“The long term goal is to compete against the best universities in Europe and get to the A-final at the European University Games,” says Esben Bach-Soerensen, a member of the Aalborg University Rowing Team.

“For this year we are aiming to improve our time and we will steadily progress our goal every year as we get closer to the better universities. The second goal for our eight this year is to compete at the Danish National Rowing Championships.”

Starting from scratch

Without enough universities to compete in a separate University regatta, the National Rowing Championships is the highest level domestic competition available to the Aalborg rowers. Their top eight competes in the open event against the best clubs in Denmark as well as the Danish National Team.

“There is not really a culture for heavyweight rowing in Denmark,” says Bach-Soerensen. “That means there are not that many who are rowing consistently in eights. At the national regatta we have an eight that has rowed the whole season together and they are competing against the national team that is a mix of lightweights and heavyweights.”

Becoming the best

“Our goal is to beat the National Team,” says Bach-Soerensen. “That is how our coach is thinking. He is aiming very high and it is fine to get the motivation and then when we see some results we can see it is working.”

This lead to Aalborg coach, Bjarne Pillarson, deciding on the idea of having the rowers complete a 24 hour ergometer world record attempt. “He (Pillarson) said that the 24 hour ergo we did was a test of mental toughness for the athletes,” explains Bach-Soerensen. A group of ten rowers from Aalborg University successfully set a new world record on 4-5 May, 2016 by pulling 517,376 metres in 24 hours, the best result of any age category listed on the Concept2 online records.

A former Danish rower himself and now in his mid-70s, Pillarson was invited to take charge of the new Aalborg University team in 2013. Bach-Soerensen is very clear in his belief that Pillarson is the glue holding the team together. “He has put his life and passion into this. I don’t think the university rowing project would be anything without him.

Getting more established

With Aalborg University rowing gaining in size and strength, the next step has been to encourage and supporting other universities across Denmark to start teams of their own. “There are two more universities getting started,” Bach-Soerensen says, “and competitions for universities are already being phased in within Danish Rowing for both indoor and outdoor events.

At the 2015 Danish National Rowing Championships there was an exhibition university event in which the Aalborg rowers, who were not racing in their top eight, formed crews of equal strength to race head-to-head.

Interestingly, university rowing isn’t new in Denmark. A national inter-university rowing championships took place almost annually between 1947 and 1987. The University of Copenhagen was arguably the strongest team throughout that era and boasts a total of 20 victories.

Closing the gender gap

While the Aalborg University rowing team’s size is growing each year, there is a gender imbalance that Bach-Soerensen hopes will change in the coming years: 46 of the 54 members in 2015 were men.

One major factor is that the fledgling university programme is hosted at the men-only Aalborg Rowing Club. The team has worked around this by having female members register with the local women’s rowing club next door. Bach-Soerensen is both pragmatic as well as optimistic that a better solution can be found.

“The club has a lot of traditions because there are many older members,” he says. “In one way, I think it is accepted because (the practice) is old and has become a tradition.”

Although things may not change right away at the Aalborg Rowing Club, the university team hopes that more rowing clubs will take on university rowing. “It is a problem that we have to look at in the near future to plan how we can have the best set up for both men and women,” says Bach-Soerensen. “What I hope is that we can work together in some way to facilitate more university students rowing.”

New traditions

For Bach-Soerensen and his peers, the future of university rowing in Denmark is an opportunity both to breathe new life into an old sport and to establish some brand new traditions of their own.

“Setting a new 24 hour world record each year is high on the list for new traditions, says Bach-Soerensen. “Even though the athletes complain about it, the 24 hour attempt is a unique opportunity to develop fellowship as well as promote the team and earn money.”

The primary tradition, however, will be one of excellence, Bach-Soerensen predicts.