Trialling times in developing Cambridge University Women's Boat Club's future Blues
In the first of two parts, we look at the development squad at Cambridge University Women's Boat Club.
On one of the hottest days of the year, 25 rowers and coxes are hard at work inside Goldie Boathouse.
Just standing at the edge of the gym you can feel the oppressive conditions, and the only thing keeping the stifling heat at bay from the rowers are two industrial-sized fans.
This session is all by choice for the athletes, who have given up a month of their summer holidays at Cambridge University to go through such toil.
It is difficult to tell by the expressions on the rowers’ faces whether there is any sort of enjoyment from the strains that they are having to go through, but there is a clear goal.
Those in attendance are being instructed by Paddy Ryan, Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club assistant coach, and are part of the 2018 development squad.
It is a programme that has been running for a number of years now, with talented students committing their time to experience what it would be like to trial for the Light Blues in the build-up to the Women’s Boat Race.
“We’ve had significant numbers that have come through dev squads,” said Ryan, who has just completed his fifth year in charge of the scheme, “it hasn’t always been year on year, but we’ve had the privilege of having people who have done dev squad and then hung around for three years.
“That makes getting in harder (for the next year’s development squad rowers), but they have learned to row here.”
The development squad of 2015 produced particular rich pickings for CUWBC, with Imogen Grant, Thea Zabell, Oonagh Cousins and Lucy Pike all graduating through the scheme into either the Blue boat or reserve crew Blondie for the following year’s showdown with Oxford.
“Imogen is now involved in the British squad as a lightweight,” said Ryan. “Thea did the world under-23s last year and Oonagh did the Europeans last year and is still involved with the GB squad now.
“We also had the likes of Lucy, who has won three Blondie races. Lucy got halfway through dev squad and said ‘I’m not very good, I’m not going to do it’.
“I said to her ‘in 20 years’ time, as you’ve had the opportunity, would you regret it if you didn’t give it a go?’ Three years later, three wins and a key member of the club and of a boat in our first Tideway win.”
More recently, Ryan cites the example of Pippa Dakin, who learned to row with Newnham College after arriving to study at the university in 2016.
She was part of the development squad last year as an 18-year-old, and after trialling earned a place in the bow seat of Blondie.
Having established some of the success stories of the development squad in recent years, what exactly are the 25 athletes on this year’s programme hoping to achieve, and what are they putting themselves through in one of the hottest spells in recent years?
It is no mean feat, as matching the mileage on the ergometers, they are developing their base fitness and strengthening their cores – on this particular afternoon with an almost Spiderman-esque crawl on all fours across the gym floor
The profile of athletes that row in the Boat Race has changed, with not all of them coming through the Cambridge programme any more, and so therefore it has changed.
“When I first inherited it, we only did sweep [rowing],” said Ryan. “What we’ve discovered is we need these athletes to be able to scull.
“One, for trials and that sort of stuff, but we’re a large group and there are only two coaches so we need to be comfortable that if they go out in a single they’re not going to monopolise the coaches’ time because of their experience level. We need to feel comfortable that they can go out, be in our vicinity but we don’t have to be with them the whole time so they are safe essentially and feel safe.
“Last year, we did four weeks of sculling and then only rowed at the weekends. The year before we did one week of sculling, this year we’re doing two of each.”
It is of no surprise that the pool of athletes in the dev squad come through rowing with their colleges.
Selection criteria are created, but Ryan runs drop-in sessions throughout the year that are open to anyone, not just those with a desire to try to reach the Blue boat.
In this academic year, Ryan has had 160 people do one session or more, and of those the current development squad have received invitations to attend this summer.
“I’m a firm believer that if they have a good experience here, they go back to their colleges and we might have another Imogen Grant, as our current great story, who says ‘they are really nice down there so I will give it a go’,” he said.
“There are some people that are uber keen and relentless and that should be encouraged. Putting them in a boat is not going to hurt me, and it gives them a good message. Or it means that their team-mate who is also a good friend, but was unsure, comes along to race in a pair, that’s great too.
“The ultimate aim is they feel the programme is supportive enough that they can turn up in September to trial. The goal is that as many as possible make the boat or they continue to challenge those returners and those who come in externally to be better athletes.”
With the Boat Race programme being six months of assessments and trials, the development squad not only tests physical attributes but mental resilience.
“Are you hungry enough, do you want it badly and what are you prepared to do to earn a Blue or a seat in the boat?” says Ryan.
“These days it’s pretty hard to be a first-year rower and get into the Blue boat, and that’s how it should be. It should be second year I’m on the edge or I’ve made it.
“If we’re doing our job properly, people should be on the fringe or pushing into the Blue boat in their second year (of trials).”
As for this year’s crop, only on April 7 will we be able to see the rewards of their labour.