Swiss University rowing; A balanced approach
World Rowing heads to Switzerland as we continue to look at university rowing around the world. Nestled in the heart of Europe, this land of mountain spires and looking-glass lakes is the stuff of rowers’ dreams.
There are no fewer than 80 rowing clubs across this nation of 8 million people. The story of university rowing is linked to the history of these clubs, the first of which was founded in 1863 in Zurich.
“In the following years, several rowing clubs affiliated with the Federal Institute of Technology were founded by students,” says Andreas Csonka, President of the Swiss University Sports Federation. “These were organised as private clubs and the clubs founded in the years to come were the same.”
As the sport grew, this developed into a model also present in the Netherlands (here), with students able to train and race as members of local clubs rather than forming teams along stricter university or college lines as in places like Canada (here).
One notable exception began in 1945 with the first annual University Boat Race between the University of Zurich (UNI) and the Polytechnic Institute of Zurich (POLY). “Crews consisted of rowers from several clubs,” explains Csonka, “the best available rowers that studied at one of the two universities.” Modelled on the famous Cambridge-Oxford Boat Race, the race has endured. This year UNI claimed victory in all but one of four events (female students, mixed faculty and mixed alumni eights), while the male students’ eight went to POLY. This was the 66th edition.
Beyond the Zurich boat race, “there are no specific university events,” he says of the competition calendar. “We had the idea to create a league, but our community of rowers is small and the rowers are needed in their club boats. Almost every second week April to July there are regattas with up to 1000 crews of all age classes, boat types, etc.”
While plans are in the works for a national university rowing championship event, according to Csonka it will take time; the growth and importance of events like the European Universities Rowing Championships (EUC) also bring new focus on creating distinct institutional crews. Recent years have seen more Swiss university crews not only taking part, but bring home hardware to inspire other schools to do the same.
For all that, the multi-club nature of university rowing has certainly not held rowers back. Csonka estimates that around 70 per cent of elite Swiss rowers are students. As a former coach with the Swiss National Team before moving into university sports, he has seen both sides of the equation and points to some factors that have helped university rowing become so successful.
“We started in 1998 to convince the best Swiss rowers, who were also students, to participate in the World University Championships (WUC),” he recalls. “We were successful with winning at least one gold medal at every WUC every second year.”
As students themselves, a number of top members of the Swiss Olympic team have contributed to successes at both the WUC and EUC. “This set the tradition that national team members also wanted to participate at the EUC and WUC,” says Csonka. “Our most successful WUC was in 2008 in Belgrade, winning two golds and two silvers. Eight years later, two of the guys (Mario Gyr and Simon Niepmann) are now Olympic Champions (Rio 2016 LM4-).”
One aim of Swiss University Sports is “to enable a dual career in sports and education/studies,” says Csonka. Another is to use development to create a cycle of success. “The idea is to have teams that will perform in the first third of the ranking (at the WUC and EUC). The more potential medal candidates we have, the more development crews we send,” even if these “might be less competitive in their results.”
With increasing success in international competition, Swiss university rowers are making a mark on world rowing in their own balanced way.
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