On the 18th of May 2021, the 38th Women’s Lightweight Boat Race was held on the River Ouse in Ely, Cambridgeshire.
It was safe to say, the run up to the race had been unlike any previous Boat Race. The challenges of COVID had significantly limited our water preparation, but the 21 weeks of lockdown ergs had definitely brought its advantages through fitness and mental toughness.
In a year where social contact had been cut to an absolute minimum, our squad still managed to pull through and find an inner sense of community. Every single one of us, from the blue boat, the reserves, to the incredible coaches (Nic & Tina- without whom we 100% would have never made it to the start line), and the blues performance team, had put everything into the race, and this common goal really united our whole squad. The strength of the community and sheer determination to even get a race this year was overwhelming.
We arrived in Ely the day before the race, to settle at the Cambridge Boat House, and get used to the unfamiliar stretch of water. An afternoon paddle was followed by a trip to our house for the three day stay, where we could unpack and get prepped before a final evening outing. The last session on the water was almost surreal- the boat was running smooth, we were all in good spirits, and there were even some dramatic stormy skies followed by a beautiful rainbow to finish the session off.
The evening before the race, we all sat down to discuss final race preparations and open good luck cards from each other and Blue Boat Alumnae. It was so special to receive so many messages of good luck, especially from people who had sat in our very positions before. An early night followed, to get some much-needed rest before the big day!
Going into the race, we all knew what our goal was- to make sure our bow was the first to cross that finish line, and we all had our race plan etched in our minds.
We fought, and pushed; locked on, and sent, with all we had. The final 1 kilometre was when things began to unravel slightly. Coming into an almighty head wind, we were more phased than Cambridge who knew the water, knew exactly where they were and how to tackle the change in conditions. The gap was beginning to show but we weren’t going to make it easy for them. The last 500m were very tough. Going from being ahead and having the thoughts that we might actually be there, we could actually do this, to having the other crew slowly inching back on you was gut-wrenching. In the end, Cambridge knew the push points and began to ramp it up; once they got that clear water things began to shift. The final few 100ms were painful, knowing you couldn’t have given more but it might not be enough, and the final race verdict was a 2.5 Length victory to Cambridge.
Off the start we knew we had to push hard; the notorious speedy Cambridge starts were not going to phase us, and we showed this, taking the edge right off from the start line. The first half of the race was gutsy and tough. Cambridge pushed, we pushed back; we pushed, Cambridge pushed back. It was inch by inch work. Cambridge came right through us at one point, and we worked our way back right through them, seat by seat. We were determined not to give them that clear water we knew would give the mental edge.
Coming across the line we knew where we stood, and those first few thoughts really were tough to manage. It was crushing and overwhelming, but we knew we had pushed the hardest we could, and really had just rowed the race of our lives.
A real gutsy, strong race. We’d given Cambridge a real fight, and that’s something to be proud of.
After the race, we spent time with the Cambridge athletes; this became something rather special, as of all the people in the world, we suddenly realised that those nine athletes, who had raced alongside us, were the only nine who really understood exactly what we had been through to get to the start line. The uncertainty over the race date, the restricted water training; everything we had sacrificed to get to this day was common to both crews, and a real sense of the lightweight rowing community sprung up on both sides. Immediately we began talking, laughing, and chatting over our own individual experiences, and it was something quite incredible to feel so listened to and understood by your opposition!
All the hours of erging alone at home and in between our bed and desk in our college rooms, all the hours of online strength & conditioning and months of not knowing whether we would even be allowed to race culminated in one unforgettable experience. We are so thankful to Nic & Tina for their dedication to our training and the race; the squad as a whole have all gotten so close this year, and it’s a real privilege to be part of such an amazing group of athletes and young women.
We also look forward to next year and our 2022 Boat Race campaign. We know that next year we can make the victory a dark blue one.