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Boat Race 2021: Sporting family role models help inspire Caoimhe Dempsey to reach Cambridge University crew

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Caoimhe Dempsey will race in the No 4 seat for Cambridge University in the 75th Women's Boat Race. Picture: Keith Heppell
Caoimhe Dempsey will race in the No 4 seat for Cambridge University in the 75th Women's Boat Race. Picture: Keith Heppell

Positive sporting female role models have had an inspirational impact in guiding Caoimhe Dempsey to the Cambridge University women’s Blue boat.

The term ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ has grown in influence in recent times, but that was certainly not an adage that applied to the 25-year-old growing up.

Dempsey comes from a sporty background, and it was the women of the family that set the example.

Her mother was a hill runner who represented Ireland, and her grandmother was on the Ireland hockey team, which inspired the youngster to try all sorts of sports, including GAA, hurling, hockey and tennis.

“I think I attribute a lot of what I have succeeded in doing in sport to having those female role models in front of me to show what is possible,” says Dempsey.

“Within my family as a kid growing up but also when I came to rowing and I started at Trinity [College, Dublin], we had this amazing senior team.

“I thought they were the best thing ever; up there with Olympians in my eyes. I just wanted to be like them. Having that in front of me to aim for has really been pushing me the whole time.

“I think it’s really important for girls starting in sport to have that to look up to.

“For girls that are just naturally sporty and athletic, you need society to be pushing them into that.

“In secondary school, the natural thing is to stop so it’s really important to have those role models to push you forward.”

Dempsey made it three generations of the family to represent Ireland when competing in the Irish eight at the Under-23 European Championships in 2017.

It was a sport that first appealed when she went to Trinity to study psychology and, as the bug bit, it laid a strong foundation.

“It is such a rewarding sport because you get as much out of it as you put in,” she explains.

“That feeling of a bond with people is really strong and stays with you.

“Just a love for the sport has been what’s been driving me on the whole time. But if you told me in the first year at Trinity that I would be over here, I would have told you that you were having a laugh!”

Now at Newnham College, Dempsey is doing a PhD in developmental psychology, with the interest being generated through her undergraduate degree.

But she first arrived last year to do an MPhil in developmental and child psychology, and trialled with CUWBC.

Dempsey was selected for the Blue boat in 2020 before the race was cancelled because of the pandemic, which has left a sense of “unfinished business”.

That maiden experience has proved invaluable this time round. While training during what has been three months of lockdown has brought its own challenges.

“I was really happy last year to get full experience of what normal training in Cambridge is like, and had that to keep me going through this year,” explains Dempsey.

“We did a lot of training at home on the ergs in our houses, weights in the garden, that kind of thing.

“I’m living with some other girls on the team, and it really helps to do the training here together rather than disperse, go home and train alone.

“These are the things that we all had to figure out in our houses, where can we put the ergs? We have ours in the garden, and we have a shed thankfully. There are lots of girls in college rooms, training in their bedrooms and the erg stays in the bedroom all day.

“You wake up, look over at the desk, look over at the erg and you know exactly what you’re doing all day.

“It’s really hard for these girls for sure in their college rooms. It’s very mentally difficult, but the strength of the squad has really shown in the resilience in doing that training at home by themselves.

“It’s been great to see how everybody has come together to support each other virtually, and come through that.

“I think any other year it would have taken a much bigger toll on us than it did because it is really hard and it takes a certain kind of atmosphere and culture within the squad to rise to the challenge to say everyone go back to your rooms and we will see you in six weeks.

“But we have been able to do it and it’s been remarkable, and purely because of the attitude of everybody and the degree to which everyone wants to support each other and the commitment to the one goal that we all have together.”

The lack of racing last year increased the motivation during the summer to return to trialling by hitting the ground running – as Dempsey puts it “there was so much pent-up energy”.

The squad have driven each other on, backed by the coaching team, and it has created a competitive environment that sees athletes who have progressed from college rowing lining up alongside Under-23 World Championship medallists and senior World Championship competitors.

Dempsey adds: “It’s amazing the mix of athletes we have and everybody is working towards this one goal together, and the atmosphere is great.

“We’ve got something to do here that we didn’t get to finish last year, and we’ve got some new people in to bring the strength up.”

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