Interview: Four Peterhouse students will race on Thames this Sunday (3rd April)
[L-R: Tom George, George Finlayson, Ollie Parish and Ollie Wynne-Griffith. Photos by Ben Tufnell Row360.]
In the lead-up to the big event, we caught up with Tom George (matric. 2021) Tokyo 2020 Bronze medallist, George Finlayson (matric. 2021) former Australian U23, and Ollie Wynne-Griffith (matric. 2021) another Tokyo 2020 Bronze medallist. Ollie Parish (matric. 2019), who is back in the Men’s boat for a second time after rowing in the winning crew last year, was unfortunately unable to attend.
Nestled in a passageway between the Old Court and Gisborne Court, the dark wood-panelled MCR is a cosy space with deep comfy chairs, the sort of place one could imagine having a hot chocolate whilst playing Scrabble: In Lingua Latina on a cold winter’s night. Perhaps it is the traditional and homely feel of this space that makes each of our Blue Boat Oarsmen seem all that much taller. Though the boat they will row in this coming Sunday will be made out of lightweight carbon-fibre, you might be forgiven for thinking they will take to the Tideway in an antiquated wooden vessel instead. This sense of history is even more evident when Ollie Wynne-Griffith tells me about his rowing lineage, his grandfather (David Christie) and great-grandfather (Harold Rickett) each a Light Blue in the 1950’s and 1930’s respectively. Ollie and Tom speak with an almost fraternal sense of familiarity between each other, having rowed together since their schooldays at Radley.
When I ask how they got into rowing, George Finlayson is the first to take the reins:
“I started in year 7 with quad sculls and general mucking about” he tells me in dulcet Aussie tones, “I’ve tried to leave but I haven’t been able to,” he says jokingly, and there are grins and laughs all round. Each of the rowers have been doing this for some time now. Ollie was first introduced to rowing by his grandfather who encouraged fitness and competition. Both Tom and Ollie were heartily encouraged at Radley to row as an alternative to rugby in the Easter and Summer terms when the ground was too hard and so, like George, have been rowing since their school days.
Lots of people may pick up the clarinet in Year 7, but few stick out something for so long unless a great amount of enjoyment is derived from it, day-in-and-day-out. “You become very close with the guys you are doing it with, and that’s something you have forever,” Tom explains. “There are definitely days where its freezing cold and raining and you’re a bit like ‘what am I doing?’, but you do it for the things around that. You do it for the team.”
In the wind and cold, the boys share in a ‘collective sufferance’, explains Ollie, but also a shared sense of purpose. “You have this definitive moment in your year which you’re always aiming towards. You’re constantly thinking about whether you’re doing enough every day, whether you’re pushing enough every day, and when you know that there are twenty other guys that turn up at the start of the year who are also thinking that way as well, that makes it a very strong bond very quickly. Which is kind of unique, I don’t think I get that anywhere else in my life.”
Each of our Peterhouse rowers have worked hard to get to this point in their rowing careers, as highlighted by their previous rowing credentials. But each of the rowers agree that you cannot rely on past results or rest on your laurels. George explains: “You can go from being in the shape of your life to having done four weeks of nothing and being back to where you started from.”
When I ask if there is ever animosity between the seasoned rowers and the younger ones around fear of losing a spot in the boat, Ollie says: “I think it’s more just a sense of respecting the stopwatch, and that’s what draws people to the sport. You get out of it what you put in, and there’s also this kind of notion that you need to earn your seat every single day. You need to work to stay fit.”
There’s no fast track to stroke seat, even for Olympians. Two members of the Rio 2016 GB boat, Ollie tells me, have been away from rowing for a time. “Certainly it was a humbling moment for them that they had to knuckle down. They knew that it didn’t matter what had happened 4 years ago or what they’d done in the past: what mattered was how fast they made the boat go on that given day. So that’s kind of an ethic leveller when we come in. There’s 19 year olds who are chomping at the bit, people at very different stages of their lives, yet the same parameters of measuring success are applied to everyone.”
And of course, it is not just on the water that they are expected to excel, but in their studies too, something which George learned at Berkeley. “You definitely have a responsibility to yourself, and no one is going to hold your hand. Professors aren’t going to go out of their way to make sure you’re doing your work.” He goes on to say that, in some respects, it has been an easy transition from the US to the UK. To protect students and staff, Cambridge has innovated – moving lectures online and allowing them to be played back on demand “You don’t have to live and die by the fact you can’t make it to class anymore”, Tom happily tells me. With all the assessments at the end of term it’s a bit of a ‘pinch point’ with late nights and early mornings, but ultimately Tom resolves that if he wasn’t rowing he would just be doing something else. “It’s like, ‘would I be as productive if I wasn’t rowing?’ No. I just have a busier day.” George agrees: “Rowing structures my life, and brings structure to it”, encouraging good timekeeping habits and enhancing studying, rather than undermining it.
Peterhouse has lately been a bit of a revolving door when it comes to international rowing champions. George explains how he and Natan Węgrzycki-Szymczyk (matric. 2018), rowed together at Berkeley; Węgrzycki-Szymczyk being one of two Petreans to have rowed in the winning Men’s crew for the 2019 Boat Race. “He was the one that encouraged me to come here because Peterhouse is so supportive of people that want to perform at a higher level in sports, as well as academically.” The world of rowing athletes is a close-knit crew it seems, and word spreads fast. “Peterhouse supports athletes financially with scholarships and good funding, and with all the trainings camps we have to go on the College has been really forthcoming with helping us,” says Tom, proudly. “We are really lucky in that regard.”
Of course, it is not just the headline Tideway race which is on the cards this year, but also the May Bumps. In 2019, when James Cracknell (matric. 2018) was on the crew for the Mays, Peterhouse went up three places. This year, with the help of Ollie Wynne-Griffith, Tom George, Ollie Parish and George Finlayson: we will have twice the number of Olympians, and no shortfall of other international competition medallists. Could this be our shot to be Head of the River? The boys confer amongst themselves, and in the chaos of overlapping voices you begin to get an impression of just how much strategy comes into the Mays, making the Tideway Boat Race seem almost simple by comparison. “We’d need the crews in front to bump and get out the way so you can essentially catch the boat three ahead of you on one of the days,” Tom concludes. Second place, they agree is certainly possible and blades almost expected, but whether this year’s crew will “dust one off on Crackers [James Cracknell]” and get Head of the River as the boys put it – with no shortage of grins – waits to be seen.
The four Peterhouse students will be racing on the Thames this Sunday. For more information about spectating please refer to the Gemini Boat Race Website.