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Boat Race 2023: Cambridge University Boat Club’s women’s chief coach Paddy Ryan excited by unpredictability of this year’s crew

When Paddy Ryan was appointed the women’s chief coach at Cambridge University Boat Club in September 2021, he was entrusted to lead a squad into the Boat Race brimming with top level experience.

In Grace Prendergast there was a gold and silver medalist from the Covid-delayed Tokyo Olympics, while fellow New Zealander Ruby Tew and Great Britain’s Imogen Grant had just missed out on a place on the podium in the Far East.

And in this year’s president Caoimhe Dempsey – along with then president Bronya Sykes, Sarah Portsmouth and Adriana Perez Rotondo – they had four returnees who had all been members of the victorious Light Blues crew on the River Great Ouse.

Paddy Ryan is preparing to lead CUBC women's team into the Boat Race for a second year in a row. Picture: Keith Heppell
Paddy Ryan is preparing to lead CUBC women's team into the Boat Race for a second year in a row. Picture: Keith Heppell

A two-and-a-quarter-length victory followed, which extended Cambridge’s winning record over their Oxford counterparts to 46-30.

However, this time around the make up of the group under Ryan’s tutelage is very different, with Dempsey set to be the only Cambridge returnee on the Tideway’s start line come race day on Sunday, March 26.

It means Cambridge will head into the race with more questions than answers, yet while that creates some uncertainty, for Ryan there is excitement as to what could potentially unfold.

He said: “Rowing is a closed sport, you do the same thing again and again and again. It’s like cycling, like swimming and sports like that.

“The parallel would be when you’re cycling everyone looks forward to that tailwind, but you’ve got to prepare yourself and know how to change your posture for headwind.

“That’s one of our true skills because you can’t change gears in a rowing boat but you’ve got to be physically prepared to change gears and change the ratio of how you drive a stroke because we race on a curved course.

“You start with a tailwind and then halfway through the course or through the middle part of the race it becomes a headwind again and then a tailwind. You’ve got to know how to do those bits.

“From a coaching perspective it’s quite exciting because it reminds me of back in 2016 when we had more of an influx of athletes, strong athletes from other universities, and there is a bit of that this year.

“We have got fewer returners than we have had for a number of years so the numbers we have added is pretty good, but in terms of the experience it’s a bit different.

“We’re very fortunate that some of our athletes have done this race before, but because of Covid we’ve only got five or six that have raced on the Tideway before, whereas pre-Covid we’ve had people with experience going back two or three years.

“That is adding to the excitement and there is a freshness about it.”

Another unpredictable element in the build up has been the weather.

Preparations were hampered pre-Christmas by the freezing conditions, while plans for a training camp were also hit.

It has left Ryan and his team playing catch up, but he has been impressed with the way that the rowers have adapted.

“We’re doing fine considering we’ve had a little bit of illness and the weather hasn’t been playing ball. It’s been wind or ice and I’ve never seen the Ouse freeze this often – in fact I’ve never seen it freeze as much as it did just before Christmas,” he added.

“In terms of the robustness of athletes, their physical presence, I’m really very satisfied.

“The reality is that our race will be raced in any conditions. We have to be able to overcome wind and all of that sort of stuff, but athletes can’t do it day in and day out. We can race in it, but we can’t do it every day in preparation because nobody is that strong.

“We’re lucky enough that we have the ability to move indoors, it’s just a matter of maintaining flexibility. There are always skills we can work on and we can change the sessions around. From a coach’s perspective it’s quite nice because it means they become a bit more flexible and they can reflect back and it makes them a bit more robust.

“The bit that is taking more time is that final selection, the ability to nail down what the crew is. We were supposed to go to a training camp with a nice bit of water with lanes, but with the amount of rain that came down it took that out.

“I’m not as far along as I’d liked to be but we have time and pressure is not a bad thing. I saw a good TED talk recently about robustness being the things that we overcome and not just telling ourselves that we must be tougher.

“It’s putting a little bit of a squeeze on the opportunity to just focus on rowing, but they’re a really great bunch of people who have taken on lots of physical challenges.

“We’ve put a bit more toughness into the programme this year than last year, partly because we’ve got athletes this year that are not as experienced (as 12 months ago).

“They’ve responded really well and we’ve had PBs all over the place from new and old members.”

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