Alannah Burdess |

Origins of an Oxford Blue

Winning a Blue in Oxford or Cambridge colours is considered one of the highest sporting honours. JRN writer Alannah Burdess, herself a member of the OUWBC squad, sat down with Tom Sharrock and Freddy Orpin, former junior club scullers and soon-to-be Oxford Blue Boat rowers, ahead of the 168th Men’s Boat Race.

Humble beginnings

Hunkering down in one of my favourite Oxford coffee shops to hide from the rain, I can’t help but marvel at how much has changed since Tom, Freddy and I raced Wallingford Head in a coxed four in November 2021. They were both were in the Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC) third eight, which I was coxing last season, and now they’re in the Blue Boat at the two and three seats respectively.

“I realise I’ve never actually asked you about your previous rowing history,” I say laughing. Although we spent 40 hours a week together for six months straight, it was never something we really discussed. This is a positive. Put simply, Tom said, “Your history doesn’t have any say on if you succeed in a Boat Race season. You either perform or you don’t.”

Turning point

As someone who found themselves at OUBC very much accidentally, I was curious about their early ambitions and preparations. There was absolutely no hesitation when Tom and Freddy told me the Blue Boat was always their aim. “I wouldn’t have joined if I didn’t think I could make the Blue Boat at some point,” Tom admitted. Raw ambition, confidence and determination were all evident as we talked, characteristics that have certainly played a part in their success. That isn’t to say that either had any assumption that they would make it, though. Tom came into this year aiming for the two seat of OUBC’s second eight, Isis, while Freddy reminisced about discussing ambitions while deadlifting with James Forward (another Blue Boat member this year) last spring. “It’s quite surreal,” said Freddie. “I don’t think I’ll come to terms with the fact I’m in the boat until it’s race day.”

As we drank our coffees, I began to realise that Trial Eights in December 2022 was a landmark occasion for both. Freddy’s telemetry Watts from that race will likely be part of OUBC folklore for many years to come, though he remains incredibly humble about them. Tom credits Trial Eights as the turning point of his season, “It’s all just trying to beat the next guy and then after Trial Eights I realised I was in a position where I had a proper shot.”

Club to Championship Course

I hadn’t realised quite how different an experience and environment OUBC is compared to their previous rowing clubs. Freddy came to OUBC from York City RC, where his previous coach, Phil Jones, recently won a British Rowing Lifetime Achievement Award, largely for his contribution as Junior Coordinator of the club for the last 20 years. Tom had bounced around a bit, first joining Cantabrigian RCwhen he was 13 (“just as a bit of fun”) before getting a bit more serious in his J15 yea. He then joined the British Rowing World Class Start programme that operated out of the Isle of Ely RC at the time, and finally moved with the programme to Peterborough City RC in February 2020.

Neither of them had ever been in an eight before coming to OUBC and only had a smidge of sweep rowing experience at all. “Learning to row in time with other people is a lot harder than it sounds,” Tom chuckled. With the bigger boats came faster speeds. “I remember two weeks into September, Sean [Bowden, OUBC Chief Coach] put me into the three seat of one of the matched eights that had David Ambler [2022 World Champion in the coxless four] and Barnabé Delarze [Tokyo 2020 Olympic finalist] in it and, at one point, you read out the split,” said Freddie. “At rate 18 we were paddling faster than York’s race pace.” It was nice to hear over a year later that I wasn’t the only one overawed by how fast those early season matched eights went.

From Left: Jonathan Davidson, Tom Sharrock, Alannah Burdess, Joe Rosenfeld, Freddy Orpin

Journey to the top

So how on earth did they do it?

I’ve known Tom and Freddy for a while now and I think it’s fair to say that they are both determined, highly ambitious individuals. Freddy attributes his success to perseverance. Taking a somewhat forced gap year after four out of his five initial university applications were rejected, Freddy is no stranger to working hard to achieve his goals. “If there’s something you really want to do, persist,” he quipped. Tom’s immediate reaction is to appreciate the support of his family but he admits that it was likely his consistency that helped get him here; the fact he turned up to training every day, putting in the work. “I had to commute an hour and a half to rowing,” he explained. “I still can’t believe I did it actually.”

The importance of Milk and muffins to rowers should never be underestimated

So, what they would say to other junior club scullers who aspire to race the Boat Race? Freddy reiterated the importance of persisting through the bad days and mishaps (“you need to break eggs to make an omelette”) whilst Tom encouraged his younger self to stick with the grind. “You’ve got to train like you’re already an elite athlete,” he said. “You don’t become one overnight – you have to behave like you are one. Put the hours in. You’ll have to miss a few parties, not all of them, but some of them. All of those things have to be done.” Encouragingly for any youngsters considering giving it a go, six of the 16 rowers in the 2023 Men’s Blue Boats were previously junior club scullers.

One race and once race only

In only 18 months Tom and Freddy have gone from junior club scullers to integral members of the 2023 Oxford Men’s Blue Boat. There’s no doubt that it has been a journey of incredible improvement for my two former crewmates, but everything they both stand for, and value, was evident in their responses to what their favourite thing about OUBC is. “It hasn’t happened yet,” said Tom. “It’s the Boat Race on March 26th. That’s what I’m doing this for.”

Photos: Alannah Burdess