It was on a Sunday, two weeks to the day before the race, that we were told. In the weeks leading up to that moment we had been told to be ready to race at a moment’s notice. At the time we still believed the race might be moved to a different location or different date if necessary. When I was called in for a meeting that Sunday evening I thought ‘ok maybe they have finally figured out a date’. At least that was how I was hoping the conversation would go.
We had of course all been following the news and watching things escalate around the world and maybe subconsciously I already knew what was going to happen. It was starting to feel like perhaps this wasn’t the time to be racing. We wanted to celebrate the culmination of our season but at the same time there was a global crisis gaining momentum and bigger things to worry about.
It was our CUWBC Chair Siobhan Cassidy who had the difficult task of breaking the news to me. It was a hard thing to hear. We have always lived in the knowledge that, come rain or shine, The Boat Race never ever gets cancelled. But it wasn’t totally unexpected. There was talk of maybe changing the date of the race, or the location, and all options were looked at exhaustively. But for a host of reasons it wasn’t possible, nor right, to go ahead.
Up to that point we had been continuing with training largely as normal. We actually did some of our best rowing over that last weekend. We completed some timed pieces on the Saturday and then steady-state rowing on the Sunday. Our second session on Saturday was one of those really good rows, when everything came together and it felt effortless. On Sunday, our final day together, we came off the water, cleaned the boat as usual, and put it away. None of us knew that would be the last time we would row together. It was about 5 or 6pm later that evening that Siobhan called me in to break the news.
I was told a few hours before the rest of the squad. After Siobhan told me, the coaches called the whole squad in to the gym at Goldie Boathouse. The men’s squad met upstairs at the same time, and we were all told simultaneously. All of the squads, between Cambridge and Oxford, men and women, were told within an hour of each other.
We took some time processing it together; there was a lot of hugging as well as a few tears. It’s a dream to race in the Blue boat. Above all I just wanted more time together. This crew was really special and it was that loss in particular that hurt. We would miss the stupid jokes we used to have together as well as the training. I wish we could have had ‘race week’ when we move to London for the final ten days before the race. It’s always fun and brings us together as a crew. I wanted to experience that with this boat.
“The race is what brings us together, but it’s only the last 20 minutes out of a long and crazy journey.”
We spent that Sunday evening together as a team, just us. It was the last time we were all together.
We know what a privilege it is for us to get to be a team and train in the way we do. We had a great season and we really wanted to race and show ourselves to the world, but with so much going on, so much sadness and hardship in the world, we can’t feel too bad about our situation.
It’s frustrating of course having that question mark hanging over how we would have done against Oxford. People still ask me all the time if I think we would have won and I say, ‘yes of course’. But we will never really have closure. On the plus side the lightweight men and women were able to race as their races took place on the day ours was cancelled. It was great to see them race and for our lightweight women to win one of the most nail-biting Tideway races in recent memory.
A lot of people ask if we could have done a race in secret, to avoid the crowds, at least to have a result, but ultimately it wouldn’t have been right. The profile this race has means it would always attract a crowd, however much we kept it under wraps. We wouldn’t want to risk the health of anybody. With so many events being cancelled, it would have been reckless to stubbornly carry on regardless. We are content in the fact that there really is no other way it could have gone.
I have been in touch with Tina [Christmann], the Oxford women’s president. She really wants to do a fixture one day, possibly after things go back to normal. Maybe we could, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult with how spread out we all are now.
Since we disbanded everyone has been processing it in different ways. For me it’s been quite an adjustment. It’s going from feeling like you’re the busiest person in the world to having so much free time. There are positives though. I am enjoying being able to sleep ten hours a night and being able to exercise for fun. Going for a long run and not having to track it or look at my heart rate and worry about how fast I am going has been refreshing.
At 3.44pm on March 29th, the exact moment our race should have happened, we had a big video conference together as a boat. Sat apart in our living rooms and bedrooms, we talked through what would have happened at each moment of the race. We would say things like ‘this is the moment when we would have been passing through Hammersmith Bridge’. It felt comforting and positive to do that together. After that my housemates wanted to re-watch the 2019 race which I was lucky enough to be part of so they had me provide commentary as we watched.
The cancellation of the race this year will certainly impact the plans of some of my teammates for next year. Some may decide to do another year training with the team that they may not have otherwise. There are a few post-graduate students who may choose to continue their studies for another year especially since the lockdown measures have affected all aspects of their time at Cambridge. A few on the squad have even continued training on the erg, with the mentality that ‘the 2021 season starts here’. But for the most part people are taking the time to have a break, both physically and mentally. Luckily there is a lot of young talent in the squad; four of the Blue boat are undergrads, two of which are first years who have many more years to race.
For me, this was always going to be my last year of rowing for CUWBC. The final year of my PhD means I will be focusing solely on academics next year, but I have no regrets. Being CUWBC President has been the pinnacle of my rowing career.
The pageantry and publicity of The Boat Race day is like nothing else we could experience in rowing, but that’s not why we do it. The race is what brings us together, but it’s only the last 20 minutes out of a long and crazy journey. We have always aimed to focus on the process and not the end goal. For that reason I will always look back on this year as a success.
Previously published in Issue 31 of Row360