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Boat Race 2022: A show of fortitude sees James Bernard earn a Blue in Cambridge University’s No 7 seat



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Cambridge's No 7 seat James Bernard meets Oxford No 7 Angus Groom at the crew announcement. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge's No 7 seat James Bernard meets Oxford No 7 Angus Groom at the crew announcement. Picture: Keith Heppell

When James Bernard lines up with Cambridge on the start at Putney, it will be a symbol of fortitude.

In three years studying land economy at St Edmund's College, the 26-year-old American has been on a personal rollercoaster.

Bernard was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and had seen a succession of rowers follow up their studies at Cambridge University.

“Starting out there I saw guys like Steve Dudek, Luke Juckett, Ben Ruble, James Letten, Vince Bertram so it was just a pipeline for me. I thought, ‘I want to come and do that’,” he said.

“I’m really close to Ben Ruble, and I spoke to a lot of the other guys too, on occasions. It definitely helped me try to follow in their footsteps.

“Even stuff about the courses, day-to-day life, tip-offs on where to go, what to do and how to get settled.”

However, what was to follow was something that no-one had previously experienced.

Bernard trialled in the 2019/20 academic year, and had been successful in earning a place in the Cambridge Blue boat. However, just weeks before the 2020 Boat Race, the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a stop and meant the cancellation of the event.

“It was really tough coming out of the cancelled race,” said Bernard. “I think it's just because it happened so close to the event.

“It was that perfect window where it left us really feeling a bit strange. Moving into last year was not very normal either.”

On returning to the US, Bernard had to undergo surgery on an injury and that hindered the trialling process during the 2020/21 academic year.

“I had a bit of a knee operation that took me out for most of the year and dealing with that on top of the lockdown was pretty tough,” he said.

“I had to come back to Cambridge a bit later in the fall of that year. When I got here the lockdowns pretty much hit so I was stuck to training in my room.

“Looking back it was definitely really tough but in the moment you just keep your head down and keep plodding along. I got through it.”

Cambridge University No 7 seat James Bernard at the crew announcement in London. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge University No 7 seat James Bernard at the crew announcement in London. Picture: Keith Heppell

Those hours did reap their rewards as Bernard got back to a level of fitness to secure a place in the reserve crew, Goldie.

That was some feat in itself, and it was topped off by victory for the Light Blues on the River Great Ouse at Ely, a few weeks after the Blue boat had also triumphed on the same stretch of water.

“Looking back, I was really proud of it,” said Bernard. “I was quite driven to get back into the team, and just kept having to push back really because of lockdowns.

“I was hoping to be on the water earlier but it was a full 51 weeks from the time I was last in the boat after the cancellation to when I got in the boat because of the Covid lockdowns.

“It was a long time. I was really motivated. Obviously, at first, it hurt not to be in the Blue boat but it was really good what we did in Goldie and that was a really good group of guys.”

Bernard’s experience in his third and final year may have been a bit different in an academic sense, with much of the lectures online, but he has relished being in Cambridge.

That has been further helped by a more regular year, certainly compared to 12 months ago.

“I think everyone is just really pleased to be in a normal year and be able to get back into Goldie to do the training together and get back out on the water more often,” he said.

“That has really kept the spirits high, and kept us all really excited because, looking back on what we’ve been dealing with in the last two years, it’s just so much better.”

And to top it all off would be victory in the 167th Men’s Boat Race.

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