Patricia Smith is a shining light for development squad at Cambridge University Women's Boat Club
In the second part of our look at the CUWBC, we talk to a successful graduate of the development squad scheme.
Hockey, tennis, ultimate frisbee, the list was like a current day twist on the modern pentathlon on Patricia Smith’s list of sports to try while studying at Cambridge University.
One which did not feature as a high priority though was rowing, and it was the discipline in which the 24-year-old ended up excelling.
Cambridge offers so much to its students, and many are drawn by the lure of the river in their days as a fresher.
Rowing only first appeared on Smith’s radar in 2012, when cheering on Beth Rodford at the London Olympics – the sculler in the GB quad was the daughter of Smith’s brother’s schoolteacher.
It still offered no more than a fleeting interest until Smith was persuaded by a couple of second-year Christ’s College students that as well as the above list of sports and being a natural scientist, she would have enough time to row as well.
“One night, they convinced me it was worth it and none of them believed that it was possible,” she said, “but they convinced me to try anyway because I was a bit lanky!”
After picking up an oar as a fresher in October 2013, it was success in a novice crew at the Emmanuel Sprints that had Smith hooked.
A training camp in France sated her appetite for more, and she was soon in Christ’s first boat for the next two terms.
“It was a really good group of girls, they were a little bit older, everyone was really friendly and they just helped to bring me up to speed,” Smith said.
“Some of them were the ones that encouraged me to come to the development squad meeting in the first place, because I was really unsure whether I was good enough.”
After a little coaxing, Smith put her name down for the development squad for that summer, and she has never looked back.
She was selected in a beginner eight – which was classified as having learned to row in that year – and the mish-mash of eight rowers from six different colleges swept all before them.
It meant that the door was opened for trialling for the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club squad in the subsequent Michaelmas Term.
“The thing that it gives you is an opportunity to figure out what trialling is like, what the training load is like,” said Smith.
“Generally, when I did it, we trained in the normal training programme, so before 9am and after 5pm, as if you have a degree to do, but it is the summer.
“It gives you an idea of the training load and what it would feel like to trial, but without the pressure; it’s almost like a dry run for September/October.
“It gave me a lot of confidence coming into September knowing that I knew the coaches, I knew what was going to happen even if I didn’t know the squad, I knew what to expect and I had also been encouraged and reassured that I was on the right track. I was in a good place to start trialling which is something that a lot of people struggle with.
“I think a lot of the time you get people coming in and they won’t do dev squad until they’ve rowed for their college for a few years or they come and do dev squad and think ‘I’ll come back and trial in my last year, I’ll stay in college rowing for another year’ because they don’t feel ready.
“To all of those people, I say you need to try it immediately because even if you fail you will have learnt a lot, and then you can come back the next year.
“You don’t want to leave it until one last hurrah and then not have made the progress.
“Regardless of whether you stay one week, or five weeks or five months in the system, you will learn from that system.
“I just jumped straight in and carried on.”
And Smith has never really stopped.
In her first year, despite suffering an injury in the January, she was selected for the lightweight Blue boat and earned victory.
Smith’s second year was non-rowing through injury, but she was the lightweights’ captain. In her third year at CUWBC, she was in the winning Blondie reserve crew and was vice-president in 2017/18, earning a winning Blue in the Women’s Boat Race.
Thrown into the mix, Smith also trialled for the Great Britain squad and has plans to do so again in the future.
CUWBC has been an influential part of Smith’s time at Cambridge.
Just as she started in the development squad, her mother died of cancer, but through the support of the club and her team-mates, Smith continued training.
In Smith’s year out through injury, she decided to do 27 sports in 27 days to raise money for Cancer Research UK and Project Ely, the fundraising initiative for the now completed boathouse in Ely. She raised more than £10,000.
And last year, the lightweight women’s boat was named Ann Catherine in honour of Smith’s mother.
“It’s very personal [at CUWBC],” said Smith. “You don’t just turn up, do your training and leave. The current squad is like your family but then you are also incredibly close to your coaches and the support staff.
“There is a hierarchy in terms of selection choices, but you do feel you are on the same level as them, and they are your peers and you can have open conversations.
“I got an incredible amount of support through my grieving process when my mum died, because she died when I was doing dev squad.
“The support I got from the people who were dev squad and Paddy [Ryan, the CUWBC assistant coach] as well, in particular, was incredibly important at the time.
“It was a case of do I go home or do I keep going, but I knew that she would have wanted me to stay where I was because she loved that I rowed.”
The support is a recurring feature for many of the oarswomen though, and one which continues year on year, according to Smith.
She also believes that it helps to shape individuals, aside from just the studying in Cambridge.
“Every year the people in this club basically become my family,” said Smith. “I feel like there is certainly a CUWBC family and when I become an alumna I will be part of that family too.
“They have given me so much support. The skills that I have learnt and the things I have learnt about myself here is what’s given me the things I need in life, more so than any Cambridge degree.
“You learn a lot about who you are when you’re really tired and when you’re really stressed and put under a lot of pressure here, and that makes you more able to perform in all aspects of your life.
“You learn to be really efficient with your time. You learn to push yourself really hard but you learn that you also need to take breaks.
“That’s what’s made my uni life and will hopefully make my career better as well.”