All in the same boat: Women rowers race toward equality

If you head down to the University of Bristol Boathouse at 6 am on a frosty January morning, you would most likely find both men and women from the squads at UBBC hitting the water instead of the snooze button, clocking in the early miles before 9 am lectures begin.

Both squads accessorise their boats with bike-lights; necessary for beating the sunrise along the home stretch of the River Avon to squeeze in the first training session of the day.

If you head across the downs, it would be no rare sight to spot lightweight women Phoebe Beer or Nicola Haynes squatting more than most male athletes training down at Coombe Dingle’s Olympic Weights Room. If you sneak a glimpse of the squad undergoing an infamously agonising 2k erg test, you will no doubt observe the exact same look of fierce determination on every single athlete’s face.

In spite of this, for UBBC Women’s Squad, the race to prove they can match the boys in both training and performance, has most certainly required stamina.

Women are treated exactly the same as the men, which is the way it should be, and I haven’t faced any issues as a result of being a girl

As the girls stood on the banks of the Tyne preparing for BUCS Head race in February, a chorus of triumphant shrieks could be heard as the boathouse shutters were lifted to unveil a brand new Hudson women’s eight, set to be named ‘Jolene’.Although the arrival of the premier racing hull, worth over £30,000, signalled the culmination of a long-term fundraising goal for the club, the girls tearful reaction represented more than mere pre-race over-excitement to try out their shiny new piece of equipment. In a sport where advances in equipment can translate into tens of seconds across a finish line, it is essential that the whole club, men and women, have access to a top-level racing fleet to give them a fair chance in performing at the high standard they work towards in training.

In spite of this, UBBC’s female equipment has in the past been unfit for the girls to race in competitively against other top rowing universities. At BUCS Head Race, however, as ‘Jolene’ ceremoniously hit the water accompanied by her crew of devoted women, it was clear to see that a new era of equality was dawning for the squad.

Rowing gives a real focus and sense of purpose as your teammates are constantly relying on you to be committed and train hard

As the project was set in motion with the decision to specifically aim the campaign at updating the women’s lead boat, UBBC were lucky enough to receive a generous donation that allowed them to afford, for the first time, a hull comparable to the men’s.

Historically this donation would most likely have been streamlined towards the men’s boats, but in 2017, the club were not only able to upgrade the women’s VIII, but enthusiastically launch a campaign to improve the women’s equipment further with the purchase of a women’s coxless four.

“We have the same training plan as the men, and train side-by-side with them every day” reveals Women’s Captain Charlie Rogers.

“The squads train at equal intensity, so getting a top eight comparable to the men’s has been a long time coming, and we are so excited that it’s finally here. Training twice a day is not easy, especially in the cold, dark winter months, but the prospect of getting to race at BUCS and Henley Women’s in a top-flight boat has been more than enough motivation.”

And it seems their hard work is paying off. In 2017, a Varsity win against UWE was the icing on the cake for UBBC’s most successful head race season yet. The Coaching Team has played an instrumental part in triggering this change, with Head Coach Cam Kennedy and Assistant Coach Ed Bloomfield appointed in 2015 to design a rigorous training program ensuring both squads receive the attention they deserve.

The donation of the new racing Hudson, along with the girls’ single-minded commitment to training, was swiftly rewarded at the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race on the tideway in March, as the girls took home the best results the club has seen in 14 years.

Victories like this are crucial in driving women to take part in a sport where traditionally, men have dominated. The 2012 London Olympics sparked a revolution in the public perception of female rowing, as Helen Glover and Heather Stanning swiped the first two gold medals for Great Britain in the pair.

In 2015, a monumental deal agreed by Newton Investment Management (sponsors of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race) ensured that both men’s and women’s races now receive equal funding.

This move meant that for the first time in 87 years, the more appropriately named ‘Boat Races’ now occur on the same day, over the same 6.8K course on the Thames, and benefit from the same media coverage. This is a tremendous leap forward for female rowing, given that in 1962 the sport was threatened by a ban at Selwyn College, Cambridge, for existing as “an anatomical impossibility and physiologically dangerous”.

Nationwide sports campaigns such as the ‘This Girl Can’ movement exist to tackle similar issues today; in particular the idea that female fear of others’ judgement is the primary barrier against full female participation. On International Women’s Day on March 8th, Bristol sportswomen were challenged to upload photos of themselves exercising with a ‘This Girl Can’ filter, emblazoned with bold slogans such as ‘Girl Power’ or ‘Kick ‘em right in the stereotypes’.

The effects of this change in perception can certainly be felt at UBBC. Novice Captain Phoebe Beer expertly coordinated a ‘Learn to Row Programme’ in September, a course which saw a record 77 of the 130 spaces filled by girls.

Phoebe stresses the importance of equality in recruitment, claiming that “many sports have long been viewed as games for boys, and certainly at my school little was done to encourage female participation. For me, it was a refreshing change to join a high performance team at university where I wouldn’t be considered any less feminine for working up a sweat in the gym and giving my all during training.”

Phoebe’s attitude is clearly having a positive influence. Novice Woman Lucy Dayer believes that “the fantastic team spirit within the Boat Club” has changed her university experience completely, enthusing that “It’s amazing to be part of such a fun, supportive team and I have made brilliant friends. Rowing gives a real focus and sense of purpose as your teammates are constantly relying on you to be committed and train hard.”

Her teammate Lily Donovan further recommends the Novice Program, pointing out that “some girls have never been part of a sports team before coming to Bristol, and starting at university is fantastic opportunity to get involved in something completely new”.

“Precisely”, agrees Lucy, “It doesn’t matter if you haven’t rowed or played sport before. Women are treated exactly the same as the men, which is the way it should be, and I haven’t faced any issues as a result of being a girl.”

Club Captain Alex Heslop praises this atmosphere of unity between the squads at UBBC. He believes that “training as one club of men and women” is the key ingredient, as “in a sport where teamwork directly translates to boat speed, twice the athletes working towards a common goal only intensifies the motivation and the training culture.

Parity in the standard of equipment serves to level the playing field, allowing UBBC to celebrate successes as a team, rather than each squad individually.”

Another game-changer this year featured in the annual Varsity Boat Race against UWE. For the first time in recent years, the final, deciding race of the Inter-University Blade Challenge belonged to the Senior Women. As the girls extended their 3-length lead around the final corner of the Varsity course, it was impossible for any spectator to deny that armed with their racing Hudson, UBBC Women’s Squad have an exciting season ahead.