Caoimhe Dempsey, a Trinity graduate (Psychology 2016) and DU Ladies Boat Club alumna, led Cambridge University Boat Club to a sixth consecutive win in the 77th instalment of the Oxford – Cambridge Women’s Boat Race.
The Boat Race as an institution has existed along the Championship Course of the Thames since 1829, however the race between the female rowers of each university only began in 1927. The men’s and women’s crews started racing the same distance along the same stretch of river in 2015, which has added significantly to the elevated profile of the women’s competition in recent years.
Sitting in the stroke seat of the Cambridge ‘Blue Boat’, Dempsey led her crew through a commanding performance which culminated in a four-and-a-half length margin of victory at the end of the almost seven-kilometre course. An experienced oarswoman, Caoimhe’s rowing career began in Trinity, under the guidance of DULBC’s novice programme. Moving rapidly through the ranks of the Club, she became a stalwart member of the Senior VIII for all three years of her senior rowing career in College, helping DULBC to victories both nationally and internationally.
Post-Trinity, Caoimhe rowed for DULBC’s alumni club, Anna Liffey, and also gained experience with Otago Rowing Club in New Zealand. Her next port of call was Cambridge to commence her M.Sc in Developmental Psychology, upon the completion of which she began a Ph.D in the same topic. Dempsey has rowed for Cambridge for her entire postgraduate career, and has also made the Blue Boat each of those years – in the 2 seat in the cancelled 2020 Race, the 4 seat in 2021, the 6 seat in 2022 and finally stroke this year.
The 2023 Race unrolled in a similar fashion to 2022, with Cambridge asserting themselves early on in the race. Coxswain James Trotman made a slightly questionable call to cross into Oxford’s side of the river early on, however, contact was never made and the movement was permitted by umpire Matt Smith. In a favourable position early, Cambridge continued to stretch out their lead, and held a commanding position just after halfway down the course.
“Caoimhe’s progression through the Club for her four years is possibly unprecedented in Cambridge’s history, with her position this year exacerbated by also holding the office of Openweight Women’s President.”
Caoimhe’s progression through the Club for her four years is possibly unprecedented in Cambridge’s history, with her position this year exacerbated by also holding the office of Openweight Women’s President. Her presidency surely exacerbated her delight at Cambridge managing a ‘clean sweep’ of every Boat Race competition – men’s, women’s, lightweights, reserves, veterans, spares, and reunion races – for the first time since 2018, and which had only been achieved once before, in 1993. Cambridge’s dominance of the Women’s Race over the last couple of years in particular, however, is notable, and Caoimhe has played a significant role in that era.
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”
“The new members have risen admirably to the challenge, and continuity in the coaching team of Paddy Ryan and Autumn Mantell has also helped.”
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”.