“The Boat Race is never cancelled”.
Until 2020, this was a mantra familiar to all athletes pursuing victory in the historic Oxford v Cambridge Boat Races. Although repeated mostly by coaches as justification for the continued presence of on-the-water sessions during near-biblical weather conditions, it also represents the grit and perseverance necessary to withstand a Boat Race season. For myself, it was a confirmation that the energy, time and sacrifices invested in the process would be worthwhile; that there would be the opportunity to line up against Oxford, in London, on the Thames, and write the closing line of our season, as so many athletes before us had done.
But on March 16th 2020, 13 days before the race was due to take place, the Covid-19 pandemic began to invade news headlines and it became increasingly obvious there would be no reasonable way for the Boat Race to continue. That evening, the cancellation was announced to all four teams of athletes separately. Sitting in the Goldie Boathouse in Cambridge that evening, I remember a range of reactions surrounding me, but I don’t think I ever understood my own until a long time after.
“I remember being called into Goldie like it was yesterday. I could tell that no one from any of the squads knew how to process the cancellation. I think it was surreal for all of us.”, James Bernard, 7 seat of the 2020 Cambridge Men’s Blue Boat
Amid such international scenes of loss and uncertainty, the athletes of the 2020 season dispersed. Like the rest of the world, we experienced the dislocation and timelessness of the following months. We kept in touch online occasionally, and gradually, the world recovered towards “the new normal”. Some athletes went on into another Boat Race season, entering the 2021 race which took place in Ely due to the continued presence of Covid-19, while others made their way into further education, or went on into the workplace.
It was only recently that Abba Parker (bow seat of the 2020 Cambridge Women’s crew), reached out to suggest that we reform the 2020 Cambridge Women’s Blue Boat for the Head of the Charles Regatta this October. Unexpectedly, (as anyone who has ever organised a reunion for a team sport will know), all members of the 2020 crew bar one (our 7 seat Tricia Smith was graduating from her PhD) were available to attend, and so last week we flew out to race in Boston.
In the end, it wasn’t the most conventionally beautiful day for our race; the sky was overcast and there was light rain as we drove down to the course. We launched from the MIT boathouse, as we had used Larkin Sayre’s undergraduate connections (stroke seat and president of the 2020 Cambridge Women’s Blue Boat) to secure our equipment for race day. The misty Boston skyline formed a backdrop to our warmup and as a crew we were jittery with excitement while we lined up to race. Much like the Thames, we knew that the twists and turns of the Charles could define our race, and as such we had put a lot of thought into how we would negotiate these to our best advantage. Unfortunately, we were forced to abandon these carefully crafted plans almost immediately when Dylan’s speaker (Dylan was the cox of the 2020 Women’s Blue Boat) stopped working within the first minute of the seventeen-minute-long course.
From there ensued possibly the most fun I have ever had in a race as we wove between various other boats, negotiated tight bends and multiple bridges, raced three or four abreast at moments, all while Dylan shouted himself hoarse at the helm. It was a real privilege to rediscover the joy of racing; the focus of being in sync with your teammates, side by side with another crew of women, pushing you on to be faster, and the noise of the supporters and spectators on the riverbanks.
As we crossed the finish line I felt firstly a huge sense of relief, (it had been several months since I was last in a boat and my body was questioning just how it had ended up in such a predicament again), but also an overwhelming exhilaration. The unresolved nature of the 2020 season will always ache slightly, but the fact that we managed to regather almost the entire crew for a competitive race felt powerful, and I am proud of how we closed out our narrative.
“To race as a crew nearly 3.5 years after our cancelled race was such a special experience. It (almost!) felt as if nothing had changed – as if we were able to seamlessly slot back into the rhythm we had established so many seasons ago. Being spread across the globe, it was equally as special to spend time together as a crew and catch up on each other’s adventures. I came away from the weekend reminded of what an awesome and powerful group of women I am so lucky to have shared a common goal with.”, Sophie Paine, 4 seat of the 2020 Cambridge Women’s Blue Boat
We placed 9th out of 50 in the women’s alumni eights category, and it’s safe to say that post-race we enjoyed the rest of the trip in each other’s excellent company, bumping into many other Boat Race alumni and old friends along the way.
I think only the athletes will understand quite how much one dedicates to the training and how it comes to dominate one’s life, and therefore what it means to lose the race, or to be precise, to lose the opportunity to race and all the potential for joy, anguish and finality it might have held. However, I will always be grateful that I shared the 2020 experience with an incredible team; a team where we can pick up almost exactly where we left off (minus a fair amount of fitness) over three years later, and come together to race.
Words: Sarah Portsmouth
Photos: Vicky Gillard