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Boat Race 2023: Cambridge University Boat Club’s Women’s president Caoimhe Dempsey enjoying leading new-look squad

In the last two editions of the Gemini Boat Race, Cambridge University Boat Club’s Women’s squad has been littered with ‘stars and superheroes’.

Among that group was Caoimhe Dempsey, who was able to learn her trade alongside gold medal-winning Olympians, international champions and those at the very top of their sport nationally.

But all of that experience and winning mentality has now moved on to pastures new, leaving this year’s president Dempsey to lead her untested crew into battle as they seek to rack up a sixth straight victory over their Oxford counterparts on the Tideway on Sunday, March 26.

Two-time Boat Race winner Caoimhe Dempsey. Picture: Keith Heppell
Two-time Boat Race winner Caoimhe Dempsey. Picture: Keith Heppell

Yet while there has been a hefty turnover in personnel, Dempsey, who is in her third year studying for a PhD in developmental psychology at Newnham College, is enjoying the responsibility of passing on what she learned from the likes of Grace Prendergast and Imogen Grant.

“We’ve had quite a big turnover this year on the women’s side. I’m only the person back from the women’s boat and then we have four from Blondie, then everybody else is new,” she said.

“Getting everyone on the same page has been the main thing this year and drawing on those strengths that we have.

The 2022 Cambridge crew celebrate their victory. Picture: davidjohnsonphotographic.co.uk
The 2022 Cambridge crew celebrate their victory. Picture: davidjohnsonphotographic.co.uk

“It’s been about finding ourselves as a squad because the year we had last year was massive. There were stars and superheroes – the best women’s crew we’ve had, as some people said.

“I’ve been here for a while and I’m really happy to be doing this role now. It’s definitely the right thing for me at this moment in time.

“When I first got here all I wanted to do was think about my own rowing, become as good as I possibly could be and last year was an amazing personal experience for me. It will go down as one of my most favourite years in my life.

“I finished last year and I felt like I’d gotten everything I wanted to get out of it – in a personal way. I felt like I had peaked and it was just a question of what to do next. I didn’t want to stop rowing, but what would be the best thing for me to do?

“I started to think how great it would be if I could just give that experience to as many people as I can, and that’s basically why I wanted to take on the role.

“I saw how much I’ve been given in the last few years from all of the girls that were ahead of me.

“They really helped to bring me up in a rowing sense and I loved the thought of being able to give some of that back to the new people.

“I was very keen to not use my experiences as coming across as ‘it’s me versus you, but let’s all share this experience’.

“I’ve loved it because it’s gotten me through this year. It’s been an added motivation to be able to have those conversations with some of the girls and be on the other side of things.

“When they’re worrying about certain tests or trials, or how they prepare for this, that and the other, it’s nice to be able to say ‘I know exactly how you’re feeling and this is what helped me’.

“It’s a completely different vibe to other years but I’m loving it.”

But while Dempsey has no qualms when it comes to reflecting on previous glories, she is also eager to highlight that the past is just that – the past.

This new set of rowers have to do things their way to give themselves the best possible opportunity of writing their names into Cambridge folklore.

And Dempsey has been particularly impressed by the attitude on display, which has allowed herself and head coach Paddy Ryan to ‘push the boundaries’.

She said: “I’ve been very keen not to talk too much about last year. I didn’t want to be comparing or saying stuff like ‘this is how we did it’ and things like that. Paddy and I have not talked about it much at all because we don’t want there to be any element of living in the shadow of what came before.

“I’ve been trying to get a sense of what this group of girls is like, what their strengths are and what we can tap into from that.

“One of their big strengths has been – to an impressive extent – they throw 100 per cent at absolutely everything. Commitment, even blind commitment in some ways, it’s definitely there.

“That’s great because it means we’ve been able to push down on certain boundaries.

“When you have a group of more experienced athletes, you have a sense of ‘this is what I think I can do’ and I’m kind of at that level now. I know what I can do in erg tests and aspects like that.

“But when you’re working with new people and ones that are not as experienced, they’ve got a great attitude and they’re willing to give anything a go. There has been a real sense of not putting any glass ceiling on ourselves and just pushing down on the personal boundaries.

“We’ve been exploring how far we can go with all of that and that’s giving us a real sense of each of the girls’ strengths and weaknesses.

“We talk about developing the culture of the group and the team atmosphere. It’s all coming very naturally, which is a good sign.

“The commitment and the bond between the girls has been really strong from straight off the bat.”

Yet while this new group has been quick to impress Wicklow-raised Dempsey with the way they have adapted to the demands placed on them out on the river or back at base in the Goldie Boathouse, what cannot be exactly recreated is race day.

It is akin to a penalty shootout in football. Yes, you can take spot kick after spot kick in training, but nothing can quite prepare an individual for the pressure of walking up in front of tens of thousands people inside a stadium and millions more watching at home.

Cambridge are currently in the process of running through a batch of fixtures though, with the focus very much on replicating what is to come as much as possible.

“The approach within the club is very internally focused and what can we do with the time we’ve got to prepare to get the most out of ourselves when it matters,” she added.

“As long as we’re in the best place we can be, whatever happens on race day happens and we can come away from it knowing that we’ve done as much as we could.

“That’s always the same every year, but the difference is that we make sure everyone on race day feels prepared for the experience.

“What’s helpful from having done it before is you know what it feels like to have thousands of people on the bank, what all the media things are like and how that can distract you. And also the fact you don’t race them until on the day because it’s quite unusual to have no idea what they’re going to be like.

“The added challenge this year is to make everyone comfortable and try to give them experiences ahead of time, so they’re best prepared without actually having done it.

“It’s not always easy, but the fixtures we have against other clubs, the primary goals of those are to work on tactics and race goals.

“But it also lets them know how strict the starting times are, the fact that there is media around that wants to do interviews afterwards.

“The message to the girls was to think about how they react to all of that because we’re trying to make them aware of everything that’s going to be expected. These fixtures are not just about practising racing, but also to practise everything else that comes with race day.”

If you take a scroll back through last year’s victory celebration pictures, Dempsey can be seen among her team-mates with a beaming smile on her face. And why not? After all, she had just racked up back-to-back wins alongside some of the sport’s biggest names, it felt like life could not get much better.

But should Cambridge hit the finish line first again, the expression captured could well be one of relief rather than jubilation, such is the level of commitment Dempsey has had to put in as president.

“It’s a different thing because it’s my neck on the line! Because I’ve moved away from being an athlete in this programme to having a leadership role, I have so much more investment in everybody else,” she said.

“In the past all I’ve had to focus on is producing my best performance in the boat, now I need Blondie to win, I need the spares to win and I

want to come across as ticking all the boxes.

“It will probably be more of a relief than the previous ones – back then it was just about celebrating.

“But given how much more energy I’ve given to this in many different ways, I can imagine it will be a very different, but hopefully a very satisfactory success.”

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