Olympic bronze medallist Ollie Wynne-Griffith connects with Cambridge University Boat Club family history
There is a Light Blue bloodline that runs through the family of Ollie Wynne-Griffith.
The surname may give little away, and until now the path of the 27-year-old has been very different, but there is no hiding the connection to Cambridge University.
There could be no better setting than Goldie Boathouse to meet Wynne-Griffith, and it feels particularly apt that our introduction is in the Captain’s Room.
“It is a special place,” he says.
“When there is that much history behind a programme, you can’t help but feel honoured and privileged to have the opportunity just to train and race for a seat in the eight – and I guess write your own slice of history in the building.”
The boards on the walls of the storied venue catalogue all of the oarsmen and coxes to have taken part in the Boat Race for Cambridge, and there are two names that are particularly special for Wynne-Griffith so when he describes “a bit of family history in there” it is an understatement.
His great-grandfather, Harold Rickett, rowed for Cambridge in 1930, 1931 and 1932, and went to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932.
In fact, Wynne-Griffith went one better at the Olympics, winning a bronze in the eight this summer in Tokyo while Rickett’s crew were fourth.
“That was a Cambridge crew that went in 1932,” says Wynne-Griffith. “It was a slightly different sport back then.
“It’s been quite nice not to share the name, I guess, and mark out my own path in the sport just for me. To follow in his footsteps 89 years later was quite special.”
The baton then passed to his grandfather, David Christie, who rowed for Cambridge in 1958 and 1959, winning one race and losing the other.
“It was a nice story for my mum to feel that through her father’s family, almost like she had grown up in and around the rowing community.
“I would go to grandpa’s house and there would be oars everywhere hanging up.”
He jokes: “I remember he won Henley maybe three or four times and I took a while to get my one red box, at this point, and it was a little bit like ‘I’ve got the monkey off my back now, I can feel part of the family!’.”
Before adding: “There is obviously a lot of tradition and history there which is quite special for me, in a personal way.”
There is obviously a lot of tradition and history there which is quite special for me, in a personal way.”
Wynne-Griffith is following in their footsteps at Cambridge by studying for an MBA at the Judge Business School, and training at a boathouse that he first visited seven years ago.
Back then he was part of the British under-23 system which was being led by Steve Trapmore, at the time the Light Blues chief coach and now part of the GB senior set-up, guiding the men’s eight in Tokyo – of which Wynne-Griffith was a part.
Trapmore had been a sounding board and supportive of Wynne-Griffith’s decision to apply for Cambridge, and return to education. He had previously done a political science degree at Yale in the US.
In many ways, it was the decision to head Stateside that set rowing as the direction.
With his father’s side of the family being from Wales, he was very quickly thrown a red shirt and a rugby ball as a kid.
Alun Wyn Jones was and still is the sporting hero but, having played until he was 18, Wynne-Griffith had to make a decision.
“US scholarships were coming into play,” he explains. “I thought it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
“I love the competition in rowing, it’s very much a massive part that drives me.
“I feel like you get shaped by what you do. I wouldn’t change anything, but definitely as a kid it was running out at the Millennium Stadium for Wales that would have been my dream.
“But an Olympic bronze worked out pretty well – I feel very fortunate to be where I am now.”
As we chat, what is striking is Wynne-Griffith’s humble nature, and self-deprecating humour. It is difficult not to laugh at his description of rowing as “university clearing for sports” and subsequent description.
“There are a load of people who have tried every sport under the sun,” he suggests, “and you’ve gone, ‘I haven’t really made it in any of these ones but I’m still really stubborn and I will hurt myself more than the next person to get somewhere’.
“Then they go, ‘rowing might be alright for you’.”
It is, after all, the sport that has given so much to Wynne-Griffith, and one that he took up initially to keep fit for the rugby season while at school.
It became far more of a serious endeavour, one that provided the opportunity to study in a country in which the universities are “sports mad” on an athletic scholarship to Yale.
