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Search for perfection fuels Imogen Grant's rowing ambition

Cambridge University Womens Boat Club rower Imogen Grant. Picture: Paul Sanwell/OP Photographic
Cambridge University Womens Boat Club rower Imogen Grant. Picture: Paul Sanwell/OP Photographic

Young rower revels at Cambridge University Women's Boat Club

“We had a cocktail evening that was held by the college boat club, and if you signed up for a taster session then you got two free drinks, and I really wanted those two free drinks. And now I’m doing 12 sessions a week and rowing for the university, so it’s nought to 60, how did that happen?”

It was maybe not the most natural of introductions to rowing for Imogen Grant, but she has not looked back since first picking up an oar.

The 21-year-old medicine student could hardly have been described as a staunch advocate of the sport, initially questioning its logic with the assertion “going backwards, who would want to do that?”

And the initial misgivings about rowing are more surprising given Grant’s hometown – Cambridge.

Despite being from Bar Hill, and attending the Stephen Perse Foundation and then Hills Road Sixth Form College, the river held no temptation for Grant until she arrived to study at Trinity College, and even then the lure to get in a boat was only prompted by a little blackmail.

But those free drinks have certainly proved life-changing, being the introduction to a sport that is now more than just a hobby.

“It never really came across my radar so much. I barely knew anything about rowing,” said Grant. “It’s difficult to separate now what I know about rowing compared to what I knew before.

“But I try to think back to the London Olympics for example, and obviously I know now that was a massive achievement for GB rowing as they won so many medals, and just performed on such a high level.

“But in 2012 I had no idea. I didn’t know any of the big names, I had no concept of what it meant to win like that and now I do.

“You do this to win, and everything else is extraneous, it’s part of the process to win.

“I nearly didn’t go to the first rowing session but I felt guilty because I’d had some free drinks, so I thought ‘okay, I’ll go’.

“Making the motions I thought ‘there’s more to this than meets the eye, I’d quite like to get better at this, I want to be good at this’, because I like being good at things.

“It spiralled quite quickly, more quickly than I expected.

“Soon enough I was a terribly keen novice, emailing people asking for more hours than they had given me and waking up even on mornings when I didn’t have outings hoping that I’d be called to say someone else hasn’t turned up, can you come and row.

“It just seemed a natural next step to go to the university to see if I could go further.”

After the bug had bitten, Grant, who is now in her third year of six studying medicine, came through the college system to join the development squad at Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, and that helped take her rowing to another level.

It led to Grant, in only her second year in the sport, rowing for the Light Blues in the lightweights’ Boat Race and for the reserve open-weight crew Blondie.

That was made possible after the openweight races moved to the Tideway as before that the two events had been held on the same day at Henley.

“Last year, in terms of looking at the squad, the coaches thought that it would actually strengthen both crews to have people row in the lightweight race and then also row in the Blondie race the week afterwards,” said Grant.

“So I had two shots at winning, two experiences, two different crews and two different outcomes.

“You’d do six months of training, 12 times a week with a single goal and then to mess it up and have to pick yourself up, reassess, new crew, new location, new opponent and go again a week later, it was really hard, it was horrible.

“There were a lot of tears and a lot of pulling really hard, and in the second race it paid off!”

However, it did not put Grant off, and she is back again this year as part of the club’s junior committee, along with president Ashton Brown and lightweight captain Ellie Hopgood.

And in a squad that is bristling with experience, the internal competition helps push them all on.

“Everyone raises their game,” said Grant.

“Every test we do you just see PBs across the room. It’s a very singular drive and I think it is quite unique often to Cambridge and Oxford because their season revolves around one race rather multiple races.

“You have this massive crescendo of training, drive and motivation to all come to a head on one day and you hope the outcome comes your way.

“It’s so aspirational – if I could do what Claire (Lambe) did at this Olympics, that would be incredible. Every step takes you a little bit closer to what could be incredible.”

And she took another step along the way last weekend, finishing seventh in the women’s lightweight single sculls at the GB Rowing Team third assessment last weekend.

As with anyone within the Cambridge system, Grant is having to combine elite sport with top end academia, with many medics and scientists in the squad this year.

But Grant believes that the search for perfection in both disciplines acts as a driving force.

“My theory is that they are so busy anyway that they are organised so adding more stuff on top of that is workable,” she said.

“Whereas some students, they have more free time that feeling like giving it up feels like giving up a large part of their life.

“I think part of it is also just the perfectionism of it.

“I want to achieve really highly in my academics and as someone who is really pedantic I think rowing is a great sport because you’re doing the same action, a very simple action, but you’re trying to tweak it, finetune it and make it perfect.”

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