University of London rowing looks for excellence
World Rowing travels back to Great Britain to profile one of that nation’s most successful student rowing programmes: University of London Boat Club (ULBC).
Similar to some of the other powerhouses of British university rowing, such as Oxford and Cambridge, the University of London is a collective of constituent colleges, each with its own rowing club. These 18 college clubs and a handful of medical school clubs provide recreational, introductory and intramural competition for students.
Along with bumps regattas, the Allom Cup (men) and Redgrave Cup (women) are considered the top prizes for intercollegiate racing within the University of London. The Allom Cup was first raced in 1949 and the Redgrave Cup started in 2007. King’s College London has won the lion’s share on the men’s side, while crews from the Royal Free and University College Medical School have taken the most women’s races.
By a quirk of history, the Imperial College School of Medicine continues to participate in these races even after their parent institution, Imperial College, officially became a university in its own right in 2007.
Strength in numbers
The ULBC is where the top rowers want to be at the University of London. Many within ULBC attend the school having learned how to row already, but the coaches are always on the lookout for new talent within the college clubs.
The strength of the system is that have a large pool of athletes to draw from for the selection of the top squad. “It is a massive novice system for us,” says Hugo Gulliver, senior coach and recruiting coordinator for ULBC. “We have a lot of colleges developing athletes before they come to us. If we see a guy over six feet (tall),” Gulliver says, “we’ll pull him up.”
Paul Bennett, a members of Great Britain’s men’s eight at the Rio Olympics, is one person who started as a novice at ULBC. “He was spotted walking round campus and grabbed by our then captain. Two years later he was in the boat race for Oxford and a year or more on winning gold with Team GB in 2014 and 2015 in the men’s eight,” says Gulliver.
Making a mark
ULBC has propelled numerous student-rowers to the international level. They were well represented at the Rio Olympics. Although the team is primarily made up of current students, a dedicated few are permitted to keep training towards the national team says Gulliver. “In some cases we let them stay on for a year after graduation.”
ULBC rowers who have made the national team similarly retain their membership as well as strong ties that ensure their club affiliation is more than symbolic. “At national trials they’ll race as ULBC,” Gulliver says. “For a few regattas the national team will lend them back to us to race and if we have a squad dinner, they’ll come back from the national centre and hang out.”
“Having someone with an Olympic medal come back and hang out and help the development athletes is really useful.”
Focus on performance
The male and female members of the team merged their respective boat clubs under ULBC’s banner in the early 2000s. “The decision was made to bring them all together and get rid of separate men’s and women’s clubs,” says Gulliver. “The coaches now work with male and female athletes and one of the best things about the club is the acceptance of both.”
For everyone on the team, the focus is on performance at a few key events. “Henley Royal and Henley Women’s (regattas) are the reasons for our existence,” Gulliver says. “That’s what drives the whole squad through the year.” And ULBC has made their mark at these events, marking their 20th consecutive year of victory in at least one event at the Henley Women’s Regatta.
“BUCS (the British University Rowing Championships) is important for us in the sense that there are other big universities racing, but at the end of the year we are really judged on what we did at Henley,” says Gulliver. Raced early in the season, BUCS is a stepping stone for ULBC and other large universities. “If any of the major unis have a bad weekend, there is still time to change it around (in time for Henley).”
One ULBC tradition that celebrates success is the bestowing of special white uniforms to the best crews. “We race in purple all year,” says Gulliver. “The alumni pay for the purchase of white kit, but only for the top men’s and women’s crews at Henley or at the Men’s or Women’s Head of the River.
“It is a tradition that had been around as long as the club has,” he says. “Each time it is given out, we have a presentation ceremony. As soon as you see the white, you recognise who they are, but otherwise you never see them in white.”
But how does ULBC ultimately define success? “I would say that the thing we look for excellence,” says Gulliver. “Our unofficial motto is ‘excellence through rowing’, implying we hope our rowers will go on and achieve in areas and fields beyond rowing, but rowing here at ULBC has been a key part in shaping their character to do that.”
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