For East Londoners familiar with rhyming slang, a mention of 'boat race' is usually cause for a quick trip to the nearest mirror to check for unwanted smudges on your forehead. Last week, however, year 12 students at Stratford's Six21 got a taste of the real thing on the Waterworks River, which flows in front of the Olympic Stadium.
It's fair to say there was some trepidation among the group on the jetty as they strapped on their life jackets. Preparing to board the Ada Salter - a wooden skerry boat (capacity 10) - or the 12-seater yellow canoe, a fear of stowaway spiders rather than the remote prospect of capsizing was vexing the young people most. "Please check there's none in there before I get in coach. I'd take sharks over spiders!" Happily, having completed a thorough check, the friendly coaches from London Youth Rowing (LYR) confirmed the coast was clear. The only non-human presence aboard the Ada Salter would be Timmy, rowing coach Tom's faithful dog, resplendent in his red and grey swimsuit.
With beautiful sunshine and perfectly calm waters, conditions couldn't have been better for those about to take their first strokes on the water. Having succeeded in passing the oars down the boat - no heads were bumped in the process - both crews set out down the river. Soon the work of two Behind Every Kick sessions from before Christmas came to the fore. Teamwork and communication were required here more than strength and athleticism. Shehmir - who has grown with each BEK session - soon found his voice, counting rhythmically to set the pace. 20 minutes in, and there was now no shortage of perspiration and broad smiles on the faces of the two crews as they cut through the shimmering water. At the halfway point of their voyage, with confidence soaring, LYR coach Owen issued a challenge. The task was to switch between the boats - mid-water. No problem. (For those not up on their rowing, suffice to say you won't see Oxford and Cambridge doing that come Saturday!)
Back on dry land, coach Owen said, "all of us at London Youth Rowing were so impressed with the young people's attitude. We'd be delighted to have any of them back at our weekly out of school rowing club."
This opportunity for the Six21 students came about thanks to the funding Behind Every Kick receives from Gemini, the principal partner of the Boat Race. Earlier this academic year, Gemini invited former School21 and BEK Development graduate Ava Lang to attend the official launch of the 2022 Boat Race held at the London headquarters of the Macquarie Group near Liverpool Street. Ava picks up the story:
Before this event, I had never heard of the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge. I never knew there was such a thing as a boat race between the two Universities. The contest dates back to 1829 when two friends from Harrow school challenged each other to a race on Henley-on-Thames. The two guys went on to study at Oxford (dark blues) and Cambridge (light blues) respectively, and the universities have battled it out on the water annually since 1856.
Walking into the big room where the launch was held felt alien at first - people in suits and their university colours. They were all talking and laughing, and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. As I collected my name badge, I was asked by the lady running things if I'd be willing to say a few words about being a part of Behind Every Kick. I could feel myself already beginning to sweat. I got out my phone, went straight to the notes and wrote down my honest thoughts about BEK. They were the reason I got to be in this room, full of high achieving rowers and other distinguished people. People that I could now mix with and learn from. This was just one of the many opportunities I’ve been presented with since getting involved with the charity.
After meeting with Nick, who was there from BEK and thoroughly supported me, the speeches began. I gave mine, which was short and sweet! Then it was networking time. I spoke to Cambridge students, Oxford students, funders and even the President of the Boat Race. But best of all was the free drinks! That and a beautiful view of the city lit up at night. It was an exciting experience and an insight into a slightly different world to my own."
As for the big race on Saturday, Ava thinks Cambridge will win. "But it will be a close one!"