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The musical journey that led Cambridge University Boat Club oarsman Callum Sullivan to rowing success

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Callum Sullivan at Goldie Boathouse. Picture: Keith Heppell
Callum Sullivan at Goldie Boathouse. Picture: Keith Heppell

The roll call of success of Callum Sullivan speaks for itself.

A world under-23 rowing championship gold medallist, a Boat Race winner, an accomplished musician, it is not a bad starting point for a 22-year-old.

What particularly stands out when talking to the Downing College student though, is his laid-back demeanour.

Maybe it just happened to be a particularly relaxed day at Goldie Boathouse, prior to the lockdown, but you just sensed that Sullivan is someone who is capable of taking everything in his stride.

The successes achieved so far show the determination and steely character and there is a charm that appears to come with it that is welcoming.

No way is it better demonstrated than when Sullivan, a music student, discusses his introduction to his instrument of choice, the French horn.

“I started off when I was seven, and Lewisham music service came into the school with a van full of brass instruments,” he explains.

“They brought in something like 20 trumpets, two trombones and one French horn. I wasn’t that bothered learning to play an instrument so I didn’t show at the front of the queue, but I did know that I wanted to play the trombone if I was going to play anything.

“I think I was second last of the 22 people to get a pick, and left for me to pick was no trombone – they had both gone very quickly – and there was a trumpet or a horn. And I wouldn’t take the trumpet because it was boring – although I then came to actually play the trumpet in the end!

“I picked the horn, I guess I just wanted to be a bit unique. It’s a beautiful instrument and I count myself very fortunate because I think if I’d have played the trumpet I would have been one of many, and probably been cast aside and given up at some point.

“As it was, I kept plugging away. In terms of orchestral playing, my greatest achievement is probably being a member of the National Children’s Wind Orchestra as a 15-year-old.

“At university, I have played in the Cambridge University Orchestra which is the top orchestra here, and as a soloist I’ve done a few recitals as well, especially at school.”

Callum Sullivan raced in last year's Boat Race for Cambridge. Picture: Paul Sanwell/OP Photographic
Callum Sullivan raced in last year's Boat Race for Cambridge. Picture: Paul Sanwell/OP Photographic

Needless to say that Sullivan arrived at Cambridge as a performer, but had something else to work towards as well – rowing.

As attention has been on Cambridge University Rowing Club, he does not play as much in ensembles, a previous passion.

In fact, Sullivan’s academic focus has been on English music history, particularly in the 18th century, in which he has become an expert as part of his degree.

“This year, I didn’t even bring my French horn to Cambridge for the first half of the year because I wanted to focus on my history,” he says.

“When you play the French horn and people know, they constantly come to you and say ‘I need another horn player’ because they are in high demand, more so than any other orchestral instrument, I think.

“You have to be really clear that you have that barrier to you just saying ‘yes, I’ll do it’.”

The music and rowing have regularly been opposing forces in Sullivan’s life.

When he was 14, he had to make the decision on whether to take up a scholarship at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in Greenwich, which was being offered by his school and local borough.

But, with the demands also falling on a weekend, and Saturday being an important day for training at Globe Rowing Club, Sullivan chose the rowing route.

“That was basically a bit of a turning point where I decided I’m not going to go into really high-level performance, instead I’m going to push myself to be a good rower,” he says.

“I think I’ve made the right decision in hindsight but it was a bit of a risk.

“At that point, I had only been rowing for about two years and so it could have gone very badly. It could have been a missed opportunity, but, as it was, it was one missed, one created.”

Callum Sullivan, third from right, with the men's eight after winning gold at the World Under-23 Championships in Florida. Picture: Lucinda Douse/All Mark One (14463729)
Callum Sullivan, third from right, with the men's eight after winning gold at the World Under-23 Championships in Florida. Picture: Lucinda Douse/All Mark One (14463729)

And one seized with both hands.

Sullivan’s experience of training and competing with Cambridge helped bring success on two fronts.

After last year’s Boat Race success, the first back-to-back wins for the Light Blues in 20 years, he was then part of the Great Britain eight that won gold at the world under-23 championships in the US.

“It’s the Cambridge rowing that has managed to push me to that standard,” says Sullivan, who intends to pursue Olympic ambitions with GB after his studies.

“The amount of training that we do, the attitude to racing we have has really pushed me on.

“If I’d have been in a less effective programme I wouldn’t be thinking about doing this.

“The experience of racing in Florida was one of my most treasured and proud, and one of the highlights of my career, along with the Boat Race.”

While the world under-23 gold medal may be a more impressive achievement, Sullivan explains why the success with Cambridge means more.

“I think I’m more proud of it because you go through two years and fall in love with the club,” he says. “This becomes your everyday goal, and you want to do justice to the club.

“We also had this very specific objective which was to return back-to-back victories for Cambridge which hadn’t been done since the ’90s.

“We thought we were still in this period of Oxford dominance, which would only be sorted out if we were to win back-to-back races.”

But Sullivan added: “The tides haven’t changed until we’ve won a third.”

The cancellation of this year’s Boat Race because of the coronavirus pandemic may have denied Sullivan the chance of being part of that attempt, but you sense a GB calling may come soon instead.

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