James smiles ahead of Trial VIIIsNordin Catic

Undoubtedly, rowing is the sport most associated with Cambridge, and with The Boat Race on the horizon I was curious to learn more about the experiences of a fellow athlete involved in elite sport at Cambridge.

James Trotman, a first-year Economics student at Sidney Sussex College, began coxing at school. Five years on, his eyes are firmly set on representing Cambridge in the Boat Race and, most importantly, making sure we beat Oxford. Last summer he made waves, winning a silver medal for GB at the U19 World Championships, but now it is all about life at CUBC.

During term time, James gets up at 5:30am, cycles to the train station, and takes the 5:57 to Ely for a 90-minute session on the water. When he gets back, he has a 10-minute window to dash to the Sidgwick Site for a 9am lecture. Several hours of lectures, lunch on the go, and a library session until 4pm follow before James is back on his bike, cycling to Goldie Boathouse for land training. Although, he does not take part in the physical conditioning, he fulfils a vital support role. It’s then back to college for dinner, more study and then straight to bed, to be repeated the next day.

“The rowing community is incredibly supportive”

Juggling a degree alongside all this is difficult, and James admits he has to “sacrifice the typical student social life”. Yet he does not feel as though he is missing out. “The rowing community is incredibly supportive, I’ve met some amazing people who I’ll know for life”, he said. James’ highlights so far this season include his crew’s performance at The Fours Head Race, and since December moving over to cox the women’s crew in the Trial Eights. However, it has not all been plain sailing — James recounts “a definite lowlight was dropping my phone in the river!”

The graft doesn’t stop in the holidays either. While most of us were relaxing over Christmas, James and his fellow CUBC teammates have been working hard on an 11-day intensive training camp in north-west Spain. The focus of the three daily sessions were skills, stroke technique and high intensity anaerobic training. As James pointed out, it was the “ideal place to simulate UK March weather conditions”, but also provided a “mentally separate space” away from the chaos of Cambridge life. This gave the squad the opportunity to “really focus on the rowing and gel as a crew”.

To those outside the sporting bubble, the complexities of top-level performance can be hard to grasp. When people ask me about my own experiences as an England table tennis player, I often hear “ping pong. Don’t you just stand there and hit a ball?” While talking with James, it became apparent that he faces similar misconceptions about coxing – for him it’s, “You just sit there and shout, don’t you?”


Mountain View

Countdown to the Boat Race begins

In reality the cox is a coach, a cheerleader and tactician all in one. James told me: “I sit in the boat, look at what’s going on, feel what’s going on, and decide what to do to move the crew towards the perfect rowing stroke.” On and off the water, James is the interface between coach and crew, translating what the coach wants and ensuring that what is practiced in training can be replicated in races. The cox is the brains of the boat, using their knowledge and experience to judge what to do in order to get the rowers to move and think exactly at the same time as each other. James explained: “There’s hardly any situation where you have eight people synchronised and sometimes it’s a bit of a nightmare!” Clear communication is essential, and over his microphone James gives the rowers key information. Ultimately, it is “the goal of the cox is to get the best out of the rowers”. Using his cox box to monitor the crew’s performance, James stays calm under pressure to execute the race plan, is tactically aware of what is happening and figures out how to make the boat go faster. All of which is incredibly difficult in the heat of competition. In particular, the cox is responsible for steering, especially important in the Boat Race. It is not a straight course, so navigating to the fastest part of the river will be integral to CUBC’s success.

With the first race fixture scheduled for 22nd January, the countdown towards the pinnacle of CUBC’s season has begun. The Boat Race is all or nothing. The work in the next few months will be absolutely crucial in this final preparation phase if the Cambridge crews are to handle the pressure and perform on the big day.