Sarah-Kate Roberts aims to help shape strategic direction of Cambridge University Boat Club
A year has passed since Cambridge University Boat Club came together as a unified entity.
It brought the men’s, women’s and lightweights under one umbrella at Goldie Boathouse, with the shared underlying objective of winning their respective Boat Races.
Back then, it was not possible for the squads to train together given the stringent Covid-19 restrictions so in many ways it was not until September 2021 that the club fully became one in a practical sense on the boat club floor, so to speak.
Administratively and strategically, processes and structures are being put into place operationally for the future, and joining CUBC to help formulate those plans is Sarah-Kate Roberts.
She arrived in Cambridge in August from her native Birmingham, Alabama, to take up a fundraising role having been well versed in high-performance sport.
A figure skater in her youth, a fascination developed with the Olympic movement, and it became an ambition to work with the United States Olympic Committee after her studies.
“Right after university I moved to Colorado and worked at the Olympic training centre – it’s now renamed the Olympic and Paralympic training centre,” explains the 33-year-old.
“I applied for four cycles before I got an interview so when I finally landed the role I was ecstatic.”
After a year as an intern in Colorado, Roberts was advised to look outside the US in order to work within the Olympic movement given the anomaly of the sports structures in her homeland.
It led her to moving to Loughborough, which was a designated Olympic study centre by the IOC, to study for a masters in sport management.
Having nearly taken a role at the Aston Villa Foundation, on completion of her academic pursuits, Roberts returned to the US to work in motorsports for a spell before switching to higher education, most recently at the Birmingham-Southern College for three years as director of development, annual giving.
“Working in sport was always the goal but when I combined that with higher education there was just a spark,” she explains.
“I absolutely love working with students. You get to see the immediate impact of your efforts. I’m motivated by the knowledge that I’m playing a small role in changing people’s lives.”
But there always remained the goal of moving back to the UK one day, and that opportunity arose to work with both high-performance sport, in an Olympic discipline, and higher education at Cambridge.
“Being here has been an interesting experience and what’s exciting about it is that we’re professionalising things at the club and I’m getting to do things that have never been done before,” says Roberts.
“We’re building not only the fundraising programme but I’m working with Al (Taylor) and Tina (Goode, both executive secretaries) to assist in building a new club culture and figuring out ‘what does this look like on a day-to-day basis?’.
“It’s really interesting to be involved in creating a lot of things from scratch.”
Roberts admits that her knowledge of rowing and the Boat Race was minimal, but she has been on a fast-track learning curve to get up to speed.
On being appointed to the new role in Cambridge, the Tokyo Olympics proved to be a time of study.
“Obviously you have a cultural understanding of the Boat Race probably no matter where you are in the world, which is one of the unique aspects of it,” she explains.
“But it’s already been rewarding adding this to the list of sports with which I’ve worked.
“Al has been a great support. In the US they have seven channels that provide Olympics coverage 24 hours a day so I recorded every single rowing event that was televised, watched all of it and then Al and I exchanged questions and answers back and forth.
“Whenever I work with a new sport, there is an learning curve and I research to get up to speed. It’s been an exciting challenge, and then obviously I’ve gone out with the students as well.”
It begs the question, has Roberts been out on the water rowing yet?
“I’ve not been in a boat, I’ve been in a launch,” she laughs.
“Not to be dramatic, but I was out there when it was three degrees and was freezing. The weather is definitely an adjustment”
Even going out in a launch which, when you consider that Alabama has a temperate climate, was probably cold enough – the training stretch of water at Ely holds no prisoners on a cold day – so picking up an oar may have to wait until the spring or summer.
“Being able to ask questions of the coxes and get to know the students has been something that is important for me,” says Roberts.
“I’ve done a lot of stationary rowing which the students roll their eyes about, so I’m keen to get out there and try it.”
It is, after all, the students that are at the centre of what happens at CUBC, and that really is old and new.
The current squad, whose presidents are Charlie Marcus, Bronya Sykes, Matt Edge and Casey Shepherd, are leading the way in bringing everything together and unifying it.
“It’s a new club and there is a new club culture,” says Roberts.
“The younger alum and current students are really leading what this looks like on a day-to-day basis.
“Administratively, one of my responsibilities, along with Al and Tina, is to create operationally what the new club looks like moving forward, but the day-to-day interactions are down to the students and coaches.
“Observing the four student presidents working together is honestly one of the most exciting things about the role so far because they are a really tight-knit group.”
It is important to stress that the squads remain unique, with their own chief coaches – Rob Baker and Paddy Ryan – and training programmes, it is why harnessing a one-club feel is important.
“It’s been interesting to see the students leading that charge, with the alumni volunteers as the energy behind them. I’ve enjoyed working with all of these groups, leading conversations as an impartial observer,” explains Roberts.
“I don’t have a relationship with any of the three legacy clubs and I think that’s actually been a strength and something that they were looking for when they were looking for this position.”
Taking an outsider’s perspective has allowed Roberts to receive information from alumni of all three of the ‘legacy’ clubs – the men’s, women’s and lightweights – and present strategic recommendations to the club leadership based on an impartial take.
The mission of CUBC has been and will always be to win the Boat Race, and they aim to do that by prioritising wellbeing, excellence and equality.
Working out what that looks like on a day-to-day basis has been one of the objectives.
“Where I’m most involved is assisting the club in diversifying our revenue streams. This requires us to engage our alumni, parents, supporters, and students in new ways,” says Roberts.
“It’s been interesting because our alumni are motivated for different reasons to stay involved.
“Supporting our students so that they are as prepared as possible to win Boat Races is, of course, a big motivation.
“But I’ve found that many are just as motivated by wanting to ensure that current and future rowers have the same transformational experience rowing for Cambridge as they did.
“My job is to tell that story and asking people to be involved in whatever way makes sense for them.
“We want to have as many people participating in our fundraising efforts as possible but also volunteering their time and talent.”
As is so often highlighted, though the mission of the club may be to win Boat Races, it is not the only reason it exists.
The hope is to help students develop in both their sporting and academic ventures, not just beating Oxford at all costs.
Roberts adds: “We produce some of the best rowers in the world but our coaches also help develop valuable life skills such as collaboration, resilience, teamwork, perseverance, and discipline.
“Rowing for Cambridge is just as transformative as it always has been – it’s just now we’re doing it together. We are all Light Blue and we’re moving the club forward, together.”