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Boat Race 2023: Cambridge University Boat Club’s Seb Benzecry eager to add Tideway victory to his rowing CV

With last year’s Olympians having moved on, Seb Benzecry will be one of the more experienced members of the Cambridge University Boat Club’s men crew during Sunday’s Gemini Boat Race.

Half of the 2022 eight-man crew had represented their respective countries at the Games, though that was one less than the Oxford boat, who chalked up their first win in six years with a two-and-a-quarter length triumph on the Tideway.

Benzecry was part of the Cambridge’s reserve line-up that day, while 12 months previously he had been a member of the Blue boat that emerged victorious from the Covid-impacted fixture at Ely.

Seb Benzecry is looking to win the Boat Race for a second time. Picture: Keith Heppell
Seb Benzecry is looking to win the Boat Race for a second time. Picture: Keith Heppell

By his own admission, leading from the front is not something that has come naturally to the 24-year-old. Yet, Benzecry is one of only three Blues in this year’s line-up and so there is an acceptance that he will have some potentially valuable insights to share.

And it is something that he has enjoyed doing as the team worked to compensate for the absence of stellar names.

“Because there is such a lack of international talent, I feel like I have had a responsibility in terms of trying to embody a bit more of a leadership position alongside the guys who are also returning from last year as well,” said Benzecry, who is studying films and screen studies at Jesus College.

Seb Benzecry was part of the victorious 2021 men’s boat. Picture: Keith Heppell
Seb Benzecry was part of the victorious 2021 men’s boat. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We have two guys who were in the Blue last year back this year and we three and then some of the other good guys coming in have tried to lead from the front.

“It was really helpful for me to have the Olympians on the team last year. Seeing how they operate and their training philosophies, the way that they trained and their consistency – it was eye opening. How they approached being an athlete in general, that is all stuff that I tried to take on board and others tried to do that as well. Now we’re trying to instil that into our team this year.

“It’s hard to have enough confidence in your own ability to feel like you can be a good leader. It’s something I’ve thought about quite a lot over the course of this year, but I think we’ve arrived in a pretty good place. I feel like I’ve filled the role that needed to be filled.

“You have to be very self motivated in this sport and can feel like you’re only in it for yourself sometimes. It’s something that we’ve all tried to do – to break out of that head space. There’s always so much selection pressure and just the history of the race, everyone wants to do the Boat Race, and it can make people feel quite insular. We’ve really tried this year to build a really, really strong team culture where everyone is looking out for everyone else.

“We’re all mutually supporting each other and that’s created a great atmosphere where even if you know that you’re in direct competition with someone for a seat, that doesn’t affect anything, you’re still going to be their team-mate through and through and you’re still going to support them in any way that you can.

“That’s really important and it’s built a really strong squad and a really good dynamic.”

Cambridge’s win in 2021 will forever hold a special place in Benzecry’s heart. It was a year unlike any other as the pandemic restricted athletes to training largely on their own, with major doubts as to whether the race would actually even go ahead.

When it was eventually confirmed that it would take place on the Great River Ouse, crews were announced remotely via Zoom. So how would a more traditional victory this weekend – one back on the Thames with a large crowd watching on and plenty of media around – compare?

Benzecry replied: “I try not to think about (winning) too much and stay focused on the day to day. But you definitely do think about it from time to time and it would be amazing.

“The 2021 race was fantastic because I was living with most of the guys in that boat. We’d been doing some pretty grim training all the way through without really knowing what was in store. We didn’t really know what the race was going to be like, where it was going to be or whether it was even going to happen.

“And then we got thrown into the boat with only a couple of weeks to go before the race and it all became very real very quickly. But we didn’t have that build up which I’m experiencing now and have been for the past month or so where the race is just kind of looming.

“In 2021, it was just kind of unexpected and an ecstatic feeling, whereas this is more like it’s on the horizon and it will probably be kind of more relieving (to win). It becomes this thing that is constantly in your mind but winning would be amazing.

“From my experience of doing the reserve race last year, being out on the Tideway on that day is just the most unbelievable thing. As a rower you don’t really get that experience of the volume of people and the noise and the atmosphere from any other race that you can do in the sport. It will be incredible, really incredible, to win.”

And while Benzecry will be giving everything he has got to win for himself, his crew-mates and the honour of Cambridge, he will also have his late grandfather at the forefront of his mind.

After fighting for his country in the Second World War, Cecil Benzecry studied law at Downing College, during which time he became a hockey Blue. He died in October 2017 at the age of 95.

“My grandfather died a few years ago before I went to Cambridge. He was always really supportive of my rowing,” said Seb.

“In 2021 I was incredibly proud to make the boat because he had been a Blue and I knew that he would be super proud as well.

“It’s definitely on my mind for this race as well, just wanting to make him proud.”

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