By Jim Bruce-Ball
Head of Content, Professional Sports Group
It seemed entirely appropriate in a week when Team GB’s Rio heroes were being rightly paraded and lauded in Manchester and London that Professional Sports Group spent a couple of days of awe-inspiring privilege with the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Clubs.
Our Olympic medallists waved from their floats and double-decker buses and were feted by the admiring hordes in Manchester and London on Monday and Tuesday as a deserved reward for years of dedication to their sport which so often goes unnoticed. Meanwhile, four squads of sporting powerhouses were pushing their bodies to the limit, hard at work for their own day in the sun: The Cancer Research UK Boat Races.
I arrived at Oxford University Boat Clubs’s ‘Rowing Tank’ shortly after 630am on Tuesday morning – with the room already filled with athletes who had already been pumping their muscles in their standard ergo training session.
Despite the chill of the dark autumn morning outside, all the windows are wide open in the gym and the sweat levels are rising. This session lasts 90 minutes, after which the rowers have a quick snack before hurriedly getting on their bikes and heading to lectures.
One or two are stopping for a chat with us today, to play their part in a series of films Professional Sports Group are producing with The Boat Race, and happily talk through their typical day.
Take Dr Isabell Von Loga, for example. This year’s Women’s President at OUWBC. “I usually get up at around 5am, to eat and then be in the gym by 6.30 for this first training session of the day. Then I have to be in the lab [Von Loga is taking a DPhil in Musculoskeletal Sciences] by 9 until 1 for my studies. From there it is down to the Boat House to be on the water from 2 until 4 or 5 – and then racing back to make sure I feed myself and get back to my studies. We train six days a week so there isn’t a real difference at weekends either. It can be hard. It is intense”
For Ashton Brown, Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club President, it’s a similar story. A hugely enjoyable-wouldn’t-swap-it-for-anything life – but also intense. Her release these days, she says, is borrowing a friend’s puppy. “The dog doesn’t know anything about rowing or my PhD so it’s great,” she says.
Another senior Dark Blue, Jamie Cook laughs that, even when he finds time to sit down for lunch, he has to concentrate to eat. “You literally have a 15-minute window to eat your food so you have to remind yourself not to talk too much. It is that tight a window.” He is smiling, but time management is clearly a crucial thing to get right in this unique world of elite sport and academia.
I catch up with the Oxford squads again on the Thames in the afternoon. They have been delivered by mini-bus after a morning of tutorials and lectures and a swift lunch and are now prepping their own boats to go out on the water for a two-hour session. The atmosphere is light – but the seriousness of what they are doing it all for is omnipresent.
Another Blue, James White describes what it is like to live this all-consuming life – and to be on the other side of it. “It’s so hard to have time for anything else in your life beyond academia and rowing. It really is all consuming. I am so lucky because I have such an understanding girlfriend and my family too. But you have to keep telling yourself the reason you are doing it.”
That reason? One day in Spring (April 2 next year) when London comes to a standstill, the BBC sets aside a couple of hours in its schedule and millions of people tune in worldwide to watch two boats race down the River Thames. As all Blues from both sides will attest, winning is everything; the agony of losing almost indescribable.
The sessions are over and both men’s and women’s squads make their way back to their colleges – to refuel their bodies and minds. It has to be bed by 9, 10 at the latest, because that alarm will go again at 5am tomorrow. It is not the student life I led – and I am sure is few many will ever experience.
Their sacrifice is extraordinary, their skillset almost superhuman. And in 23 weeks some of these elite athletes whose endeavours go unsung for so many months of the year, will be heroes too.