Pure Sport – Our Training Session with the Oxford Women’s Lightweight Crew

We first met the rowers of Oxford University late last year. It was a moment for us. We have been referencing the Boat Race and the fact that in 2015 for the first time ever the women raced the same course on the same day as the men, as our go-to-defence for starting a sportswear company that focused on female rowers. (We swear it is a popular sport, no no, I understand that little Mary doesn’t row but plenty of other girls do!! They will be on the BBC, it must be of public interest, there is definitely a market!!!!). So to sit across from the women of Oxford University Women’s Boat Club and Lightweight Rowing Club was a moment. We knew they would be focused, determined and have their sights clearly set on victory. We didn’t know they would extend such an open and genuine welcome.

So one large customised kit bag and sports bra delivery later and we are at the opening of the brand new Fishlock boat shed and blagging our way into attending one of the Oxford Women’s Lightweights training sessions – don’t ask, don’t get. To be fair it didn’t take too much arm twisting before we were donning our thermals and heading out to Wallingford for a morning session on the water. With 3 weeks to go before race day it was an exciting time to be in the boat club…..

“I had crunchy nut corn flakes, but didn’t have any milk…” was one of the first comments that drifted past me whilst waiting for Chris O’Hara, Oxford Women’s Lightweights Coach on this clear, cold Saturday morning. While Chris and cox Anna Corderoy planned the crew talk and plan for the session we caught up with the wonderful Jowita Mieszkowska. Our catch up hammered home the feeling within the camp. Excitement for race day twinned with pressure and nerves for seats in the boat. This morning the lightweight crew were doing what is called a “sweat session” where they weigh themselves then go out in the boat, run through their race day pre weigh-in routine and return to the boathouse to weigh themselves again. This lets them know how much weight they can expect to lose during the session and is valuable information should they need it on race day.

The Boat Race, as most people know it, is famous the world over and run on the Thames Tideway. This is the heavyweight (or openweight) race. The Lightweight Boat Race where they also go head to head against the age old rival that is Cambridge University takes place at Henley. Before I met Chris and his crew I can admit to being pretty ignorant of what lightweights do and have never attended the race at Henley. Time spent with these ladies will put paid to any ridiculous illusions that this is less of a race and that these girls are any less competitive than the heavyweights. They train the same amount of time as the heavyweights but have the added and pretty intense pressure of achieving a specific weight (maximum 59kg to be exact) on race day for qualification to take their seat in the boat. Failure to make weight means you don’t race and a reserve steps in. Let’s just take a moment and let that sink in. You give over all your time, make huge sacrifices, give up your weekends and yet a slight increase in weight and it is all lost. You are training 11-12 times a week (“but there are only 7 days in a week” some genius was once heard to ask these crews, there really is always one) and you have to think about everything you eat. You do not have the luxury of bulking up for added power you must be lean and mean and I would imagine pretty bloody hungry. It is like a jockey training for the Gold Cup crossed with an Ironman competition. These athletes are as hardcore as it gets. They need to think about performance, weight, nutrition, securing a seat in the Blue Boat….I am exhausted just thinking about it.

The Oxford crews don’t mess around, they have a nutritionist that works closely with every crew member ensuring that weight is lost and maintained in a safe and healthy way. Crash dieting is totally unacceptable. You need to have the fuel to perform and no one is going to be put in harms way under the watchful eyes of the Oxford support team.

We are allowed to sit in on a crew talk. Chris and Anna (cox) lead the charge through what is happening that morning. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting from the 8 at this point after such a lot of training and so close to their race, with the final crew yet to be fully locked down, but I know that I wasn’t expecting them to be so pumped. They were ready to go and were keen to get the session underway, a true testament to how much these ladies want to be here and how keenly they are aware of the privilege of their position. These young women are the poster girls for who you would like your daughter to grow up to be. Friendly, sweet, hilarious, clever, courteous, humble, determined and hard-ass. They are the complete package and make for a very impressive group.

They want it and they want you to want it for them. It is positively addictive.

With 2 pairs of leggings on and 6 (count them), 6 layers of various tops on my person I hop (I tentatively and gingerly place myself, there was absolutely no hopping but I was going for a dynamic visual) into the launch. A quick prayer to the gods of steady launches and lifejackets and we are out on the water following the girls through their pieces for the morning. It was a rush. I felt goosebumps, we were right there with them and when their boat started picking up pace and they were all working in perfect unison it was something pretty special. Listening to Anna give her rhythmic instructions and seeing the concentration as the big day is being visualised, all thoughts of my Cambridge graduate husband flew from my mind. This is my team.

Chris O’Hara, the coach, is an inspiration. He cares, really cares about his crew. When I asked what the worst bit about being a coach was, his sincere and honest answer “telling someone they didn’t make the boat” knocked the wind out of my sails. You might think that many years coaching would make you immune but not so and with Chris using the next few days of training and competing to choose his final 8, it must be a pressure everyone is feeling. Chris is the kind of leader you would go to war for. He inspires loyalty and discretionary performances. He is the kind of person that you will look back on later in life and use as a template for how to get a job done. Naturally I had to ask if he was paying any attention to the Cambridge camp, some well-placed spies perhaps?! Not a chance. Oxford are racing their race, their way.

As we zipped along next to the 8, close enough to see the whites of their eyes, Brid turned into me and whispered “just wait until we go under the bridge with all of them rowing, you have never heard anything like it”. I had to wait an agonising twenty minutes or so (I was pretty numb from the cold, it was hard to say exactly how much time had passed) before we went under the bridge and I heard for the first time what an eight sounds like. Impossible to describe accurately but so awesome it would make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. They were perfecting technique and doing pauses when we went under the bridge so I only got to hear one booming finish but it gives me the perfect excuse to return for another session don’t you think?

Oxford are a class act. Nothing was out of bounds during our visit and we really got to see the inner workings of a training session for the Lightweights, which is why I am saying nothing about what they are doing at the moment and how fast they are going. I would just casually throw out there that any opponent (you know who you are) would need to bring their A game to Henley.

Sitting with a badly needed cup of tea and feeling feeble in comparison to the crew that had just gotten off the water and were still full of enthusiasm for the next session. I had to wonder why these Lightweights do this? It is so challenging. It is so demanding. Why would anyone put themselves through it and how are they still smiling?? Brid was of little help – she admitted that she first took up rowing so that she could hang out with hot boys, the answer I knew I wanted came from Dani Edmunds. She spoke of the challenge and the privilege. The rush you get from representing your university and the pride that comes from knowing that you have earned your place in Oxford rowing history. And you couldn’t deny it, these ladies truly earn their place.

So a call to all true rowing fans out there. You need to get to Henley on Saturday the 19th of March. These ladies have worked and trained, lost weight and sweated their asses off. They deserve your support and I for one have already organised cars full of people to turn up and roar Oxford home.

So get out there and pick your crew. It doesn’t matter which side you are on, it matters that you are there.

As we left the rowing club on what was a perfect, freezing morning we wandered past the buses that transport the crews to and from training. Emblazoned on the side of one of them was the question “Which blue are you?” Honestly Oxford, you don’t even need to ask….you had me at crunchy nut cornflakes.

Update March 20th 2016

In our blog we said that Coach Chris O’Hara was the kind of leader you would go to war for. On March 19th 2016 in Henley-On-Thames, the Oxford University Women’s Lightweight Crew did just that and took the win in an extremely exciting race with the women of Cambridge. The river was choppy and the competition was fierce. Congratulations to all crews on a brilliant days racing and three cheers for the victorious DarkBlues.