Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Boat Races: Will Oxbridge Become a Destination for International Women Rowers?

The recent announcement that the Boat Race will become 'the Boat Races' in 2015, with the inclusion of the women's race in the 'programme,' marks a major step forward for equality in sport, as well as for women's rowing in the U.K. The move will undoubtedly elevate the standard of the women's race, as it will benefit from greater exposure. Given this outlook, here in the U.S. it seems only natural to ask a follow-up question: Will this lead to a greater interest among would-be and established female internationals (i.e. rowers from around the world who are on the cusp of the national team, or with national team experience) in attending Oxford and Cambridge and competing in the Boat Races as a means to develop as athletes, as it has on the men's side?

Ryan taking us on a tour of OKC's
Devon Boathouse
The experience of studying and rowing in the U.K. can be a(n) hugely beneficial intermediate step, combining graduate level study at (one of) two of the world's most prestigious universities with a very high standard of rowing. It allows these athletes, who may have national team potential, to develop for an extra year or two, while also looking after their lives after rowing. In order to get an inside take on the appeal of Oxbridge, we spoke to two-time Cambridge Blue Ryan Monaghan (2010 U.S. national team member and 2012 Olympic hopeful) about his reasons for heading across the pond.

RR: What makes rowing for Cambridge (I'd add Oxford, but have a feeling you might take issue!) and racing in the Boat Race so appealing?

RPM: For me, at least, I found myself graduating in a pre-Olympic year. Lost on what to do next, I knew I wasn't done in the classroom or on the water. I came from Cornell, finishing seventh at the IRAs that year. I had never been on a U23 team, hadn't had an outstanding erg, and had very little experience in the pair. I just wasn't at the level I needed to be at to make it onto the national team let alone even train with them. Off the water I didn't know what career path I wanted to pursue. Cambridge offered everything I was looking for–I could further my education while rowing.

The rowing was a full time training program. Until that point I hadn't done two-a-days before (excluding training trips and such). With a full-time training program my fitness improved substantially.

At Cornell everyone on the varsity team is within three years of age and most have done little or nothing in their days prior to Cornell. No one had any international racing experience, no one had been to a higher level in the sport. Ken Jurkowski [U.S. M1x in Beijing] was always of interest to us. Here is a guy that went through what we're going through and actually did something. He would come by randomly and we'd always try to learn something from him. His words went far with us because he was really the only international rower we had any interaction with [at that time].

In contrast at Cambridge, my first year, there was an age range of 20 years between the rowers. You had younger guys on the way up to their rowing peaks and some older guys coming off their rowing peaks (on their way to obtaining a degree from Cambridge so that they could start their careers). These older, not always mature, teammates had plenty of experience competing at the international level and I learned a lot through rowing with these guys. I went from knowing of one international rower to being teammates with several, and I learned a great deal from them.

Cambridge is where I became proficient at rowing pairs. Sure, having high quality coaches helps, but rowing and racing with these old dudes (I'm talking 28+ years old... damn, I'm almost that old...) is what I felt had the biggest impact on my small boat rowing skills. Cambridge is where I also got an internship at a bank and found a career path I'd like to pursue. It really was the stepping stone I had hoped it to be. I don't know what other options I had at graduation, but I wouldn't be where I am today if not for Cambridge.

RR: Given the higher profile that the women's event will take on by being added to the program of the main event, do you think that Oxbridge will become a destination for elite women the way that it has for elite men?

RPM: As for the women, it's great! Naturally, it is going to take some time, perhaps a long time, to have the same international appeal, but I have to imagine that it will happen. Just like the men, the women are no different in their high ambitions on and off the water. I would imagine girls, just as the same as guys would jump at an opportunity to earn a Cambridge degree and row at an elite level.

I am a fan of this addition. With it the race has secured a global sponsor (BNY Mellon), with a time commitment significantly greater than any prior sponsorship. They have greater resources and are committed to pushing the race to an even higher quality than before. By far the greatest costs of the race are putting on the actual race itself (shutting down the Tideway, security, yada yada yada). These costs don't change with an additional race. Therefore having the women's race is no additional burden to the men's programs. There are economies of scale at play here as well. What was unaffordable for one club can be affordable for two clubs. There is an additional sponsor, Newton Investment Management, who is committed to investing large sums so that the women's program hits the ground running before the move to the Tideway occurs.

There are those out there who, upon first hearing of the news, expressed concerns about how the tradition of the men's race would be affected, but the organizers have taken everything into consideration and have a plan in place that I believe will not only bring the women's race up to par, but also raise the level of the men's race.

Plus, there are now more races Cambridge can win!

Thanks very much to Ryan for taking the time! For more information on the changes coming to the Boat Races, please visit the official website of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.

-RR

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