Reflections on a very turbulent year as president of OUWBC
In the last month of my presidency, I’d like to share with you some reflections, memories, lessons learnt and experiences I made during my time leading this extraordinary club. I hope some of this will resonate with your experiences as athletes during your times at OUW and I am in big awe with all the presidents that came before me and who put thousands of hours into the team, its present and future.
My journey as president started last May, one month after the lost 2019 Boat Race. I started it with the vision of making the club more competitive, raising the standard in training and beyond and of being more professional in the various aspects of the programme. Having to decide immediately whether I wanted to trial again and whether I wanted to take on the big task of leading the club I threw myself into the new challenge with virtually no break.
A summer of change
Between May and August multiple things happened simultaneously; a dedicated summer racing group including me decided to train for and subsequently race at Henley and Women’s Henley, at the same time I was heavily involved with organizing the dev squad and its training, wrote 3 big exams and tried to recover from some chronic back injuries. I was stresses at that point, many jobs and responsibilities suddenly lied with me, having gone through the ease of just being an “athlete” and not having to worry about the organisation and the admin I didn’t know how everything in the Boat Club worked at that time, so the first couple of weeks presented a steep learning curve. With the old committee breaking down, one of my first official tasks was to find new members that would support our club’s mission and its implementation. I can now confidently say that I succeeded with getting three fantastic people on board: Prof. Michael Smets, from the business school who helps us with consulting and connections to the university, the amazing Leanne as our chair, who served to me as a mentor and “kept the farm calm” and our fabulous secretary Emma who has done a terrific work in improving our governance and connecting OUWBC to the outside world. After a successful summer season in Oxford with plenty of racing, a newly established committee, and an inbox of 5-10 boat club mails per day, I left on 4 weeks of fieldwork to the mountains of Brazil, where for the first time I didn’t have access to my e-mails and to the outside world and gained some energy for the season ahead.
A strenuous and labour-intense autumn and winter season
The night before pre-season started, I couldn’t sleep a single minute. I was lying awake, reciting over and over again the introductory speech I had prepared for welcoming the new team. I was nervous and excited to see who of the people that had signed up would be in Iffley at 9am. To my delight our assistant coach James was re-employed and some of my old squad members decided to give it another go and many of the newly recruited rowers and dev squad athletes turned up. After two successful weeks of pre-season, that made clear that the rowing standard was higher than in previous years, we got hit by a long and persistent flooding of the Thames. We had to do more training indoors, had to be very flexible with training times to make it work better for everyone and to fit competing academic schedules, whilst still getting some rowing time in at Dorney. This meant more time spent in the bus, which in my role was a small win-win as I could catch up on some club-admin, yet this amount of commuting made it hugely difficult for those athletes on tough lab degrees or with strict supervisors.
It took Andy, James and I a while to figure out that some of the unusual solutions for training times, like in the late evening or early mornings sometimes worked best for the team as a whole and I was delighted by the compromises that athletes made for each other, after slowly growing together as one unit. A nice reward was our victory in the 4+ at Four’s Head, showing that we had 4 people who could beat Cambridge’s top 4- and 4+. However, until Trial Eights and Winter training camp we still had the main challenge of raising the standard in a large part of the squad, which back at 4s Head wasn’t competitive yet and we adjusted the training week by week, to improve physiology and rowing technique.
One of the deepest memories I have was doing 2min pieces at 5k pace on the ergo with the whole squad. We we’re aiming for 10 sets of those, and piece after piece the motivation and spirit lifted and we pushed each other to finally do double the amount of planned sets – a training session that clearly showed that our limits are often set by our mind and that team spirit can break them.
Training camp was the first time, when we were finally able to row in Wallingford, with the water level down below the raft, this was the only 10day period, where we were continuously at our home site and it felt like a present not to have to commute for hours. We had time to spend some quality hours with the team, the Dorney changing room benches swapped for the comfy sofas in the Topolski room and that was the point where we started really getting to know each other, after an autumn of challenge after challenge and endless rush and organisation. By that time, I had 6 sleepless nights, burned 75kg of coal and wood to keep my narrowboat warm, 8 rowing sessions missed due to back problems and had 3 mental break-downs mainly driven by the fact that I didn’t manage to spend more than 3h per day on my academic work and that I tried not to let anyone down. But luckily the new year, the experience that I can’t and shouldn’t always aim to change things beyond my reach and the acceptance that things don’t always go as planned, as well as taking a bit more care of my own needs and emotions, helped me to embrace the second part of the programme with more ease.
The last preparations before the boat race
From the start of the new year, the team carried a huge amount of newly gained momentum. An under-performance at Quintin Head was a good wake-up call remembering that we still needed to go a long way to improve our racing and change our line ups and a superb reaction from Andy and James enabled us to do so. Despite constant crew changes in the Blue Boat and Osiris, every fixture we did was either an invaluable learning experience or a hard-earned victory. We welcomed Nereus Amsterdam and beat their 6’’2 girls in 2 of 3 pieces on the Tideway. At Quintin Head we got beaten by University of London by 11 seconds, at our fixture against them we beat them by a Canvas. We finished half a length behind Brookes, when in the previous week Brookes had beaten Cambridge with 4-6 length of open water.
