Cambridge University’s rowing pedigree officially dates back to 1828 with the establishment of the Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC). Over the course of nearly two centuries, the club has been graced by the presence of European and World champions, aspiring Olympians and, of course, former Olympians in the shape of James Cracknell. This year, CUBC announced that five alumni had been selected for their respective Olympic teams: Dara Alizadeh (Bermuda), Olivia Coffey (USA), Henry Fieldman (GB), Imogen Grant (GB) and Ida Gørtz Jacobsen (Denmark). In light of the official announcements, Varsity talks to some of the Tokyo-bound rowers ahead of their all-important week of competition.

Henry joined the Zoom call from Austria’s mountainous tranquility, training on the legendary Silvretta reservoir at 2,030 metres above sea level. His time at Cambridge dates back to 2013, steering the Light Blues in a gruelling defeat in the Boat Race. Having then won two successive World Championship titles in the men’s coxed pair of 2015 and 2016, Henry was a natural successor to the retired Olympic gold-medalist Phelan Hill, taking control of the men’s eight through the 2017 season. Following this steady ascent to the helm of GB rowing, Henry told Varsity that he was internally selected for the Olympics in early 2020, with his selection officially confirmed last month.

Now in the peaks of Austria, Henry and his team are immersed in an air of tradition, despite the thinning effect of altitude: “we certainly look at our heroes of this sport, like Pinsent and Redgrave, that would come on this camp and it would be a key part of their preparation”. With only one returning Olympian in the men’s eight (Mohamed Sbihi), Tokyo represents a new challenge for the majority of the group, which possibly leaves room for history burdening the squad’s outlook on the Games. Henry concedes that “there’s definitely been a time where I’ve felt that we need to carry the torch and now it’s our turn”, yet also notes a recent shift in mentality: “I’ve started to think a little bit more now that the legacy is a confidence booster rather than an added pressure”.

“the goal has always been the Olympics [and] without my year at Cambridge I definitely wouldn’t be here right now”

As for Olivia, the potential influence of tradition sits a little closer to home, given that both of her parents were once elite rowers. Notably, her father Calvin Coffey took silver at the 1976 Summer Olympics in the coxless pair with Michael Staines - ‘Coffey-Staines’ is always going to be a hard name to live up to. Nonetheless, Olivia never felt the urge to dive straight into the sport: “I’ve always been around rowing but I didn’t start until I was in high school and I actually liked other sports a lot more”.

However, her time at college allowed her “to get a lot better at rowing” and she was subsequently invited to various U23 camps, going on to win three medals in as many World Rowing U23 Championships (2009, 2010, 2011). Making the jump to senior competition, Olivia’s most fruitful season came in 2018, winning the Boat Race and stroking the women’s eight to gold at the World Rowing Championships. Olivia claims that “the goal has always been the Olympics [and] without my year at Cambridge I definitely wouldn’t be here right now”.

The USA’s selection process entails head-to-head competition amongst teammates, meaning that Olivia was partly able to measure the scale of her success throughout the season. When USRowing eventually made the roster announcement, Olivia recognised it as a double-edged sword of emotion: “the first thing I did was cry because I was so relieved and happy, but I also cried because I was so sad for all of my teammates that didn’t make it because I knew exactly how that felt in 2016 [Olivia qualified as a spare at the Rio Olympics]”.

Alongside the capacity of Olivia’s place on the team, the year-long delay of the Games is another distinguishing factor between Rio and Tokyo. However, this disruption of the usual rowing cycle has not altered Olivia’s competitive attitude. Continuing to train for the Olympics during the pandemic, Olivia asserts that “the goal was still so clear”: “when so much was up in the air for so many people in the world, just being able to go to the boathouse and say ‘okay, today I can be successful at this’ was really settling for the mind”.

Although this regime of restriction is slowly coming to an end, athletes going to the Tokyo Olympics will inevitably face the strict guidance put in place by the Japanese government and the IOC. Further to this, it was announced yesterday (08/07) that no fans will be able to attend the Games due to Tokyo entering a state of emergency until 22nd August, as a consequence of increasing coronavirus cases in the city.

Opening her laptop already in the thick of this dispiriting situation, Ida admits that “it’s very restricted out here”. Hosted by a small village north of the Japanese capital, Ida explains that “they love having us out here but, of course, there’s also people, especially in Tokyo, who do not want the Olympics to happen”. Competing attitudes are ironically entangled in the sporting competition of the Games.

“if rowing is a sacrifice, don’t do it [...] even if I fail, it is still worth it”

Ida’s rowing record boasts a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships in the coxless four and a Boat Race win in the same year, now topped by an Olympic squad selection. Yet, Ida is intelligently cautious not to get eaten up by the spotlight of the Games: “a gold medal at the Olympics is the best thing that you can ever achieve in rowing, but at the same time I don’t want to have that hanging over me as the only criteria for success. Ida goes on: “I’ve always wanted to balance having a goal that’s huge, and perhaps unattainable, and trying to stay in the moment and focus on those next few races and training blocks that I can control”.


Mountain View

Eights Regatta Round-Up

Speaking of self-discipline, Dara will represent Bermuda as a single sculler this summer, making the switch to sculling in the months after his 2019 Boat Race victory. Dara initially missed out on Olympic qualification at the 2019 World Rowing Championships, but rectified this at the Americas Qualification Regatta last March. Describing his first sculling performance as “a humbling experience”, Dara revels in the “unforgiving” nature of being in the shell on your own: “you’re totally in charge of everything you do and anything that doesn’t happen is your own fault”. As an elite athlete, Dara was lucky enough to continue training during the pandemic, believing it to be “the truest sense of character because zero people are watching”. National lockdown allowed Dara to work on his relatively new craft of sculling away from the spotlight of competition: “just focus on the process and the score will take care of itself”. The same can be said for his lockdown curls, cultivating a feline look as “a fun thing to do in a weird year” - an unmissable appearance on the podium.

Coming off the back of the Eights Regatta in Cambridge, Dara celebrates the opinion that rowing is “the only sport that a complete novice can pick up and in four years be knocking on the door of the Olympic team”. While Varsity were unable to speak to her, the rapid success of Team GB’s Imogen is a perfect testament to the claim’s credibility, first learning to row as an undergraduate at Trinity College in 2014 and then going on to win gold at the 2018 U23 World Championships. Undoubtedly, hard work makes the chronology possible and Dara stresses this reality by pushing the importance of choice rather than sacrifice: “if rowing is a sacrifice, don’t do it”. Instead, think of it as “I’m making choices for the betterment of myself and, even if I fail, it is still worth it”.

The rowing events will run from Friday 23rd until Friday 30th July from Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo Bay. Team GB’s Henry will be coxing the men’s eight (M8+), while Imogen will join Emily Craig in the lightweight women’s double sculls (LW2x). Meanwhile, Olivia will stroke for Team USA in the women’s eight (W8+), Ida for Team Denmark in the women’s four (W4-) and Dara will represent Bermuda in the men’s single sculls (M1x).

Varsity wishes the athletes the best of luck ahead of the competition.