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Boat Race 2021: Cox Dylan Whitaker reflects on volunteering at Addenbrooke’s Hospital during pandemic ahead of steering Cambridge University

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Dylan Whitaker will cox Cambridge University in the 75th Women's Boat Race. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dylan Whitaker will cox Cambridge University in the 75th Women's Boat Race. Picture: Keith Heppell

It is hard to escape Dylan Whitaker’s upbeat nature.

A boundless enthusiasm and positivity shines through when in conversation, and you can get an impression of how that could be beneficial in the coxes’ seat for Cambridge University for the 75th Women’s Boat Race.

You also get a sense of how that character helped him through some difficult times during the pandemic in January and February.

There were more than just the stresses of being a fifth year medical student at King’s College and trialling virtually for the Light Blues for Whitaker, who answered a call for volunteers from the clinical school to help on the ICU wards at Addenbrooke’s Hospital as Covid-19 case numbers and hospitalisations rose.

“On a Friday from about 7pm I would start my night shift, going into the hospital and working as a HCA [healthcare assistant] fetching stuff for the nurses, rolling all the Covid patients,” says the 23-year-old.

“It would go all the way through the night until about 7am, I would then get home, have a few hours sleep before jumping on Zoom to watch an erg or cox race pieces for all the athletes in their own bedrooms, gardens or wherever they were.

“I would get a few hours free time because I was back in the hospital at 7pm Saturday night for another 12-hour shift.”

Just to add a little context, Whitaker’s hours at clinical school were from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, and the sporting endeavours, on virtual training sessions, were in many ways an assessment by rowers and coaches to try to earn the right to cox the Blue boat.

Those two alone come with high demands, so with the added emotional toll of being on the Covid ICU unit at Addenbrooke’s on top, you have to wonder how he coped mentally.

“In terms of time, it was busy but in terms of mentally, I’ll be honest, it was really hard,” he admits.

“At the time, I don’t think I realised how much of an impact it had on me. It was very much a case that the job needs doing, get it done.

“You’re in an environment where everyone is working very hard, but it’s not just working hard, they are very dedicated, it’s day in, day out.

“To be there at 1.30am, washing a patient in a dark ICU where everyone is kitted up and you can’t see anyone’s faces, it’s pretty horrifying, if I’m honest.

“To then finish the shift, go to bed, wake up and cox the erg, put on your coxing face, your brave face, the face that says ‘today, we’re going to beat Oxford, we’re going to go as fast as we can’, having that natural born excitement that comes out of racing, is tough.

“At the time, I didn’t really realise what it was like.

“It all crescendoed on our first day back at rowing. It brought everything back up and the squad around me were amazing. The coaching and support staff were amazing.

“It took a bit of time to deal with it mentally and process it mentally to get myself to a stage where I’m able to talk about it.

“What I’m really able to do is tap into that and be proud of the work I’ve done.”

Dylan Whitaker will cox Cambridge University in the 75th Women's Boat Race. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dylan Whitaker will cox Cambridge University in the 75th Women's Boat Race. Picture: Keith Heppell

The experience during the pandemic has reinforced Whitaker’s belief in his chosen profession.

As a medical student, he has always had the utmost respect for those working within it and that sentiment has only been strengthened.

“What has really inspired me is that the healthcare profession as a whole, the doctors, the nurses, the HCAs, the cleaners, everyone, when it is crunch time, when it really matters, that they will be there,” he says.

“They don’t quit. Not once did I see anyone quit. Some of those darkest, worst nights, they always had each other’s back.

“It’s been a huge eye opener into what it is like to be around those sort of people in the healthcare environment. It has absolutely doubled down that I know I’m in the right career.”

It has been a long-held ambition of Whitaker to pursue medicine, which came through an interest in healthcare and giving something back, but it could very well have been at Oxford rather than Cambridge.

He admits to spending “a lot of daydreaming time” about going to Oxford to follow in the footsteps of a cousin in the year above, but at the last minute he felt his application looked better from a Cambridge perspective.

The rest, as they say, is history, and when in the city as a fresher one of the ‘done things’ is to try out at the college boat club.

For Whitaker, it was the social aspect that appealed, rather than the sporting side, but one thing soon led to another.

Having learned to cox in his first year, he steered the King’s first boat in his second and then enquired about trialling for CUWBC.

He was part of a pool of 10 coxes that started the campaign for the Light Blues, and was one of the last four standing by the turn of the year, earning selection for the lightweight women’s Blue boat in 2019, and was chosen to steer the openweights Blue boat last year, before the race was cancelled.

An added bonus for Whitaker is that he has been able to transfer lessons learned in rowing to benefit his medical studies.

“My own soft skills, my own self-confidence, the way I feel and the way I carry myself has massively changed since I’ve started rowing and come into this high-performance environment,” he says

Dylan Whitaker will cox Cambridge University in the 75th Women's Boat Race. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dylan Whitaker will cox Cambridge University in the 75th Women's Boat Race. Picture: Keith Heppell

“I have to manage my time efficiently, I don’t have time to waste. Also I feel far more confident interacting with patients.

“If you can tell a group of very strong, motivated women exactly how you want something to be done, you can see how that translates to being able to communicate with patients.”

Those rowing colleagues also provided invaluable support to help Whitaker get through the difficult months, offering someone an ear away from the hospital environment and even the coxing selection.

It is why lining up in the Light Blues crew on Easter Sunday will be particularly special for Whitaker.

“I feel really lucky that a good number of those people that were there for me through dark months, are going to be in the boat with me on April 4 – it is amazing,” he added.

“To have those people who have really pulled me through it, through these last few tricky months, to be on the start line with them, will be a massive achievement for all of us.”

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