“I was never going to row”

Bex Law 29 January 2010

CUWBC’s President Sarah Allen talks rowing and rivalry to Bex Law

Sarah Allen arrives neat and tidy, apologising for being one minute late. She doesn’t look much like a stereotypical rower. She’s tall, but too pretty to fit any ‘butch rower’ caricature. She must have a very competitive side, but she’s very easy company for the duration of the interview. Sarah grew up in Sweden and was “never very sporty”, saying “as a fresher I wasn’t going to row”.

It was those observant people who go around stating such things as “oh you’re tall, you should row” that hassled Sarah Allen into rowing. Even then she was unconvinced, saying she “was only going to do it for one term.”

As lightweight captain last year and Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club President this year, it’s a good thing for University rowing that she did continue from her fresher year right through until now, the second year of her PhD.

The women’s squad are mid-selection. With seat racing last weekend and more planned for the weekend ahead, this is a nervous time for a very competitive squad. Sarah is competing for a seat herself having rowed for the lightweights twice and been a spare once.  She is clearly proud of her “strong squad” who have “better erg times all round” than last year. Of course, as an old-hand at the Henley Boat races, Sarah is well-aware that strong erg times alone will not guarantee victory against the dark blues.

She speaks warmly of her years in CUWBC, even mentioning her enjoyment of the “banter on the 5.55am train to Ely” – a time which few of us ever see. The high standard of rowing under very strong coaches means that “everyone is very committed and enthusiastic.” When asked about her favourite race, the importance of the Henley Boat Races to this squad is highlighted by Sarah’s response, “The 2008 lightweight boat race, we won!”

Although traditionally there are few interactions between the Men’s and Women’s boat clubs Sarah pointed out that the men “kindly allow us to use Goldie Boat House” for land training. The Women do not have their own land training facilities so this equipment sharing is absolutely vital.

Both squads travel to Ely to row on clear water (and avoid the horrible twists and turns of the Cam) but they go out at different times ,so as to allow each other clear water. This year has also seen greater cooperation between the Lightweight men’s squad and CUWBC with their Head Coach running the women’s weight training and the squads sharing equipment.  Sarah predicts big things for the Lightweight boys at Henley asserting “they are looking very good this year.”

Sarah’s schedule is pretty full as she attempts to balance a PhD with 11 CUWBC sessions a week, including seven water sessions, two ergs and two weight training. She mentioned a revolutionary new part of this year’s training regime: “We get Friday’s off! For the first time in CUWBC history we have a day off!” On top of all this Sarah has to “manage everyone, tell them where to go and when, liaise with the coach about crews.”

Clearly there’s little let-up for her as she’s also responsible for ironing out problems “I’m the one people come to with their problems; I find subs for people who are injured.” Sometimes she’ll hear in the middle of the night that someone can’t row and then has to find a sub before the 5.55am train leaves for Ely! She also has the unpleasant job of “binning people when necessary”.

If that doesn’t sound too bad, then “shovelling duck-poo off the hard so we don’t have to put our hands in it when we push off” just might tip the balance. Sarah’s comment, “It’s not that glamorous,” seems if anything, to be an understatement.

To balance this with her PhD, Sarah said she has to be “very disciplined” and “sacrifice her social life.”

Worse still, her supervisor is less than keen on rowing, believing it to be “the root of all evil.” Unsurprisingly, Sarah tries to avoid drawing attention to her rowing, “I don’t wear stash in the lab.” And it is to be hoped that her supervisor does not read TCS!

This year is unusual in that the two blues squads have yet to meet. They were due to meet at Fours Head in Novemeber 2009 but the weather forced the event organisers to cancel.  Thus it is hard to judge the strength of the Dark Blues this year, (this years Dark Blue’s President is Cambridge defector, Sonia Bracegirdle) but the Cambridge girls remain focussed on their own training.

To maintain this focus Sarah is determined to think of Oxford as a “massive, all-powerful enemy.”

She finds this brings out the most competitive side to her squad.  This  unknown enemy will have to suffice until next month as “the first time we will see Oxford will be at Reading in February”.

Looking ahead to the Henley Boat Races on 28th March 2010, Sarah is full of  optimism for her squad.

She wants as many people as possible to share in the excitement of race-day, encouraging everyone to “come to the Boat Race and the Ball” mentioning that there are coaches to and from Cambridge for the event.

Sarah has a year and a half left on her PhD and plans not to row after this year. Hopefully hitting her hat-trick of appearances, not counting her year as a spare, would just about be enough for her!

When asked about her future in rowing, Sarah is still as determined as when she was a Fresher to escape, and often says she’s “going to live in a desert where there is no river”.

But, she concedes, “I’d miss it.” Before Sarah has the opportunity to remove herself from the vortex that is Cambridge rowing, she has a Boat Race to win and will be hoping for a whitewash against Oxford for all three women’s boats, as well as the lightweight men at Henley.

Bex Law