During that racing time, there was a two-week period, where I didn’t have to input anything into the team, not even admin work, everything just worked like a clockwork and having some fellow team mates helping out and also allowing myself to delegate more, meant I finally managed to get a mental rest. The months before the race, all the exciting things started, media days and interviews happened, new kit arrived and the days finally got longer, allowing us to also train in the evening hours. I was confident with the way it was going, everyone enjoyed the training and racing and there was a sense of readiness and ruthlessness to face the big challenge and our final opponent.
COVID 19 and the big disappointment
With the news of a global pandemic reaching Oxford at the beginning of March and rumours of the race being advanced by three weeks, my stress-level and that of everyone else rose steeply. We decided to move to the Tideway two weeks before the race, to “isolate” ourselves from the outside world and also to get to spend some more time together for fine-tuning us as a unit, last but not least because it would have been an opportunity to take the eight out on the water twice a day - something which wasn’t possible before because of all the flood. During that time, we had our last fixture against UL. As we set off for the pre-paddle I remember our cox Costi telling us to “row with the intent like this was going to be our last race, because we might not get a Boat Race”, holding onto the hope of doing the Boat Race we got annoyed by her announcement. Costi proved right, as on the very same evening I got a painful call and was told the race was cancelled. For 10 minutes I was paralysed, I couldn’t move not could I cry, and I still had to have dinner with my team before the cancellation was being formally announced to everyone in a conference call. I sat at the dining table and my feet were trembling. When the call happened, the tension in the room rose, some might have anticipated it, some others were perplexed, some cried heavily or questioned the decision. I felt the pressure of knowing about the cancellation before everyone else did falling off and suddenly felt deep grief.
This last Sunday, I was glad to row our last race like we weren’t going to race again, following Costi’s words. And I was glad that our team got to spend 4 days together in London culminating in a fixture against UL that was our last and best race. The day after the bad news, we were aimlessly wandering around London, trying to process things together. We sat in the Blue Anchor Pub next to Hammersmith bridge, watching what back then felt like myriads of rowing boats rowing past on the Thames, still getting on with their training, while we sat on the walls with broken hearts. And I felt this sense of having been deprived of the opportunity to show everyone what we had achieved as a team. After three losses for OUWBC, a win was what I wished the club most and what I had dedicated a whole year of energy into. And this time, I was confident we could have done so.
The months after
From one day to the other, lock-down started. Still in Oxford, I was in constant contact with my Italian family, and with every death case they told me about, the decision to cancel a mass event like the Boat Race felt more and more reasonable, to the point where I was suddenly glad it was cancelled and that such a privileged race did not retain the privilege to race despite a global health crisis.
I look back at the season, without looking at rowing the most fascinating rowing race in the world, because we didn’t have one. However, I look back at many small weekly milestones, I look back at friendships, at consoling and supporting my teammates when they were in trouble, at being supported by them. I look back at many fruitful and enriching discussions with Andy and James. I look, at the little giggles we had in the bus, at tons of delicious baked goods from my crew mates. I look back at mistakes and at workloads that now to me seem impossible to stem. I look back at crashing at my crewmates houses during frosty nights instead of staying on the frozen narrowboat. I look back at little successes, some hardly earned PBs and good decisions for myself and the team. I look back at learning when it matters to fight, at how to persuade and make my opinion heard, at how to give speeches and at learning how to put my ideas into practice.
I look back at making a team come together to the point they were more ready than ever before to race Cambridge. When I gave my start-of the season speech, I asked everyone to close their eyes and raise their hands if they were ready to “put themselves to the line for their team mates to win the 2020 Boat Race”. Everyone raised their hand and after the three fixtures that we had, to me it was certain that everyone was ready to beat, not only to compete, an attitude that I’m sure the club will carry over into the future.
I’ve learnt how to delegate, how and when to express gratefulness. I’m grateful to Andy, for still being the best coach I know in almost every single way. I’m grateful to James for being the most supportive and diligent assistant coach one could imagine. I’m grateful for having a fantastic support base in my team, my VP Elsebine, Katie and Amelia who did Social media and Social Events and many other strong women who would just be supportive day by bay leaders just because of who they are and how they behaved.
After 14 years of rowing, 5 years with the German National Team, moving between 4 different clubs and my entire youth and my 5 student years taken up by it (albeit in a very pleasant way), I am now retiring from this beautiful sport that has taught me more than everything else so far. I know that for me the future will bring what I have been strongly neglecting the last years, the first time in my student life I will take time for my studies and seize the chance to interact in the academic world. I want to live my passion to roam around and explore nature, cycle run or climb to wild places, finally have an allotment and plant my own vegetables and after all pursue my big dream of becoming a tropical forest conservationist.
OUWBC and rowing as a whole had a fair share in shaping these dreams and mould a sense of commitment for whatever project I get hands on. I am grateful for the whole journey that got me to this point and that this club was a big part of.
Even though, leaving on an “unraced” Boat Race might feel like the erroneous thing to do, I have reached my big personal goal this year, of managing to put the Boat Club in a far better place than it has been in a while – confident with the club being able to win on the next occasion.