“I think it is really built into the DNA of the education experience out there,” says Wynne-Griffith.
“It would be crazy to say that the Boat Race isn’t built into Oxford and Cambridge’s DNA. It’s quite special to see what the guys go through here.
“Everyone trains hard everywhere but suddenly you are realising that maybe there isn’t quite the financial backing that you certainly get in the States and the support you get in the States for your sport.
“There were little things that were a little bit of shock to me, ‘really, we’re getting up that early?’, but that’s all part of the fun, that’s all part of the year and what makes it special, right.”
There is a real warmth about Wynne-Griffith which shines through, none more so than when he talks about having to make a quick adjustment to the demands of trialling with the Light Blues.
Time is of a premium when trying to strike the sleep/rowing/academic balance, and so it was only two days into arriving in the city that Wynne-Griffith headed to Facebook Marketplace to buy a bike.
“I noticed quite quickly it was a 25-minute walk here even for land training, so I thought this was just eating into sleep time now,” he says.
That was after realising that driving to Goldie with kit in the boot was not really possible.
“I got in and thought wow, parking spaces are like gold dust around here, how am I going to get hold of one of them?”
You can tell by the enthusiasm with which he talks of each new experience – far away from the world of the professional scene – how much enjoyment is being gained from going back to a student environment.
He even highlights the reaction to the truck breaking down on the way to a training session in London and having to borrow boats in Putney.
“There is no complaining, this is just how it is,” explains Wynne-Griffith.
“It’s special when you go back to a place where people are simply turning up really because they want to be there. Of course it is like that on the Olympics team, there is a massive amount of drive and sense of purpose that we have.
“But also here, it is such a short season and such a short period from August/September to the end of March/early April that you really do have no time to sit around and waste.
“Every day counts and every day becomes more and more important the closer you get to the race. It’s special to feel the camaraderie that comes with not everything being ideal or not everything being perfect.”
A lot of that also comes from such a broad range of ages and abilities being drawn together.
At one end of the spectrum you can have 18-year-olds, while Wynne-Griffith is 27, and then you have those that have been rowing for maybe 12 years and others who were novice just last year.
Despite having an Olympic bronze medal, two world championship medals and bringing that much experience and leadership to the squad, it is still a learning curve.
“Charlie (Marcus) is the president and knows the race inside out and I feel like I’m learning a hell of a lot every day”
“Charlie (Marcus) is the president and knows the race inside out and I feel like I’m learning a hell of a lot every day,” explains Wynne-Griffith.
“I’m trying to pick the brains of as many people who have gone down the track as I can. But it is an interesting change going from being on the team where the standard deviation between the top guy and the bottom guy is so small, and the range is parts of seconds.
“Whereas here maybe the range is slightly bigger but I’m really reconnecting with what it means because I’m doing the sport as I love the sport.
“It’s a really nice feeling to know that the fire is still fully burning as strong as ever.
“I’m really excited as well to impart a bit of knowledge and wisdom on younger guys.”
But he adds: “It’s a strange one because in the Judge I still very much feel like the young head, because I’m still very inexperienced in the traditional working world.”
Doing the MBA was about just that, challenging himself in a different sphere but one in which would be applicable in the future.
“I wanted something that was going to stretch me and change me, and I guess open my eyes to a lot of other opportunities that were out there,” says the Peterhouse student.
“The MBA was perfect because there is a massive range of people, guys who have been in the US Marine Corps, people who have set up their own liquidity trading platforms, people who have done consulting, people who have been in finance.
“I’m going wow, I’ve just rowed a boat for five years. It’s a teaching and learning moment every single day just interacting with other people in the cohort.”
He adds: “I know it’s going to be a busy year, but that’s exactly what I wanted, to be stretched and challenged.”
At the end of it, Wynne-Griffith will be hoping to have added another win to the Boat Race board not just for Cambridge, but for the family.