Wise head on young shoulders helps Bronya Sykes’ Light Blues Boat Race dreams with Cambridge University
You could make the case that Bronya Sykes has been living her rowing life on fast forward.
Picking up an oar before she reached her teens, coaching crews while still a teenager, and then making the Cambridge University Boat Club Blue boat at her first attempt, there has been no holding back the 21-year-old.
It is perhaps no surprise given that life on the water is clearly in the blood of the Trafford Rowing Club member.
Sykes’ father, Andy, took up rowing while studying medicine at Birmingham University and, after a sabbatical from the sport, took it up again as a masters’ rower, going on to win at Henley Masters, the national masters championships and competing at the world masters.
“He has definitely been inspirational. I don’t think it would ever cross my mind to try rowing if my dad didn’t,” says the natural sciences student at Gonville & Caius, whose older sister also rowed.
“My dad was actually the coach at my local club so there was no way I wasn’t going to try it, I was sucked into very easily, not that I was head-above-the-fryer to do it.
“I saw what they were doing, and definitely was going to give it a go myself. I remember going along to various competitions to watch them, and really wanted to give it a go.
“Every year I would ask ‘am I old enough to do it yet?’.
“I started when I was 11 so it’s been a big part of my life for quite a long time.
“I was lucky because I’ve always been quite tall. Part of the reason you often start a little older is just because the boats at most clubs have to be used by adults as well – you don’t get child-size rowing boats.
“As I was tall and quite athletic, I was about two years younger than everyone else there. It was really good, I really enjoyed being part of a mixed age group.”
Sykes’ highlight of her junior rowing was at the Sculling Head.
She was competing in a quad, aged 14, and it was her first national event.
Trafford were not a dominant force in rowing at the time, but they scooped the bronze medal – and Sykes recalls the surprise in the voice of the announcer reading out the results.
“It was really exciting. Trafford, I love them but at that point we weren’t winning many medals,” she explains.
“He didn’t sound sure about it when he read it. We were absolutely over the moon – I think we were more excited than either first or second place were.
“Now the junior squad are a lot better and winning quite a lot of stuff.”
The grounding at the club meant that when Sykes decided to take a gap year between school and university, she wanted to give something back.
Having not trained properly during her A-levels, and uncertain on what to do next, she spent a year as the junior assistant development coach.
It meant instructing the beginners, leading the Row Start courses for those that had never before picked up an oar on a week-long course to then join the squad.
Sykes then coached their weekly sessions and took them to competitions; during the first lockdown she volunteered to return to lead virtual sessions over Zoom.
“When I was younger, I had helped out at some of the Row Start sessions over the summer and really enjoyed doing it,” she says.
“It was fun to be able to help other juniors get excited about it. I remember taking the development squad to their first competition and some of them winning medals and coming first in their category, and they were so excited.
“I love that feeling, and it made me feel really happy they were getting that as well.
“It gave me a different perspective of rowing as well.
“It meant that I could think when I try to describe to someone else what am I saying, how am I presenting it, what can I then do to help me. From all aspects it gave me a different perspective.”
It begs the question, has it made Sykes an easier athlete to coach?
“I’m not sure. I like to think so,” she says. “Whether it does or not, you’d have to ask my coaches.
“But it has certainly made me a lot more engaged in technique and different coaching styles, and different programmes in terms of fitness.”
When Sykes, pictured right, first started trialing with Cambridge University Boat Club, having not competed that much in the previous three years, it was a case of finding out where she stood within the squad.
She had been prepared to be cut early on, taking the approach of having the “underdog mentality”, and so there is much more familiarity going through the system for a second time.
“This year, I have been through it once, I was selected for the Blue boat [in 2020] and it feels like I’m coming in from a different perspective,” says Sykes.
“It’s been very different from that point of view of changing my mindset. I’ve proved myself one year already so rather than having to prove myself now I have to push on and keep going.
“The trialling is pretty similar but my mindset is very different.”
The environment and atmosphere at Goldie Boathouse was a critical factor in helping Sykes settle.
Describing it is as one big family, she likens the Light Blues to her hometown club.
“From my point of view, it’s been so nice because that’s how I’ve always experienced rowing so to be able to come to Cambridge – although we’re a really high performance environment and serious – it’s also this happy family, where we joke about and enjoy being with each other,” says Sykes.
“Although we have to compete against each other for seats and selection, it’s just this warm, welcoming place to be which I’m really pleased about.”
The academic rigour has been just as enjoyable for Sykes at Cambridge.
She is on the biological pathway of the natural sciences degree and, having had a broad introduction to ecology and evolution, she is also taking history and philosophy of science.
“I feel like we’ve covered a lot, and so it’s been really interesting to get all different sides of it,” adds Sykes.
“Part of the reason for coming to Cambridge is you’re in this environment surrounded by world leaders in their field. It’s a very exciting place to be.”
But there is no escaping that it has been a very unusual year in both education and the trialing system.
Plenty of individual work has been carried out during the lockdowns on the indoor rowing machines, and head coach Robert Weber had prepared the squad to expect the unexpected.
“Right at the beginning of the year, Rob gave us a talk explaining that whatever we’ve been through before, we can’t expect this year to be the same,” says Sykes.
“It has been very different. The training has been very different because one minute we’ve been at Ely and the next minute we’ve been stuck in our rooms.
“But despite that I think the squad as a whole we’ve bonded really well even though we haven’t really been able to see each other as we might usually.
“I think we’ve all encouraged each other to push on, and people are making some really good improvements so it’s really exciting.”
No doubt those skills and techniques that have been accrued during the past 10 years have stood Sykes in good stead though.