Boat Race 2022: Caroline Breeden finds a new life on the water close to home with Cambridge University
When the wider media gaze falls on the Boat Race, it is probably understandable that the attention focuses on the sporting exploits.
It is, after all, the hook that makes it such a spectacle, two crews going bow ball for bow ball on the Championship Course on the Tideway.
As we watch the racing on the River Thames, it is easy to forget the hours upon hours of training it has taken for the rowers to reach that moment.
Just as important not to forget is that these athletes are also all students, and the depth and breadth of their studies can be vast, and also eye-opening.
Caroline Breeden has been trialling for the first time with Cambridge University Boat Club this academic year, and was part of the spare coxed four alongside Vera Kunz, Brigid Kennedy, Rosa Millard and cox Amy Richardson that beat Oxford by three lengths.
Stretham-born and based, and a former Stephen Perse Foundation student – when it was then known as the Perse School for Girls – the 28-year-old took the leap into the Light Blues system after picking up an oar for the first time as a PhD student at Queens’ College.
Working within the Faculty of Education, her research examines the commodification of global human movement through time and space, making the work an amalgamation of politics, sociology and a bit of philosophy.
“We have a really nice supervision group with people doing different groups of topics mainly evolving around state crises, knowledge making, history and memory,” explains Breeden.
“My topic is looking at the representation of statelessness and how that can highlight the limits of the law in terms of international law versus national law, in the context of modern nation state building and crises.”
The intention is to interview human rights lawyers and migration lawyers to get an elite knowledge point of view, and then more of a counter-public knowledge point of view from activists and artists around the issue.
“I’m looking at the concept of the refugee and the figure as it stands in today’s world and throughout history, but that has so many different contexts,” says Breeden.
“I’m going to decide on two different contexts, mainly looking at the Channel between France and the UK, and the waters around Greece because they have been the major places in terms of the EU.
“Looking at international law, EU law and state law as well to get those different types of perspectives.”
The subject matter came through Breeden’s MPhil in education, globalisation and international development at Cambridge in 2019, which in turn followed from a BA in sociology at the University of Leeds.
It started with an interest in the international development route of education for girls in developing countries, but with greater awareness of the international development sector and coloniality and power struggles involved, she decided to take a step back from that focus.
“Luckily, my superviser invited me onto a bigger project she was doing looking into an area of Greater Manchester where a lot of unaccompanied asylum seekers were housed and where they were dispersed to,” says Breeden.
“It was a broader project on the area, the inequalities in the area, the history of housing and migration to the area.
“I’m really grateful to my superviser for inviting me onto that project as it just opened my world to this kind of topic of migration, and it went from there really.”
It was during that masters year that Breeden first picked up an oar.
Despite growing up in the area, the focus had always been on dance, which meant practice six days a week.
Heading up to Leeds, the gym became more of a focus rather than any organised team sport.
Having enrolled for the masters, Breeden made the decision to throw herself into everything Cambridge had to offer and the sports fair led to the introduction of a new activity.
“I just thought I was going to try rowing because I couldn’t believe I lived around Cambridge this long and not been on the river and tried it,” she explains.
“With college rowing, it’s just a really nice community and atmosphere, and a good way to meet people. I really love the element of knowing that you can get better every single time you go out on the water.”
Having had a year off rowing between the masters and the PhD, Breeden got back in the boat with Queens’ in the first year back at Cambridge.
She had already been part of the CUBC development squad during the summer of 2019.
“I was thinking about a PhD, so I thought that if I stay I might as well try dev squad during the summer just for the experience,” says Breeden.
“I wanted to push myself and I felt like I would love the team aspect, the coaching aspect and working towards something – not just going to the gym to go to the gym but going to the gym to improve for something.”
It has certainly delivered on all those levels, and while Breeden describes the trialling experience as being fun, it has brought its ups and downs.
The physical challenges were perhaps unsurprising – such as the 5k and 2k tests or the seat racing – but it has also been emotionally demanding.
“Apparently, the first year is always the hardest because you’re not quite sure what’s around the corner, still a bit tentative about what’s going to be happening, especially before Christmas,” she explains.
“You’re not sure what the cuts are going to be and when they’re going to come. You overthink. It’s the pressure that everyone can put on themselves anyway, especially as students already put a lot of high expectations on themselves.
“We already have a lot of high standards set for ourselves. It’s that thought process that gets a bit tiring, alongside everything else that we’re doing with our studies.”
But the support and atmosphere at the club has been crucial.
Crew meetings, driven by both the students and the coaching and support staff, have created the culture.
“Bronya (Sykes) as the president, and the rest of the club as well, has done a really good job of making sure that people feel supported, and making sure that you can go to someone if you’re feeling down or you’re struggling a little bit,” adds Breeden.
“And to make sure this is an enjoyable process – it’s a hobby at the end of the day. Even though it’s a high-performing sport, it’s a hobby and we need to enjoy it.”
To top off the enjoyment factor would be as many wins as possible for the Light Blues across the spares, reserve crew Blondie and the Blue boat come Sunday, April 3.