image of the River Isis

The timeless appeal of college rowing

If you have been in any way involved in the world of Oxford college rowing this year, you may have noticed the phrase “red flag” being thrown around far too often. In official terms, it means, quite simply, that no crews are allowed out.

The 2023-24 academic year, in the rowing world, has been one defined by this unprecedented lack of rowing, with record amounts of rain (among other factors) making Oxford’s rivers too full, too fast, and too unsafe for its college crews. So, after two terms characterised by cancelled outings, endless erg sessions, and no bumps racing, it seems the perfect time to again question why Oxford remains so obsessed with rowing.

I’m sure we can widely agree that rowing is considered the ‘Oxford’ thing to try out. At Oxford, rowing can provide one of the most direct routes into that feeling of living tradition, and being connected to a legacy far wider than yourself. Maybe it is because not much has changed in the way the sport takes place here that it is so easy to appreciate becoming another small part in the continuation of a history that lends itself to romanticisation: from the way intercollegiate rowing and its competitions are structured (with bumps racing beginning in Oxford in 1815), to the spaces we train in, adorned with the paraphernalia of previous blades-campaigns as tangible reminders of past crews.

Personally, I never had any expectation of trying out rowing, adamant (as I’m sure many of us were) to never become the stereotype of an ‘Oxford rower’. Yet, there was something in the coach’s assertion of rowing as a challenge of self-discipline, as he addressed our new faces in freshers’ week, that I could not deny as a test to myself. This underlying urge appears to bring out the addictive nature of the sport – something that seems to especially fit to the intensity of the Oxford experience, and the kinds of people it attracts. 

Entirely new to the sport, I enjoyed discovering the connections formed by dependence on a crew, the wider social world it opened up, and the college spirit it ignited. It also taught me a new form of gratification in a place where academic validation often feels like the inescapable be-all and end-all. Of course, it is not without its feelings of futility, frustration, and disillusionment (mostly after one too many early morning starts), but it is hard not to feel grateful for the opportunity of it all when you’re gliding down a river on a sunny morning in a multi-thousand pound boat, surrounded by flowering plants and foliage, the goslings swimming beside you.

I never had any expectation of trying out rowing

Inevitably, however, when we talk about rowing, the question of its accessibility as a sport remains implicit. Looking back on the lack of water time we have had this year, ‘novice’ rowing at Oxford has been affected to extreme extents, which has revealed a larger divide than usual between those with and those without experience of school rowing. As it has been practically impossible to learn how to row for anyone starting new this year (which tends to be the model of development that college crews run on), it will be the novices’ prior rowing experience that will give some crews the edge that their collegiate rivals lack. 

With only 20 of the 117 school rowing clubs registered with British Rowing being state schools, school rowing is undeniably harder to access, exemplifying one of the many barriers of education at Oxford. The model for college-level rowing that the university provides usually succeeds in breaking down these barriers as perhaps the most readily accessible college sport for anyone to engage in, with many top crews consisting of rowers who have learned the sport here.

It is interesting to see how the breakdown of such a system reveals the inconsistencies of access within sport – though such observation cannot be merely limited to rowing! What also emerges from the difficulties these rowers have faced this year, is that key word, ‘commitment’, that sounds everywhere when it comes to rowing. For whatever individual reasons motivate people to row, it would be impossible to have got to this point in the year – as Summer Eights commence – without a massive love for, and commitment to, rowing as a sport, in any and all of its forms.

Image credit: Bella Troup