Like many starry-eyed freshers, my ultimate ambition as a Cambridge student was to make it to the University rowing team and slay Oxford in the iconic Boat Race. Looking back, I think that I had perhaps read too many Wodehouse novels.
We had our first college rowing taster session in October and I happily signed up for the rest of the term, blissfully unaware of the trials and tribulations that were to follow.
My crew was to train three times a week, including two 7am weekday outings. I had been warned by students, who had seen it all in Cambridge, that rowing is tough as an early morning sport and not so glamorous. I blithely dismissed this scepticism, priding myself on being an early bird and confident that getting up early would be the least of my problems.
My first day of training was soon upon me and I remember tossing and turning in bed the night before. I couldn’t understand at the time why I was so restless, but I believe it was a premonition, akin to what Calphurnia had the night before Caesar was assassinated. At 5:45 a.m., my alarm shrieked happily and I remember thinking, “Why on earth do I voluntarily put myself through pain?” Let’s not forget that October mornings in the UK are chilly, and it was pitch black outside. Grudgingly, I dressed for the lonely cycle journey to the boat club.
Let me clarify right from the off that despite rowing being a tough lifestyle, you don’t really have drop-outs, unlike ‘gymming’ where people might sign up enthusiastically but never attend more than one session. That is pretty commendable, however, the reason behind this is not so much the dedication of rowers as it is the fear of facing the wrath of one’s crew members – when a crew meeting is compromised due to an absentee, the members who do turn up (probably just as grumpily as me) are hungry for blood!
A rower’s woes do not stop at waking early- when you are actually on the river, you realise that there is not a single rowing gene in your body. It takes time to row like a pro, and starting out, your oar has a mind of its own. All the practice sessions on the ergs come to naught as you frantically try to co-ordinate your arm and leg movements. Thankfully, I gave up being angry at myself when I decided to compete for the ‘worst rower’ instead. Unfortunately, the competition is intense for this particular title too! And yo make matters worse, you have smug senior rowers gliding past you while you sit like a dead duck.
Why then, you might wonder, do we put ourselves through this physical and emotional trauma? Is it for the beautiful sunrise on the river, or the exhilaration of cruising along the River Cam, happy endorphins coursing through our veins? Or just because rowing allows you to pause and observe the world around you – a picture postcard world made up on swans, house-boats and bridges?
I row because it’s an experience I will carry with me long after I have graduated from Cambridge. But as I reflect on my bittersweet memories of rowing, come December, I vow to hang up my oars… until, perhaps, next term?