boathouse is a fun place to be as a kid,” said the Emmanuel College student. “I would go out on the launch and my dad would point out the birds on the river and I really liked this one bridge where there were white geese.

“Every once in a while he would lean over and say ‘do you know what squaring and feathering is?’ so we would talk about rowing for a little bit, then I would watch the boat and then go back to watching the birds and nestle in the lifejackets.”

Despite the average person that Parker knew being an Olympic rower, it was not until she joined her first team that she fully appreciated the sport.

Having got the most out of competing and studying whilst at Harvard, it was perhaps only natural for Parker to want to continue somewhere, and the perfect place to combine her palaeontology studies and racing was Cambridge.

It did mean leaving behind the familiar – she missed the famous Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston for the first time in her life in 2017 – and adapting to a new environment where her family pedigree was perhaps not as well known.

“At Harvard, everyone knew where I had come from when I was younger,” she explained. “It was really funny here because my mum actually came out to watch a practice on one of the first days last year when she was helping bring stuff over.

“She was in the launch with Rob Baker (the former CUWBC head coach) and one of the people on the team, and one of my new team-mates leant over to my mum and said ‘so, are you guys from a rowing family?’.

“She thought ‘where do I start?’.”

The background has no significance on the day-to-day training at Cambridge, but it has helped provide Parker with more perspective on the greater view of the sport, particularly on how it developed in the US in the ‘80s.

“It is especially so with the women’s Boat Race just coming equal with the men’s so recently,” she adds. “I have stories from mum of the era when that happened in the US.”

Experience was also a crucial factor in Parker deciding to run for president this year.

In the US college rowing system, captains are always seniors who have been on the team for the past three years, with each year framed as a particular experience.

The nature of the Cambridge system means that you have freshers, undergraduates and postgraduates all competing within the same squad.

Therefore, it is not a case of the leader being the oldest, but more having the willingness and capability to take on the role, and that influenced Parker to throw her hat into the ring despite not making the Blue boat or reserve crew Blondie last year. She won the spares’ race.

There are crossovers between the US captain role and the Cambridge president – such as communicating with the coaches, organisation and keeping abreast of squad dynamics – but they are not so similar in other areas, like the involvement with the executive committee and the overall structure of CUWBC.

“It is very different that’s it’s a club versus a team,” says Parker.

“In the US there is an athletics department which runs all the sport and they have a system in place and that’s how things like finances, hiring and all that stuff is done, through the central department.

“The team and the coaches don’t have to worry about that stuff and here we have to organise all that stuff as well as everything we’re doing ourselves.”

It has been an academic year of change at CUWBC as well, with regards to the structure.

They have collaborated with the Cambridge University Lightweight Rowing Club, with Robert Weber coming in as head coach to oversee the set-up and Astrid Cohnen arriving as one of the assistant coaches, alongside Paddy Ryan.

The biggest difference sees the openweight women training with the lightweight men and women in every session, something that adds to the atmosphere of the club.

“It brings a lot of really great energy to have more people around and especially having people around that are training for different squads,” says Parker. “It’s fun to share it with a bigger group.”

She added: “It’s been trying to keep track of everything that is happening, and staying on top of it all to make sure we’re performing at the highest standard we can.”

And judgement day will be Sunday, April 7.

Cambridge University Women's Boat Club president Abigail Parker. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge University Women's Boat Club president Abigail Parker. Picture: Keith Heppell

Evolving times at CUWBC

Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club has changed significantly in recent times, so it is perhaps appropriate that in the season when they join forces with the lightweight rowing club, their president’s studies focus on evolution.

Abigail Parker is based at the Department of Zoology studying a PhD in the evolution of reptile body size.

Her interest in the subject matter started as a youngster and developed into vertebrate palaeontology to study animals with backbones relating to eco-systems and how the animal world evolved to its current state.

“Body size is a really important trait for everything about how an animal lives and if we can track how that has changed over time it can tell us a lot about how,” said Parker, who spent last summer studying fossils in Ethiopia.

“The data I’m looking at is from all around the world.

“It’s a pretty wide range to begin with, all of the reptiles in the last 70 million years and how big they were so I’m trying to get data from every continent.

“But I’m looking at the Africa stuff specifically because there is a really well studied record related to human evolution as how humans have changed and evolved in this area.

“We know a lot about that environment and the animals that were leaving there, so I’m just going in to look at the reptiles which haven’t been studied as much before and checking what is going on with the reptiles versus the larger trends I’m getting from other research that is not field based.”

It means Parker’s studies are totally separate from the rowing world, which she really appreciates.

“It’s having that attitude of going to training and focusing totally on rowing, and then when I leave rowing I can check that and focus on my studies and be totally immersed in something else,” she adds.

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