The trials and triumphs of inter-college rowingKatie Kasperson for Varsity

Day 1 – It’s chaos and I like it

The worst thing is the nerves. They start off low, then build throughout the day. I can’t concentrate properly on anything and take to just wandering round Cambridge, unable to pick a song to listen to for more than 20 seconds. Getting down to the boat house helps, the repeated process of soothing my frazzled mind.

During the lengthy warm up, marshalling, practice start and spin, I manage to project an image of calm, attempting to reassure myself more than anything. The four minute cannon shatters this, sending my brain spinning into a whirlpool of anxiety. Four minutes, three minutes. Check gates, footplates, peel off layers, anything to not think about what has to happen. Two minutes. I think, why does it have to start now? Why not tomorrow, the next day, any time but now; I’m not ready to go. But the countdown won’t stop for me. 90 seconds, one minute cannon. My hands are physically shaking, and I can feel my heart throbbing in my neck. 20, 15, ten, nine, eight, seven (blades square up), six, five, silence, cannon fires. Go. Instinct takes over. We surge forward, the pent-up anxiety fuelling an electric start, and have bumped within a minute. It’s my first bump, on my eighth attempt. It’s fantastic.

Day 2 – I am cold and I am wet

Rain. Not enough to be torrential, but enough to gradually seep through my layers, cold water trickling down the tips of my hair and down my forehead. The nerves are less today, more manageable than all-consuming. I actually enjoy the paddle down, as for once there doesn’t seem to be a great deal wrong with our technique. The feeling of synchronicity, of everyone being hooked up together, is unique and oddly beautiful.

“The feeling of synchronicity, of everyone being hooked up together, is unique and oddly beautiful”

The nerves ratchet up again on the start line, but I still feel fairly confident. This confidence is punctured by a ropey start, in which we allow the boat in front to open up a gap, but once we hit our stride, we manage to get closer. Going round First Post Corner, I register a voice screaming my name from the bank, reminding me that it’s my responsibility to ensure we make it round the corner. I drive my legs hard, and begin to feel the tired numbness of lactic acid set in. By this stage, the gap has closed significantly and we are within inches going around Grassy Corner. They go narrow, we go wide and quickly draw alongside before performing a full overtake, confirming the inevitable bump. In its own way, it feels better than Day 1. The fact we had to work for it makes it mean so much more, the leaden legs and aching back offset by the warm afterglow of success.

Day 3 – Row, row, row your boat, violently against the stream

I’m pretty confident going into today. We’re feeling settled, and the crew in front had been bumped before, meaning we’re confident in our ability. The paddle down feels solid, and the practice start feels sharp. Disappointingly, our actual rowing doesn’t match this. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, it just doesn’t quite feel like our best performance, but that’s okay. A solid row-over is nothing to be ashamed of.

Day 5 – Empty out

Today was the hardest day of rowing I’ve probably ever had. We knew that we had to go as hard as we could and that we would either get bumped by the crew behind or bump the crew in front. Off the start we go out hard, going as fast as we had all week. The only issue is that everyone else has the same idea, leaving us almost exactly the same distance from the crew in front and behind, as if attached by invisible wire.

“We gave it everything, but it’s scant consolation. It’s all a bit disappointing”

Frustratingly, the two crews in front continued their own individual battle and bumped out midway through, leaving us defending against an onrushing crew behind us. We row well and give everything, but they inch closer and closer to us, eventually catching us by the railway bridge. All of us are shattered. I can see the sweat literally steaming off my face, forming a cloud of vapour in the cold air, as the guy in front of me lies back in the boat by my feet. We gave it everything, but it’s scant consolation. It’s all a bit disappointing.

Epilogue – All the little things


Mountain View

A Cam catch-up

I’m writing this when the dust has settled, a week on from the chaos. During the week, I read a great quote from the American football quarterback Peyton Manning, that goes something like: “When I look back on my career, I realise that the big things were the little things, and the little things were the big things.” Looking back on the week, I can’t really remember the races in any great detail. The adrenaline means you can’t remember things properly and it’s all over too quickly, meaning you’re left with these static, frozen vignettes that you build a more cohesive memory around. But, I remember our two seat not knowing if we were racing downstream or upstream; I remember getting the giggles during a debrief; and every time I look in the mirror, I will be forced to remember the stupid mullet we all decided to get at the behest of our stroke seat. It’s all these little, insignificant moments that form the basis of my memory now and leave me smiling to myself as I write this.

I’m not even sure I like rowing that much; it’s mind-numbingly repetitive, often painful and I’m not very good at it. But I do like the people I do it with, and in the end that makes it worth it.