Boat Race 2021: Ben Dyer overcomes shielding and Crohn’s disease to earn place in Cambridge University crew
Many people on immunosuppressant medication have been forced to shield during the pandemic.
They fall into the high-risk category with regards to Covid-19, and so for the best part of six of the last 12 months have been advised to keep all contact with others to a minimum.
Ben Dyer has been doing just that in student accommodation in Cambridge, but what makes his story a little bit different is that he has also been training for the Boat Race.
Living with Crohn’s disease, the combination of factors could have been a deterrent to some – after all, it has also meant hours on a rowing machine at home alone – and so you can understand the sense of pride of the 28-year-old Gonville & Caius student in being named in the No 2 seat of the Light Blues’ crew.
To put it in context, just trialling for the Boat Race is hard enough, let alone with a condition where parts of the digestive system become inflamed.
“It can be a challenge,” says Dyer dryly.
“It’s kept at bay with immunosuppressant medication, that’s obviously not great through a pandemic and it’s also not great with cold and flu and training a lot.
“It takes me a long while to get over illnesses. I have to just be in tune with my body. I sleep 10 hours a night.
“It can be quite hard scheduling that in, but it’s what it takes. If I have a flare-up, I can get very unwell; you’re talking unconsciousness at worst, definitely vomiting and migraines, unable to move.
“It can be very debilitating. But when I’m healthy particularly usually in summertime I tested numerous times through the first lockdown and I was fine, I just got off the erg and caught my breath. Your legs are heavy but it was OK.
“It’s about keeping on top of it because once it slips, it really slips.”
Dyer has always been a sportsman.
During his undergraduate degree at the University of Aberdeen, he was a skateboard and BMX coach at an indoor skate park but having got older and taller – he stands at 6ft 6in – he halted his involvement and turned to running.
It was while out working in Dubai that Dyer became aware all may not be quite right as he started to get slower. Having had a blood check, it showed him to be severely anaemic and the solution was to go to a doctor to get an iron infusion.
“It was really easy and really quick,” he explains. “Coming back to the UK, they said iron infusions aren’t routine, let’s find the root of this problem, which led to my diagnosis.
“Still, I was interested in the cure, not in the prevention.
“It was actually Steve Redgrave’s autobiography which I read where he had a battle with colitis in his final Olympic cycle and I thought ‘wait a minute, I have that condition’.
“I started looking into it more. I opened up to family and friends about it. I opened up to my coach about it, and I realised that this was causing the dizziness and fatigue and not the iron.”
When Dyer first came to Cambridge he joined the university’s Hare and Hounds running club, with the ambition of competing in the Varsity Cross-Country Match.
He raced for Achilles – the combined Oxford and Cambridge team – against Tokyo University in 2017, but it was when he realised his times were not on a par with the rest of the squad – although a very respectable 17min 21.85sec for the 5,000m – that rowing entered the equation.
Dyer, whose studies involve looking at magnetic materials with the overall aim to make electric planes viable, noviced in the Michaelmas Term of 2017 with Caius and, has never looked back.
Having put on 15kg by the following April, hitting the scales at 95kg, he signed up for the CUBC development squad.
“It gave me an introduction to what trialling would really be like,” says Dyer.
“It threw me in the deep end a bit, but it gave me a lot of confidence on the rowing machine. Physiologically you were able to directly compare your scores to the guys that had literally just finished the Boat Race.
“Physiologically it gave me confidence, technically I got shredded apart. I was very raw.
“But the coach at the end encouraged me to sign up for the full trialling process in September.
“Overall it was a really good experience to see what it would be like. Despite not being very good technically, I really enjoyed it.”
There was also an introduction to Ollie Fox, a former GB athlete and fellow Cambridge student who was forced to quit athletics because of Crohn’s disease, which proved enlightening about the condition.
“He was the fastest guy at the university and had to stop running through it; he is now a cyclist,” says Dyer.
“It was a wake-up call hearing how he had gone through it, and how if you don’t take it seriously it will take you out for good, or at least make you switch sports.
“After that, I took it more seriously, got better medications and suddenly my times came down a lot further and I feel a lot better.”
In his first year of trialling with Cambridge University, he was a racing spare and was then selected to row in the reserve Goldie crew last year, only for it to be cancelled because of the pandemic.
To deal with the disappointment, Dyer threw himself into training, which proved an invaluable way of coping with the first lockdown and having to shield.
“With the Crohn’s medication that I went on at that point, I suddenly realised that I was able to train a lot harder and my times just came down,” he says.
“I thought ‘wait a minute, I could go one step further’. I didn’t even think it was possible, I never even considered the Blue boat but my times were coming down and I thought why not.
“When I showed up in September, I broke a good benchmark and the coach said ‘you could make the Blue boat if you get your technique down’.
“Here we are, six months later, he put me in his crew.”
It is a story of great fortitude from Dyer, and one that would achieve a fairytale ending with victory for Cambridge in the 166th Men’s Boat Race on Easter Sunday.