Trinity graduate Caoimhe Dempsey, elected Women’s President of Cambridge University Boat Club at the end of the 2021/22 season, will next weekend aim to guide the Cambridge Women’s Blue Boat to a sixth consecutive victory over their Dark Blue foes, Oxford University.
With Oxford and Cambridge both still holding important positions in the UK collegiate rowing scene, the Boat Race remains unquestionably one of the most historic and well-known events on the rowing calendar. Raced over 4 miles and 374 yards from Putney to Mortlake along the Championship Course of the River Thames, the Race typically draws 250,000 in-person spectators, with a further 15 million following along on television. The Race was first held in 1829 between a men’s VIII from each university only, however over time it has expanded to include the women’s VIII, reserve crews, lightweight crews, spare pairs and fours, and a veteran’s race.
Dempsey learned to row as an undergraduate in Trinity, joining the Ladies Boat Club as a fresher and quickly climbing through the ranks to become an entrenched member of the Senior squad by only her second year. After three years in DULBC, she represented Ireland at the U23 European Championships, racing the 2-, and followed this up with a win in the 4- at the Home International Regatta.
Following the completion of her Psychology degree in 2018, Caoimhe headed to Cambridge after a year in New Zealand and has been there ever since, commencing a Ph.D in Developmental Psychology immediately after acquiring a MPhil in the same topic. A stalwart of CUBC, she sat in the 4 seat of the 2021 Blue Boat, the 6 seat in 2022, and is set to stroke the VIII in 2023. She was also selected for the 2020 Race, although this was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Dempsey is two-for-two from each of her Boat Race appearances, with a three-quarter length victory in 2021 and a dominant showing (and a course record set) in 2022.
In conversation with Caoimhe just over a week before the Race, we discussed her decision to run for the Presidency for the 2022/23 season, and how she’s found the experience this year – in a word, “rewarding”, despite the toll. “The last few years, I’ve only thought about my sessions, my recovery, my own rowing…this year, I have to think about, well, how’s everyone else performing? People want to talk about their own ergs, their own injuries, and you’re the person they want to talk to about all of that. So you end up having to sacrifice some things, and it has felt different this year, but it’s been great.”
And the motivation to run for the position in the first place?
“Last year was unbelievable for me, just in terms of the others in the boat, like your Graces and Imogens, and that was such a peak for me – how does my rowing experience get better than this? So after last year’s Boat Race I was wondering, you know, how do I make next year as exciting – I want to keep rowing, but how can it go up from here? And I thought that this (the Presidency) would be a really nice way to do that, because it’d be great if I could try to facilitate a similar experience for everyone else this year, basically share my experiences and lead the way for this year’s Squad. So it’s been really, really great, honestly – I’ve loved it”
Grace and Imogen mentioned above, are, of course, the inimitable Grace Prendergast (Tokyo Olympics gold and silver medallist in the 2- and 8+) and Imogen Grant (current World Champion in the Lightweight 2x and holder of the World’s Best Time in the Lightweight 1x). The phenomenal prestige of the 2022 Blue Boat meant that transitioning to the following season was always going to be a challenge, and that was heightened when Caoimhe was the only returning Blue to the 2023 setup. However, the new members have risen admirably to the challenge, and continuity in the coaching team of Paddy Ryan and Autumn Mantell has also helped.
“Keeping the two of them (Ryan and Mantell) has been really helpful, definitely – you just have a lot of trust in a programme that’s been successful, and it’s hard to disagree with Paddy when, you know, he’s had winning crews for a decade at this stage! And that preexisting relationship helps, when you know how to communicate effectively with one another and so on”.
The Boat Race is also unique among rowing spectacles for the fervour of support ex-competitors and wider Club alumni pour into it – “they’re very…invested”, Dempsey laughs. “There’s a very strong Club culture, and there’s a real sense of being part of a history that’s bigger than yourself. It’s something you can draw on throughout the season because they provide a big network of support – we’ve had alumni come in and talk to us about their race experiences, what they learned, and so on.”
Back on the topic of boat lineup, I ask about her thoughts on her progression through the seats in the boat – from 2, to 4, to 6, and finally stroke. She laughs again.
“Stroking is interesting – I never really did it in Trinity, I was always 6 or thereabouts. It only started when I came to Cambridge and I was like, well, this is pretty new!…But honestly, I don’t think I could have done it for any other year – like, I always wanted to win it, but this year I really, really, really, want to win it, with the Presidency and everything. And not only my boat, I want Blondie to win and the spares and the lightweights and everyone… I think you have to be a bit of a bulldog to sit in that seat, and I wouldn’t have had that attitude any other year”.
And what about future plans? Realistically, life outside of rowing has been unknown to Dempsey for years, but does the sport factor into life post-Cambridge?
“Honestly, I’m not too sure”, she confesses. “There isn’t a fantastic club rowing scene (in Ireland) unless you’re in university, it’s not like England where you have these massive clubs leading the domestic scene, and I definitely want to come home. So I feel like maybe this could be it, definitely”.
While the Cambridge lineup may have a very different makeup to last year’s dream team, truly anything can happen in the Boat Race. The nature of head-to-head racing across such a variable stretch of water means every race normally throws up a few surprises, with eventful moments in years gone by including a dead heat, boats sinking, oars breaking after clashes, crew members collapsing, disqualifications, and more. The 2023 Race is not expected to be any different, although Caoimhe will be aiming to channel her years of experience into leading Cambridge in the steadiest manner possible from stroke.
The 2023 Women’s Boat Race will take place at 16:00 on March 26th and will be streamed and aired live on YouTube and BBC 1.