It has been an extraordinary few years for the Downing women in May Bumps. In 2013 the crew had led the way for three days – only to get bumped at the last by Clare and heartbreakingly lose the top spot at the death. The 2014 Mays, then, were the first chance for revenge – a chance immediately seized; on Day 1, Downing went straight to the top. Though exciting racing up and down the division saw numerous other teams changing places over the next three days, no-one got close enough to do that to Downing. At the time I was the little fresher in the bows, and, having never rowed before I came to Downing the previous October, it was a crazy few months to find myself with a Mays Headship at the end of the year!
This, then, was the challenge we faced for the 2015 Mays – holding onto that top spot that had been so hard-won. Lent Bumps this year had been a steep learning curve, particularly for the three novices in the boat, but going into Mays I knew I had a crew around me that were one of the strongest Downing has ever fielded. Two of those novices, Théa Zabell and Izzy Edwards, made it into the Mays crew – fighting off competition from more experienced rowers through enthusiasm and tenacity. Georgina Hutton and Josie Hughes, who have been integral members of the squad all year, also took spots. With six Headships already under her belt, Zara Goozée came out of retirement to take her place in the stroke seat and chase down a seventh title. Sarah Crowther (in 7) and Ruth Wood (coxing) also rejoined the squad for their last-ever Bumps before graduating. Finally, we were delighted to be welcome into our crew Holly Hill, who rowed this April in the first Women’s Boat Race on the Tideway.
After learning to row on the GB Start programme in late 2013, Holly has had a meteoric rise in the world of rowing. She spent this year trialling for both CUWBC and the GB Under-23 squad. In the run up to Bumps she was doing as many as three training sessions a day – fitting them around an already hectic exam term. Yet Holly approached her first set of Bumps with such boundless enthusiasm that anyone would have thought that these races were the World Championships she was training for. She was the last key element in what we were aiming to make the fastest crew on the river.
But despite the crew – and their undoubted speed – now being in place, the Easter Term threw up a lot of issues. Sarah and Ruth in particular were juggling training with revision for the ever-important final exams, while Holly’s international racing programme meant that she was otherwise occupied every weekend. Ultimately, pretty much every member of M1 ended up being drafted in as a sub for W1 at some point or other.
Nevertheless, the whole crew kept their focus on retaining the Headship – particularly because we knew there would be very strong competition in the Bumps. In 2014 Caius had pulled off the impressive feat of moving up three places towards the top of the division. This year, they started in second place and, with four university rowers and a university cox in their boat, we knew we’d have a battle on our hands. But rather than being phased by the challenge, we used this as extra motivation. And as a cox, Ruth was developing the crew, making technical improvements, and never settling for anything less than our best. At every training session, the women were working harder. We could see it in each other – how much we wanted this; how determined we were to hold on to this Headship.
A few weeks before Bumps, W1 each completed a half-marathon erg challenge with the aim of testing our physical and mental limits – all while raising money for the Brain Tumour Charity.
The first day of Mays was our first real race up against Caius. We’d raced them once previously in the term, at Champs Head, where we had beaten them by a single second. However, that day we’d been missing Holly, while Caius had been short of Great Britain’s Melissa Wilson; the pair of them had been successfully competing together for their country that weekend in Essen. So neither crew knew what our real pace would be. Meanwhile our starts practice had been scuppered the previous day by a broken fin, which meant we had to forgo the starts and row home without a rudder. It was undeniable that nerves were in abundance as we rowed up to the start line of the Bumps.
Each day Caius came faster at us off the start, but once we hit the rhythm call down the Gut we kicked the gap back open and kept on going. What we had been developing each term, under Ruth and Ian’s guidance, was confidence in our own crew – complete trust in each other. During the Bumps races, this meant that we would be mentally strong enough not to panic at Caius’ better starts. We knew we needed to settle into our own rhythm and use that boat speed to carry us away from them. On Day 3, when they made a move on the Long Reach, we simply took the rate up one and calmly drove them back. Even when they called whistles on us straight off the start and round First Post Corner, Ruth remained in control, reassuring us and keeping our heads in the boat. There was a moment on Day 4, with the finish line in sight, when I knew we would not be caught. I began to cry tears of joy. Downing were Head Of The River again.
This Mays boat was an absolutely incredible team to be a part of. Before the Bumps had started, I said that whatever happened in terms of results, we were aiming to row well. And that is what I’m most proud of.
My huge thanks, as always, goes to the Segreants who continue to support the Club. Thank you for the coaching, the messages of support, the screaming, the jumping up and down on the towpath… and a special thanks to Leo for waiting for us, stopwatch in hand, at the finish to call out our margins. Apart from Holly and Georgina, everyone in the crew had learnt to row at Downing under the coaching of Ian Watson. That we were able to hold our own in four races against a crew with so much more experience is testament to the fantastic environment DCBC provides for those wanting to start rowing.
Downing may not be a college that produces hordes of University trialists each year. But what we do have is excellent coaching, a determined attitude and rowers with more grit that a pulverised mountain. This Mays was a series of hard-fought races against formidable opposition, and I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved. Downing women have now been Head of the River in the May Bumps for four of the last five years. Feroces ad mortem!