GB rowers Imogen Grant and Olympic silver medallist Angus Groom will be representing Cambridge and Oxford respectively in Sunday’s Boat Races. Caroline Roberts finds out more
Ahead of the Gemini Boat Race on Sunday 3 April, we talk to two GB Team Olympians as they prepare to take their places in the Blue Boats
For Imogen Grant, the Boat Race feels like coming home. She was in the winning Blue Boat in both 2017 and 2018, and has also previously won in the reserve boat, Blondie. “The Boat Race is where I started,” she says. “I learned to row at Cambridge and it feels like I’m coming back to my roots.”
Her third outing in the Blue Boat comes after she came agonisingly close to a bronze medal in the lightweight double sculls at the Tokyo Olympics, missing out by just one hundredth of a second. Now in the penultimate year of her medical degree, she has been juggling clinical placements with training for the race, which makes the full-time GB programme at Caversham seem like a walk in the park, she says.
Angus Groom, who rows in the Oxford Blue Boat, agrees that combining Boat Race training with academic studies is challenging. The Olympic silver medallist in the men’s quad at Tokyo is in the first year of a DPhil investigating the genetics of early-stage leukaemia. “I’m getting up at 5.30am to erg, then I’m at the lab until about 1.30, when we go on the river,” he says. “I come back and work from 5pm until around 10.30pm and then go to bed, ready to do it all again the next day.”
“One of the most amazing things about the Boat Race is that you get to bring experience from very different rowing systems together”
So, what can seasoned international rowers bring to the Tideway race?
“In terms of winning the Boat Race, being a successful Olympian doesn’t bring a whole load of benefit,” says Angus. “You have a good knowledge of how to move the boat fast, mental strength, and raw fitness. But the Boat Race is a completely different beast to international racing. You’ve got to stay mentally resilient for 17-odd minutes and a lot can change in that time. History has shown that anything can happen, with the swimmer in 2012, and boats sinking. It’s been instilled into us that we need to be students of the race, really looking into the past. By watching the old races, you can get a feel for the river, and the tactics required. If you just go in thinking, ‘I’ve won an Olympic medal’, you can have a bit of arrogance. This is a race I really want to win so I want to give it the respect required.”
Moving to the bigger boat has taken some adjustment, he adds. “In the quad, I was the one making race calls. Now I’ve got to shut up and help the stroke man set the rhythm in the seven seat. But switching from sculling to sweep was good fun and our coach, Sean Bowden, has made it easy by giving us lots of technique pointers.”
For Imogen, her previous experience on this stretch of river is an advantage. “I know the landmarks and it’s second nature to me. But I honestly think every single person brings something new to the boat. One of the most amazing things about the Boat Race is that you get to bring experience from very different rowing systems together – we have Grace [Prendergast] and Ruby [Tew] from New Zealand, and Paige [Badenhorst] from the US collegiate system. I think it’s really helpful at this point in my rowing career as the biggest improvements I’m going to see are from getting different perspectives and learning from other people.”
“At Lucerne Regatta last year I brought a Star Wars LEGO set and built it in the morning”
Both rowers have found the series of practice fixtures against other top eights on the Tideway invaluable.
“Fixtures are always really exciting as it’s the closest to a Boat Race you can get without actually sitting on that start line,” says Imogen. “Each fixture we’ve done, we’ve really stepped on afterwards.”
Now, with the hard training behind them, it’s a case of sharpening the tools over the last few days, says Angus. “I’m excited, but the nerves will kick in later. When I was in the GB team I found a good way to settle them was to find another focal point to the day rather than just the race. At Lucerne Regatta last year I brought a Star Wars LEGO set and built it in the morning. I don’t think I’ll be doing that before the Boat Race though.”
“When you feel like you’ve turned over every stone possible, the nerves are much more manageable,” says Imogen. Nevertheless, she’ll be going to the start line wearing her usual pair of lucky socks. “We’re all really excited and enjoying every single session we have left. The last week is almost bittersweet as it’s the best the rowing is going to be and it’s so much fun, but you’re so close to it all being over.
“I’m sad I didn’t win an Olympic medal, but we put out a fantastic race and laid everything on the line so I can’t really be disappointed in the performance itself,” she adds. “I think it’s similar with the Boat Race. I just want to enjoy the race and cross the line knowing I’ve given everything regardless of the result.”
Photos: Row360/Benedict Tufnell