Lea Baltussen looks on the lighter side of life for Boat Race dreams at Cambridge University Boat Club
Lea Baltussen has long harboured dreams of rowing in the Boat Race.
Growing up in Heilbronn, a city close to Stuttgart in south-west Germany, the historic event was something the MPhil economics student had grown up watching and dreamt of taking part in one day.
It meant the focus on academic pursuits was on Oxbridge, first at Oxford and now at Cambridge. But if Baltussen is to earn a spot in the Light Blues’ lightweight crew, then it will be one of a story of overcoming adversity.
The 23-year-old first picked up an oar alongside her twin sister to find a competitive outlet from her studies.
“School always came easy to me, and I wanted to find something where I had to work hard to achieve something,” says Baltussen.
The appeal was almost instant.
“I was competing with my sister and my best friend, and it was the first time I felt really competitive and was able to push myself more than I thought I could because I really wanted to do better than them,” she says.
“It sounds horrible. It was the competitive spirit that came out during my first erg test, way back when.”
While her sister made the decision to stop aged 17, Baltussen had no such intentions.
“I already had my eyes set on a potential boat race and knew I wanted to apply to Oxford,” she says.
“I had been away for a year in high school to go to school in Canada where I rowed with the school team and won the national schools in a junior girls’ quad.
“Stopping wasn’t an option for me after experiencing that.”
Having earned a place to do politics, philosophy and economics at Magdalen College, Baltussen did college rowing in her first year, while recovering from two slipped discs in her lower back.
In her second year with the Dark Blues, she trialled as an openweight but found herself competing at a new level out of her weight class.
Then, in the third year, she was injured again, so there was a sense of unfinished business.
After a gap year working for the German parliament and a number of other internships, Baltussen traded blue hues to come to Lucy Cavendish College to study an MPhil in economics.
She began trialling with CUWBC to be part of the first lightweight women’s Boat Race on the Championship Course on the Tideway.
“The first bit of training last [academic] year was amazing,” says Baltussen.
“There was such a great atmosphere and attitude, especially within the lightweights because we were finally going to race on the Tideway, the same race as the openweights.
“It was a really big deal and felt like a historic moment for us.
“It was a hugely talented squad, everyone was working really hard and supporting one and other.
“It was a great experience to be part of that group of athletes.”
But Balthussen’s academic year was to take a very different path from November 2019.
Cycling on her way to training one night, she was knocked off her bike on Chesterton Road and it was to have a prolonged impact.
“The helmet broke, I got some bad bruising on my right side,” she explains.
Having started to develop really bad headaches, Baltussen was first diagnosed with mild concussion, then severe concussion and then a bleed on the brain.
“I’d have doctors appointments with a neuro-specialist to monitor the concussion because I was having ongoing symptoms – pretty standard concussion symptoms and headaches, and it was impacting my training,” she explains.
“When we got to selection, we raced nearly every weekend and it’s very intense. It’s when the symptoms worsened and then it got pretty bad.
“I couldn’t see on the water after one seat race, and then the doctor sent me home to Germany and that was it in terms of selection for me. I had done pretty well despite everything, it was definitely very gutting.”
It is astonishing to think that Baltussen was able to push herself that far, to six weeks before the race, but she had felt it was just part and parcel of the sport.
“In rowing, a huge part is that we don’t stop during a race, even when it’s really painful or just uncomfortable,” she says.
“I didn’t really see a reason to do it while I was in that situation because I hadn’t been given a diagnosis that definitely put me out of the running.
“I didn’t really believe it was a real injury, partly. You just keep telling yourself to keep going.”
The problem was that Baltussen was sleeping a lot, and looking at screens and reading had made it difficult to concentrate on her studies.
It became a case of trying to get through every day and by the time the full diagnosis had been made, the bleed had started to clear up.
It was a long return back to full fitness, but Baltussen completed her first proper erg test with CUBC last November.
She has had to restart her studies though.
“I’m incredibly grateful to the faculty that they let me start right from the beginning,” says Baltussen.
“I was able to start back in September and ease back into it by doing stuff I had already heard before last year.
“At the start of the season, I could row pretty well and even do some high-intensity pieces on the water, but couldn’t really spend any time on the erg.
“Whereas now, the only time I really have symptoms is after high-intensity pieces on the erg which we don’t do that often thankfully.
“Training at home has been helpful in that, as well, big groups of people and stressful environments aggravate symptoms.
“Also, watching lectures at home has been a blessing for me in terms of recovery.”
The welcoming atmosphere at Goldie Boathouse has also helped, even though it may be a very different year to normal.
The opportunity to train with a combined squad at Cambridge has given Balthussen a new perspective, as at Oxford it was split between lightweight and openweight.
“I’ve always been on the verge of openweight/lightweight – I’m very tall but very light and naturally just sit at lightweight weight,” she says.
“I wanted to see how I would develop in a combined squad.
“Despite everything, I really enjoy training with a big squad and whilst I am a lightweight again I don’t see it as a loss as it’s just a weight category.
“Training in a big squad has made it clear that I don’t gain weight like some of the openweights do, I don’t gain muscle mass like they do.
“It’s definitely given me more understanding of why we have those boat categories and more perspective – I’m very proud to be a lightweight but I also enjoy sparring with the openweights during training.”
If determination and tenacity counts for anything, then you can count on Baltussen doing all possible to fulfil her Boat Race ambitions.