Born to Row

It feels like the first day of school. The energy in the room is high with the intensity of emotions – anticipation, nervousness, competitiveness and fear of the unknown. It’s the first day of OUBC squad training for the 2009 Boat Race and the Iffley road gym contains 25 candidates seeking 16 positions in the Blue Boat and Isis, the reserve boat.

I notice President Colin Smith standing confidently to the side. The athletes sit cross-legged on the floor, knees to chest, or are perched on gym balls and benches. Coach Sean Bowden begins his introductory speech with the assistant coaches and admin staff positioned quietly behind. The media stand nearby – television and newspaper journalists and a photographer, who takes shots of the squad continuously. I’m starting to feel like a minor celebrity, but the feeling only lasts a day.

Sean finishes and the journalists swarm us. “Hi I’m Mike, what’s your name?” …”from Sydney”, “… yeah, the weather is not so good here, but I’m getting used to it”, “…excited to be here and looking forward to racing Cambridge”, “… favourite ice cream flavour is mango”, “… favourite movie is Wedding Crashers”, “…ok, nice meeting you.” I’m obviously going to need practice at this interviewing stuff!

Nearly half the squad is American. Luckily the “Rest of the World” guys outnumber them and can squash their crazy ideas like introducing American football to England and always listening to Bruce Springsteen in the minibus. The German, Polish, Italian and Ukrainian guys are useful for teaching us rude words in different languages. I’m forced to endure bad Australian impersonations about kangaroos, wallabies and crocodile hunters. The balance are Brits, who just roll their eyes at these foreign, colonial, convict rabble. God knows what the one woman in our squad – Alex, the French coxswain – thinks of our behaviour!

Three weeks gone and we are in full training. Compared to Australia, there is a lot more ergo work. Normally I struggle to sit on a machine for hours at a time, but it’s easy when there is a whole squad around you. Early mornings and late afternoons are preparing us for the first races: the October Boston Trials and The Fours Head. Judging performance is difficult, since crews are being constantly mixed, but I’m confident that I will be in one of the eights on race day.