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Ollie Parish brings worlds experience to trialling at Cambridge University for the Boat Race

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Ollie Parish in seat two of the Cambridge University Trial VIIIs crew in 2019. Picture: Paul Sanwell/OP Photographic
Ollie Parish in seat two of the Cambridge University Trial VIIIs crew in 2019. Picture: Paul Sanwell/OP Photographic

When it comes to a roll call of accolades, you cannot be anything but impressed by the haul already under the belt of Ollie Parish.

The 19-year-old Peterhouse engineering student is now in his second year, and is trialling with Cambridge University Boat Club.

And it is on the water that the list of achievements has been gleaned, and encompasses gold and silver medals at the World Junior Rowing Championships, as well as success at Henley Royal Regatta.

Parish is of Light Blue blood – his father, Matt, rowed for Cambridge in 1994 and 1995 – but coming to study in the city was not inevitable.

With an ambition of combining sport and academics, while Oxbridge was always a contender, so too was the possibility of heading to the United States.

“The culture at Cambridge is much more that we are studying and rowing and we’re going to get the best out of both of them,” says Parish.

“When I went to the US, it felt like it was about rowing; we would do the studies anyway, but it was much more based about rowing.

“I love the rowing, and the rowing here is amazing but having the studying as part of the squad culture as well is really important and great to see.

“The fact that there are so many engineers on the squad makes things easier as well, as you can talk to people about different things and it helps.

“It does take a lot of you in the eight-week terms but it is definitely doable and manageable.”

Parish first picked up an oar as a J14 at St Paul’s, and there was always an inevitability that would be the chosen sport.

Not only did his father attend and row for Cambridge, he represented Great Britain at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

The sport was also how his parents met, his mother coxed one of the crews having come over to study at the University of London.

“Growing up, I was surrounded by rowers – all his friends, everyone,” says Parish.

“They would always ask, ‘Have you started rowing yet? Are you going to do rowing at some point?’.

“I was very excited to get going when I could – it was a big part of joining at St Paul’s. It’s got a good programme there.

“It wasn’t always clear that I would be any good so it was quite nice that I had some good coaching to test out how far I could go – which is still going on.

“Everybody made sure not to pressure me into anything. It felt more challenging, exciting.

“I had all the family friends going through rowing, so they are all Olympians. Being washed up into the whole rowing atmosphere and scene is pretty exciting.

“When I was at St Paul’s, I remember coming home every night and chatting over the day and rowing with my dad.

“He would always have a comment or would help me out with stuff – like going into seat racing, what did I expect, did I have any ideas, planning what to do.

“It was really great actually, having that influence.

“You speak to a lot of people, especially at school, whose parents don’t row and when they chat to their parents about it, they don’t know what is going on. But I was quite lucky to have a role model to really help me and guide me through.”

Cambridge University Boat Club triallist Ollie Parish rowing for St Paul's. Picture: Victoria Gillard
Cambridge University Boat Club triallist Ollie Parish rowing for St Paul's. Picture: Victoria Gillard

That good grounding was replicated at St Paul’s and it put Parish on the way to the junior successes.

Not long after beating Eton, achieving an ‘easy’ margin in a record time in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup at Henley, Parish was heading out to Racice, Czech Republic, for the Junior World Championships with Great Britain.

“More so than any other boat I’ve been in, in every single session everyone had a really positive mindset and we would always go off the water rowing better than we had gone on the water,” he explains.

“It was very clear that every single session we were making the most of it.

“We weren’t the top boat that year, we were the boat after the four minus. It was pressure off in that way, we didn’t have to win.

“At the same time, people weren’t really expecting it until we got onto the course and started doing proper times.”

A gold was secured, but a year later, it was a very different experience for Parish at the Junior World Championships in Tokyo, Japan.

He was selected in the top boat, the coxless four, for the first big regatta on the Olympic course.

It had taken a while to get used to the humidity, with two two-litre bottles of water for the boat being consumed during training and during 8km sessions requiring the boats to head in for the rowers to be hosed down before heading back out again.

The GB crew secured the silver medal, but the experience was very different to the one in Racice, as Parish explains.

“I think the gold medal was quite amazing, building an eight from very little up to gold medal standard was really exciting.

“It was quite a tight finish as well. It was a great race, great finish.

“The four was quite a rough start. I don’t think we really found a rhythm until the final.

“The heat we came third out of six, with the top two going to the A final and the next three into the repechages.

“It was a reality check.”

They had to go through the repechages, and finished second to qualify for the final, but the seeding put them in the outside lane.

“It was quite a reality check for us because we went in thinking we’re the top GB boat. They had got the gold or silver medal for the last however many years, so we thought we should win this,” he says.

“We turned something round in our heads before the final, and nailed a race plan as we tried something different.”

Those experiences are now being put into practice at Cambridge.

Parish trialled last year and would have been in the stroke seat of reserve crew Goldie, had the races not been cancelled because of the pandemic.

“I definitely learnt a lot about racing and how to make a crew go in Tokyo – it was really important,” he says.

“All these lessons are super useful going into rowing, even at Cambridge.

“You see these guys coming in from college rowing, and are massive, and go well on the erg, starting to row really well but don’t have that backlog of experience. It’s worth quite a lot, I think.”

Having been through the selection process once, Parish is definitely benefitting from the familiarity a second time round which includes knowing the coaches, the boathouse and the training programme.

That is weighed up against an increase in the workload on his course, but he has felt a duty to help ease the transition of newcomers.

“I remember the first month of training back in my first year, just getting acclimatised to the whole thing was quite tough – and obviously that’s not the case now. I’ve just jumped back and know everybody and I’m familiar with everybody,” says Parish.

“Going into this year feels quite important to me to bring in the new guys as much as possible, and it’s not really my job, but as a squad bring in the new guys and make them feel comfortable and at home as much as possible.”

That feeds into the overall dynamic at Goldie Boathouse, and he adds: “It’s been an absolutely great squad – really good guys, really fantastic people.

“Everyone is super friendly and super up for it.”

And the proof will be in the pudding in the Boat Race on Easter Sunday at Ely.

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