Sophie Paine: Victorious President of Cambridge University Boat Club Provides Insight Into A Boat Race Like No Other

Mon 19th Apr 2021

Following CUWBC's 4th consecutive victory, we caught up with CUBC President Sophie Paine to discuss the preparation and execution of this iconic race.

This year, due to the pandemic and safety concerns over Hammersmith Bridge, the 166th men's and 75th women's races took place along the River Great Ouse between Ely and Littleport.

It's the first time the iconic race has taken place outside London since the Second World War, due to concerns over social distancing between the usual crowds of more than 250,000 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Given that this is the home of Cambridge University's rowing team and their regular practice ground, in non-quarantine times, the home team definitely had an advantage by knowing the stretch.

We caught up with the CUWBC President, Sophie Paine, a few days after the team captured their 4th consecutive victory.


How did you get into Rowing?

I started rowing on my first day at university. I went for a tour of the boathouse and arrived as the other rowers were in the middle of an absolutely gruelling test on the rowing machines. There was something about the amount of pain they were willing to put themselves through that was strangely attractive to me. The next day I was in a boat and instantly fell in love with the sport.


Where did you study prior to Cambridge? What are you currently studying at Cambridge?

I studied for my undergraduate degree at Brown University in the USA. I’m currently completing my second Masters, an MPhil in Sociology of Media and Culture, at Cambridge. This year, I’m conducting research on athletes’ uses and motivations of the social fitness app, Strava.


A unique chapter in the Boat Race’s stories history with this year’s event, one with no doubts an array of unique adjustments. When did the training and preparation for the race begin?

Training for any Boat Race typically begins at the end of August, and we train for about 7 months, both in Cambridge and in London, until the Boat Race in early spring. This year was much different. With the relocation of the race to Ely, we adapted our mindset and our stroke to a shorter, straighter course. We also spent extended periods of time training alone during lockdowns – a mental challenge in itself.


Listening to the commentary of the race, athletes were training in back gardens, garages. What were the challenges you had to overcome in the lead up to the race?

We had just less than 4 weeks on the water to prepare for the race. This meant that both selection for the boat and bringing the crew together were incredibly condensed. For us, it was really about making the most of every stroke in the short amount of time we had together. We knew we had to be making continual improvements every day. The mental challenges of feeling prepared and ready to race were just as big as the physical challenges. Ultimately, it was all about trusting each other and knowing that every member of the crew was willing to put their hand in the fire when the time came.


For a race with such a deep history and large media presence, how did you deal with the pressure and the external noise going into that race?

Staying internal is key to performing well in any high-pressured environment. We had simple goals, and we always adopted a positive attitude. We found that when we were having fun, there was nothing that could get in our way.


With a different course and no spectators allowed, how did this impact your approach to the race and how did that materialise during the race itself?

Having no spectators and not being able to hear the cheers from the crowd made the race a lot more intimate. We were hyper-aware that it was just us and them, which made it feel more like a drag race than anything else. With such a large build up to the day itself, I think it’s pretty safe to say that we were all pumping with adrenaline even without the crowds. It was an incredibly special day for us, nonetheless.


With the race being two years in the making, and defending a four-year win, how important was it for the crew to secure that win and how confident were you going into that race?

There was always the feeling of needing to defend a title, especially on our home waters this year. But none of us had been in any of the previous winning crews, so we had never experienced what it was like to cross the finish line ahead of Oxford. Our goal was to deliver the best performance we were capable of on the day, win or lose. We knew that there were women cheering us on from all corners of the globe, and we knew we wanted to do them proud. But ultimately, it was all about us and having our race. In terms of confidence, I think we were fairly confident in our rhythm, but we had absolutely no clue how fast Oxford were and what they were capable of. We knew they were going to be a strong crew, but we also knew that the only thing we were in control of was how fast our crew was. We tried not to think too much about them, even in the moments of the race when they were leading!


You retained the crown, by less than a boat’s length, talk us through how the race went?

We got off to a clean start and took an early lead. We then had a period through the middle of the race where we were clashing blades with Oxford as both of our coxswains did their best to stay in the middle of the river. This meant that our rhythm was disrupted, and it was harder to row as a unit, giving Oxford the advantage – I think about 2/3rds of a length at one point. However, as we crossed the halfway mark, I could feel that our crew still had a reasonable amount of gas in the tank, and that if we were to keep our cool, we would have a shot at getting our nose back out in front. With 900 metres to go, we had taken a solid lead and I remember thinking to myself, “just keep doing what you’re doing for about 3 more minutes and you’re going to win”. My legs and lungs were burning but at the time there was absolutely no option to quit. With about 30 metres to the line, I knew we had done it. 


Could you describe that feeling when you crossed the finish line?

Sheer elation. But also, relief that it was over! I was in so much pain. It took a while for it all to sink in, I couldn’t believe it. It was a strange sensation - something that we had worked so hard for had ended exactly the way we had hoped it would. I’ll always remember the feeling of pride I had for my teammates in that moment – that it had taken all 9 of us but we had done it together. Definitely one of the most memorable moments of my life.