Debate: Is rowing a good use of an Oxford student’s time?

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Proposition – Felix Chow

If there is one thing that Oxford students lack, it is the time to enjoy the many things the university has to offer. So why would students with essay crises and Prelims want to spend so much of their free time rowing? For those who choose to take up rowing, it can be extremely worthwhile and brings with it a unique combination of valuable experiences.

Before developing the case for rowing, it is important to acknowledge an obvious downside: the large time and emotional commitments that are required to take part. Not everyone can cope successfully with these challenges, and for those who cannot there are plenty of other activities. However, with good time management skills and the ability to balance work and play, rowing can be complementary to a busy work schedule. The wonderful thing about rowing at Oxford is the range of levels of involvement available; students can choose a level that works for them (While a Blues rower may be training for several sessions every day of the week, a casual college crew will be on the river perhaps twice a week).

Being involved in rowing at some level can be very rewarding. It provides a mix of experiences that is a very special opportunity available to all students at this university.

First, rowing is a source of personal development. In a university that only cares about academic learning, rowing picks up what tutorials leave out. Being part of a crew develops skills in team work, time management, and leadership among other things. Just like doing any other sport, rowing regularly contributes to health and fitness. Furthermore, the psychological and physical challenges in preparing for a race foster fortitude and the ability to see something through. These are invaluable life lessons that will stay in a student’s life long after they graduate.

Second, the social aspect is integral to being a part of a boat club. It is a prime environment to meet people from across the college and the university out of the context of the academic hierarchies. It is not uncommon to have boats with members from the JCR, MCR, and occasionally SCR all rowing towards a common goal. Club socials and crew dates are a great way to wind down from a busy day of lectures. And rowing blazers, love them or hate them, provide a sense of cohesion among the boat club. The shared experience and hard work lead to lasting friendships and camaraderie.

Third, taking up rowing is extremely accessible and affordable at Oxford University. College level rowing provides novice training that is open to everyone no matter their athletic ability. Rowing is one of those sports that people can pick up in their first year and become very good at by the time they graduate. Except maybe in a few “rowing colleges”, most rowers in the college first boats started rowing at Oxford. It is also an inexpensive activity. Students at this university are extremely privileged to have access to such good facilities across the colleges and at the university level, paid for by alumni donations and investments by the colleges. So being at Oxford provides a great opportunity to start rowing.

And fourth, rowing is a lot of fun! The feeling of gliding through the water perfectly in sync with seven other crewmates in a balanced boat is sublime. The races are extremely exciting, especially the format of bumps racing. Oxford being one of the few places in the world that hosts bumps racing allows rowers here to enjoy the thrill and nail-biting suspense of these “anything could happen” races.

Rowing is not for everyone. For those who choose to be involved, it is a unique experience that allows for developing character, building camaraderie, meeting people, and a heck of a lot of fun.

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Opposition – Mirela Ivanova

We all remember that blissful and innocent time in Fresher’s week when we all thought rowing would be a fun thing to do. A nice, unique Oxford experience. ‘You’d be silly not to try it, right?’ they said. I mean, it’s almost like coming to Oxford and never drinking port. Or not owning a pair of chinos. Or never hearing yourself say something mildly pompous and realise that you might be worthy to go on Overheard of Oxford with all those other people you ridicule with your friends in the evening. You might as well not go to Oxford at all.

Weeks fly in Michaelmas and you begin to realise that your friends seem unusually tired in the early mornings. Sometimes you catch them coming in on a cold and wet winter morning, shivering in sportswear as you pop over to have a luxurious shower after an unjustifiable lie in on a Wednesday morning. But you don’t really think about it too much. Maybe they like jogging in the morning. Maybe that’s why they are so much slimmer and sportier looking than you. Maybe you should start eating less chocolate. You giggle and forget the incident even occurred.

As Hilary dawns on the beautiful Oxford spires and the dry winter has spread its arms over the All Souls towers, you rejoice in the beauty of Oxford in the snow. In fact, work is probably getting you down and as the concept you have now spent half of your year at Oxford avoiding all those things you thought you’d come here to do all you really need is a warm evening at the pub with your friends. But after dinner, you find them in that similar sportswear, leaving your halls of residence in the dark cold night. You wonder now. It’s getting a little suspicious. ‘Where are you guys off to?’ you ask, innocently. ‘Ergs’ they say, with a slight sense of despair in their eyes. As you contemplate that grunt of an unfamiliar sound, and assume maybe they were burping or had something stuck in their throat, you are suddenly mildly offended. They don’t even have the guts to explain themselves to you. You thought they were your friends, but maybe they never actually liked you at all. Maybe no-one likes you. Maybe Oxford was never the right place. You smile the thought away, as you remember telling your tute partner that Ethelred was your favourite palette of red earlier that day. You were made to be here, you self-assure desperately.

Before you know it, it’s Trinity. The birds are singing, the sun is shining, your college garden seduces you out of the library and you are drinking pimms in your beige clothing reminiscing on your foolish younger self which thought Oxford will change them. Ah, the silly things. Not less than a week passes however, and your friends seem to evaporate entirely. Whenever you see them, they are spiritless zombies sitting in hall staring blankly into the distance, until they occasionally blurt out another sound or too, like ‘cox box’ or ‘bump’ or ‘take a tap’ or ‘blade’. Sometimes, someone in hall would casually say a random word like ‘orange’ and they would all tense up in a paroxysm of muscle tension, but their faces show the fear and helplessness inside.

That was it. They were turned.

You ask them why they do it. The repeated, brain-draining, dull and painful action of pressing a blade into some water which is, in the end, nothing more than an inefficient mode of transport. The early cold spring mornings. The freezing water splashing their damp clothes. The rigid structure of the competitions, organised in the most arbitrary way to make winning disproportionately harder from the second position than from the very last. The little person at the back of the boat screaming in their face as they, clumsily in unison, press on and hum along to Les Miserables’ Look Down. “Look down, look down. Don’t look ’em in the eye…”

They stare back at you. Empty looks. Distracted gazes. ‘It’s fun.’ They say, as they rub the sores of their bruised palms. ‘I think,’

They don’t know.

Their indoctrination was complete. Under your very radar, the cheerful and innocent freshers you met in Michaelmas had disappeared. They had gone into Boat House 101 and they were never coming back.

You see them again, sitting by a boat house. Crowds fill the spaces around them. It’s summer eights. The races are about to start. Their M3 team is racing. They stare, calmly. Then, the team before their boat crashes into a tree and they bump. This was the last day. They’d gotten blades.

Uncontrollably, unconsciously, violently and pertinaciously they all jump in a convulsion of anger layered joy. They’re standing on their seats staring at the river, they arms crossed in an X over their heads. “I LOVE YOU, ROWING!”

You never see them again.