Why I Row

by Dr Yvonne Zivkovic on 9 November 2017


A soft, harp-like tone rouses me from my sleep. I grab my phone to silence the alarm, squinting my eyes at the time: 6:15 am. In 45 minutes, I need to be at the river. There is just enough time to make myself some tea, get bundled up for the cold and hopefully wake up more fully during the short cycle to the boat house. Needless to say, I am not a natural morning person. But this Michaelmas Term I am novicing for the Lucy Cavendish College Boat Club, along with more than 20 other Lucy girls.

Rowing for a college boat club is one of those elements that make a typical Cambridge student experience, along with Formal Halls and wearing gowns. I have found it to be one of the most polarizing topics in college life – people either love it or hate it (and many of the haters have never rowed themselves), but few are indifferent. What makes me unusual as a novice, though, is the fact that I am not a student – I joined the college as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow back in October 2015. Being a mature women’s college, the age difference between Undergraduates, Postgraduates and Research Fellows is not as pronounced at Lucy as in other colleges, which encourages more mixing and mingling within the community. My curiosity for rowing was first sparked by various boatie friends from Lucy and other colleges, most of them Postgraduates. But it wasn’t until I cheered for our boat club during this year’s marvelously successful May Bumps season that I finally caught the rowing bug and decided to give it a try.

So now I join seven other bright (and slightly sleepy) faces about 2-3 times every week (plus a novice cox). We meet for novice outings at 7 am, except on the weekends, when we can lie in. When I first started rowing, I wasn’t sure if I would even like it, let alone be good at it. Having been raised in a family where sports were enthusiastically watched but rarely practiced, I only started exercising as an undergraduate, and still feel nervous whenever I am trying a new sport.

How remarkable then that one month into novicing, rowing has turned into a complete mind and body philosophy for me, with new revelations coming from every outing.  My biggest revelation may sound banal, but has been the most impactful one: rowing is a team sport. This means you can’t do it alone, even if you try. No matter what your position in the boat, your actions affect everyone else in it. If you want to row efficiently, the whole crew needs to be in perfect synchronicity. Team work may come naturally for researchers in the sciences, where collaborating in groups is a given, but as a literature scholar, working independently (with occasional input from colleagues in meetings or conferences) has become deeply ingrained in me. Sharing collective responsibility in this way has therefore been both an intimidating and bonding experience.

What’s more, rowing has made me appreciate the diversity at Lucy to a greater extent: women of all nationalities, ages, backgrounds and fitness levels come together in the boat club. During our outings, we share not only our struggles in learning the proper rowing technique (so many details that need to be considered!) but also our stories: where we came from, where we hope to go, and what brought us to Cambridge and to Lucy. This week, we will participate in our first indoor rowing competition at Queens' Ergs, and on Nov 19, we will compete in our first novice races with the Emma Sprints. For now, my only ambition is not to capsize – I’ll let you know how it goes. 

Photo: with the other novices after the annnual 'Leggit' race.