Rowing is not always fun. In my two-and-a-bit years of college rowing, I have had blisters on my hands so bad it hurt just to move, collected hundreds of shin bruises that I don’t even remember getting, and am writing this with some rather fetching cow-print kinesiology tape across my aching back. Sometimes it is so cold that your hands burn, or you end up rowing in rain so heavy that you can barely see the person in front of you. Despite all this, choosing to join Oriel Boat Club (although as a 5’10 sporty girl I’m not sure I ever actually had a choice) is the best thing I’ve done in my entire degree.
I read a lot of negative stuff about rowing, and honestly I can see why from an outsider’s perspective we look kind of ridiculous. Two days a week the Oriel Senior women drag themselves out of bed at 4.50am to go to Wallingford and row up and down in the freezing cold for a bit, before (at least me personally) we spend the rest of the day complaining about being tired, and then head to weights in the evening to exhaust ourselves even more.
Yet even the most ardent anti-rowers have to admit that physically, rowing is almost always good for you. I liked exercise even before Oriel, but I’m stronger, fitter, and have significantly more mental endurance than I did when I first started. But that’s arguably not the main reason that rowing is so beneficial. Physical health is one thing, but mental health, particularly at Oxford, is something that people often neglect, and the effects that rowing has on this can be hugely beneficial.
I showed up to Oriel College characteristically a bit too early on 1st October 2017 with zero friends and somehow even less self-confidence. Most of that first day of freshers is a blur, but what was maybe the most important moment though seemed very inconspicuous at the time. One of the second years helped me drag all my bags up to my room, on the top floor as per usual, and on the way we had the classic polite chat. At one point, both of us trying to play down how much we were gasping for breath, she asked me in a perfectly polite way, “You’re tall, have you ever considered rowing?”. What I didn’t know was that she was the current Boat Club Captain (and an incredibly lovely person who is now my ‘rowing mum’). Without knowing what I was signing myself up for, I was suddenly sucked into the boat club.
I think about that moment quite a lot. It was, in fact, running through my head on the bung-line of summer VIIIs last year as I took deep breaths from the 4 seat of W1 in an attempt to distract myself from how incredibly terrified I was. There have been times where I have very seriously wondered how my life would be if I hadn’t taken up a whole new sport, and done something more normal for a state school girl from Scunthorpe, such as stuck to my roots and become a swimmer, or just kept things simple and descended into mild alcoholism.
What I have to say though is I don’t think I’d be as confident, self-assured, or honestly, happy, if I hadn’t chucked myself into a boat at 6am one morning and hoped for the best. The thing is, there’s so much more to being part of OCBC than just what weights you’re lifting or how many watts you’re generating.
I’ve never known a group of girls who speak about their bodies as healthily as the people I’ve rowed with. We definitely all have our own struggles and worries, but being part of a team is about looking after each other, and supporting each other just as much as it is rowing perfectly in time. More than that, I have found that learning to care about what my body can do, rather than how it looks has been incredibly beneficial. In our society, there is incredible pressure on girls to look a certain way (there is incredible pressure on everyone, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve experienced the female aspect first hand).
Although I tried my best not to care about how thin/pretty/everything we’re told to look like I was growing up, it’s really hard to reject these things when they’ve been pushed at you your entire life. It is incredibly empowering to be around a team of women, particularly as a fresher, who aren’t concerned with getting sweaty or red or windswept, they’re concerned with what their bodies can do. I definitely can’t speak for all clubs and rowers, but my time in the boat club has had a phenomenally positive impact on how I view myself and my body.
This isn’t limited to just me. As one friend and teammate of mine who has also struggled with mental health put it: “rowing is sometimes the only thing that makes me drag myself out of bed in the morning.’’ If you don’t show up you let at least nine other people down, which is really motivating and almost always means you do go, and you end up glad you did, turning up to a 9am lecture having already achieved something with your morning.
There’s something about going through the dark, cold mornings, and the exhausting ergs together that form an incredibly close bond between people who may be very different in other ways. Having frank conversations with the people in my club about mental health, be that panicking on an erg, or how to deal with the general rubbish that life can throw at you is really helpful, and having fantastic friends and role models in the form of the women I’ve trained with has been invaluable. From speaking to countless other people about this, I know I’m not the only one.
Rowing is not a solution to mental health issues. Although it has helped me a lot when it comes to managing stress and anxiety and improving body image, what helped me the most was booking an appointment with the counselling service and going through CBT and therapy. Although my advocacy here for rowing is hopefully valid, and I would encourage everyone to try rowing, for some people committing to something this big and time- consuming just isn’t realistic, and sometimes the help of medical professionals is the most important step to take.
So ultimately, maybe I am just living up to a huge rower stereotype, but I would encourage even just trying getting in a boat and seeing if it helps you if you’re struggling, or just brings some new joy to your life if you’re already feeling pretty good about everything. On a scientific level, exercise in general releases endorphins that help your mood (this is about as much as I know, I am a historian after all, but trust me on this part). But more than that, feeling part of a community that really supports you, which for me is Oriel College Boat Club, can have an incredibly positive impact on your life, and give you a sense of belonging which can really help at a university like Oxford.
Self-care for me maybe setting an alarm for 4.50 to go and pull on an oar for a bit, but even if that doesn’t help you, try and find something that makes you feel productive, and accepted, and good about yourself too. If you’re struggling with the same sort of stuff I did, or any other mental health issue, speak to someone about it and figure out what combination of things can help. You all deserve to be happy, and it’s important to prioritise that.