“At some point...my rowing friends stopped being my ‘rowing friends’ and became something closer to family.”Photo courtesy of Alex Murray

When I look back on my eight terms at Cambridge, there are so many things I’m grateful for. One of the things that stands out to me the most is the time I’ve spent in my college’s boat club, partly because I never expected to find a place there. But, despite my expectations, I’ve spent two and a half years rowing, and I’ve loved every minute of it.

Love Letters to Cambridge

These are tough and uncertain times for us all, and a lot of us are left with little closure. Varsity are launching this series to give a platform to students reflecting on the parts of Cambridge they'll miss the most, and to gain some closure through writing. Just email our Features team with a 150-word pitch with your idea!

For me, rowing is the single best thing I’ve ever done to improve my mental health. Part of this is obvious: exercise gives you endorphins and endorphins make you happy. Rowing allows me to tick off about half of my to-do list on any given day, before my first lecture has even started. By 9 am, I’ll have already seen the sun rise, exercised, spent time with my friends, and enjoyed some fresh air. There are lots of reasons my mental health has improved since I came to university, but I can’t overlook the positive impact rowing has had.

Rowing is about teamwork, through and through. For one thing, the sport is just a single motion over and over, trying to perfectly copy the person sitting in front of you. And the whole team is united in one simple aim: to get the boat moving faster. More than that, rowing is about teamwork because it relies on total commitment from each person in the boat. If one person doesn’t show up in the morning, none of you get to go out – all nine seats must be filled to train. Most mornings, when my alarm went off at a hellish hour, the only thing that could motivate me to roll out of bed and go to the boathouse was knowing that, if I didn’t turn up, I would be letting down my whole crew.

While it’s possible to bail on other sports – like meeting friends to go to the gym – rowing is an absolute commitment. When it’s dark and raining outside, you show up. When you’ve only had 2 hours sleep after finishing an essay, you show up. And you know that the rest of your team is doing the same, for you.

"Through the boatclub, I’ve met some of the strongest women I’ve ever known."Photo courtesy of Alex Murray

One of the reasons I appreciate rowing so much is because of how unlikely it was that I would find myself here. There were a million moments in my first term where I considered quitting – not because I didn’t enjoy the sport, but because I didn’t feel like I belonged. At school, I had always been the least sporty kid. I felt embarrassed for even trying to row, like it was obvious to the better and more experienced rowers that I would never be able to succeed. I’d also heard all the stereotypes about boatclubs as exclusionary societies, and questioned whether I would find friends there as someone who is openly gay and nonbinary (a concern which turned out to be largely unfounded).

Given these obstacles, the odds that I would still be rowing three years later were minute. So I don’t take it for granted: having pushed through my own insecurities, I am continually happy and surprised by the joy rowing brings to my everyday life. I am grateful every time I have a satisfying training session with my friends. I’m grateful for my boat’s successes and losses – for the good outings, and for the bad ones.

“...focusing on building a body that is stronger, rather than thinner or prettier, has been a really healthy mindset change...”

Rowing has also taught me a lot about endurance and determination. As a trivial example, I was able to endure the pain of my first tattoo by comparing it to pushing through an erg test. The ability to grit your teeth and keep going is useful for more than sports: whether it’s tattoos, all-nighters, or mental health dips, endurance is a skill we all rely on at times. I’ve also found that rowing has made me much more confident – focusing on building a body that is stronger, rather than thinner or prettier, has been a really healthy mindset change, and has made me a lot happier.

Through the boatclub, I’ve met some of the strongest women I’ve ever known. There’s something really special about pushing your bodies together in pursuit of a mutual goal, whatever that goal might be. Maybe it’s the endorphins. Maybe it’s the intimacy that comes with knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe it’s just the natural result of spending three years learning from each other, and working together towards the same aim.


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And, of course, there’s the trust that’s built over years of demonstrating your commitment, through turning up at even the earliest meet times, endlessly cheering each other on, and agreeing to sub in for each other in times of need. At some point, during the ergs and subsequent brunches, the weights training boosted by gossip and jokes, my rowing friends stopped being my ‘rowing friends’ and became something closer to family. I know that I can absolutely rely on them to support me, and I am so lucky to have met them.

Like other finalists, I’ve been recently coming to terms with the fact that my time at Cambridge has come to an end. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to row on the River Cam again. Maybe I’ll join a new boat club in a different city – or maybe I won’t. But the skills I’ve gained through rowing – and, more importantly, the amazing friends I’ve made – aren’t tied to any place. I know they’ll last long beyond my time at university, and I know they’ll be waiting for me on the other side of this crisis.

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