Sarah Tisdall bids to follow in famous family footsteps by trialling with Cambridge University Boat Club
As far as following in some illustrious family footsteps goes at the University of Cambridge, few can be greater in a sporting sense than those being trod by Sarah Tisdall.
Having arrived at Lucy Cavendish College to do a MPhil in education, the 22-year-old Australian is seeking to earn a Blue this academic year with Cambridge University Boat Club – 89 years after the last one achieved by her grandfather.
Bob Tisdall is one of the most famous athletes to have studied at Cambridge.
He was a student of agriculture and forestry at Gonville & Caius, and his athletic performances were to go down in folklore.
Bob achieved national prominence in 1931 when winning the 120-yard hurdles, long jump, shot put and quarter mile against Oxford in the Varsity Match, and
he toured North America and South Africa with the Achilles Club, the combined Cambridge and Oxford team.
The Irishman was to then go on and win the 400m hurdles gold medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
“He died when I was six so I was pretty young when he passed away, but there are loads of stories,” says Tisdall.
“He had a very full life. He was born in 1907 so lived through both World Wars, a load of history and he died in 2004 in Australia.
“I definitely heard a lot of stories, and he was very good at documenting things. There has been a lot of writing, and it sounds like he got up to a lot of mischief at Gonville & Caius.
“I just didn’t understand what it all meant at the time. Apparently, when I was six I was asking him because I thought he jumped over 400 turtles – and I didn’t understand whether that was vertical or horizontal turtles!
“I think my understanding of his athletic career was quite minimal at that stage. He wrote a couple of books, one was called The Young Athlete, so I read that and I got a bit of an insight into his experience.
“Just before I came here, I was going through a bunch of stuff and found all these medals from Cambridge/Oxford v Harvard/Yale from the 1920s.”
Tisdall grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Australia, near Brisbane, and that was after her grandfather had emigrated there but not before living in Africa first, which also brought about another coincidence for the family and their connections to this area.
Bob had met Margaret Elizabeth ‘Peggy’ Fellowes in Tanzania, but his wife had done her teachers’ education in Saffron Walden, before being tempted by an advert in a local paper to go and work overseas after the war.
“In 1961, when Tanzania gained independence, it was going to be difficult after that to get money out,” explains Tisdall.
“They somehow got money out of Tanzania to Ireland, if they had waited any longer I guess they would have stayed there.
“They went to Ireland and lived there for a couple of years but decided it was too cold so they picked Brisbane, or the Sunshine Coast, for the weather and moved out.
“It’s quite funny how it all worked out, and now my supervisor happens to be from Saffron Walden.”
It is a fascinating story that has more than just fate running through it, and you could say that even applies to Tisdall’s studies at Cambridge.
As part of her masters, the topic area is globalisation and international development, with the interest coming through studying sociology as her undergraduate degree after going through the liberal arts system in the US where you chose your major in the second year.
Her senior thesis was about poverty and education in Tanzania – the meeting place of her grandparents.
“I had the opportunity to explore a range of different areas and just became really interested in Tanzania,” she says.
“My dad was born there so I heard a lot of stories growing up, and became fascinated by the culture.
“There was one class in particular that I took about music in Tanzania which was quite rare – I was lucky to have the opportunity through the liberal arts system to even take that and just learn more about the culture and history.”
The work fostered an interest in mentorship through the education system in Tanzania, and Tisdall found out that Cambridge has a partnership organisation called CAMFED.
“They do a lot of work in Tanzania. They have this incredible organisation, some of the top researchers who are doing pretty much exactly what I was interested in,” she explained.
“I thought it would be a great fit to continue the research I had started in undergrad, and that’s what I’m continuing now.”
The degree was studied at Harvard, and it was a result of Tisdall’s rowing that she went to the US – although it was something of a surprise at first.
She had been recommended by her coach Ned Dreyden, who had met one of the Harvard coaches at the 2015 World Rowing Junior Championships in Rio, but it almost did not happen.
“I had actually got an email from one of the coaches in high school, quite out of the blue – I thought it was a spam email and almost deleted it,” says Tisdall.
“Luckily I didn’t, and I replied. She said to send them my school results, some erg scores, rowing results. I sent that back and it went from there.”
But if you go back a step or two, then there is an element of fortune that Tisdall even picked up an oar at all.
Having been sporty at high school, rowing was the one sport that her parents had warned against doing – so she is thankful for the actions of her older brother.
“They said ‘we will drive you anywhere but just don’t do rowing’, because it was the one sport you had to wake up at 4am for training,” says Tisdall.
“Then my brother signed up and didn’t tell them. My mum still tells the story that my brother came home and said ‘I’ve got two things to tell you, one, I signed up for rowing and two, it’s too late to pull out’.
“I guess it was lucky for me that he didn’t tell them originally.
“I went to one of his regattas to watch and I was just amazed. I had never seen anything like it – all the boats, people, how hard people seemed to be working, I was just fascinated by it.
“I signed up because my parents couldn’t say no if they let my brother do it – they had to reluctantly let me know. And my parents actually loved it in the end.”
Tisdall’s first year at Harvard started in 2016, and during the freshman year Abba Parker, the CUWBC president in 2019, was the captain of the Harvard Radcliffe squad.
Having progressed through the Varsity squads through the years, the most memorable moment was beating Yale in the second crew during her junior year.
“We hadn’t done that for a few years, so it was great to get the win with that and then the team actually made the NCAA Championships which we hadn’t for the previous four years,” she says.
After that season, there was to be a bigger leap into the Australian under-23 squad.
There were two rounds of trials, the second being in Princeton for US-based Australians.
“It was probably the most nerve-wracking week of my life,” says Tisdall.
“It was very intense.”
She was in a coxed four with rowers from Ohio, California and UCLA, and together with a men’s eight, they spent a couple of months training together in Princeton.
It reaped its rewards with a bronze medal at the World Under-23 Rowing Championships.
“I think we just gelled as a crew which made it so much more fun when we did well,” says Tisdall.
“We wanted to push for each other, it was a really special experience I would say.”
In a rowing respect, the pandemic denied Tisdall the chance to race in the senior crew at Harvard against Yale, but now the sights are fixed on the Boat Race with Cambridge.
She has been helped to settle by Parker – “I really looked up to her, she was a great role model so it’s quite funny that we’re on the same team now” – and has found the overall environment settling, despite having to train on an erg in her bedroom during the second lockdown.
“I think the coaches have been super helpful in adjusting, and always checking in to see how everyone is doing,” she adds.
And it would be a proud day for the Tisdall family if she were to emulate her grandfather by earning a Blue in the spring.