American athletes rowing in the iconic British rowing showdown between Oxford and Cambridge University - known across the rowing world as The Boat Race - is nothing unusual. Most years see US representatives in the top boats of both crews, some of whom are former national team rowers and Olympians.
This year's potential Cambridge crew includes Olivia Coffey, who won a World Championship for the USA in the 2015 quad, rowed with the USA women's eight at the Henley Royal Regatta, and was a spare for the 2016 Rio team. Coffey is pursuing an MBA at Cambridge and hopes to row in the annual event, now scheduled for March 24.
Coffey took time out of her schedule Sunday to talk with row2k about her experience of rowing and studying at Cambridge.
row2k: When did you decide to attend Cambridge?
Coffey: It was always in the back of my mind. Obviously, a lot of rowers have gone to these schools in the past and sought their advanced degrees. An advanced degree was something that I always wanted, but it was never something I had the opportunity to pursue because I was rowing full time.
row2k: Rowing in the US is seen more as a niche sport. But in the UK, rowing gets a lot of attention. Did that surprise you?
Coffey: Rowing is huge here. I remember when I came over to visit I went down on the Thames and there were tons of boathouses, and I was shocked. I thought, this is all for one school! When you go to different colleges, and go into bars and pubs, they're filled with rowing memorabilia. It's everywhere and everybody knows what you're doing, and they want to talk about it. It's unlike rowing in any other place I have been before.
Coffey rowed in the women's eight in the 2016 Henley Regatta
row2k: What has the experience of rowing and attending Cambridge been like so far?
Coffey: In terms of rowing, I feel like it's given me a lot of perspective. We've got a great support network here between and the coaches and everyone involved in The Boat Race. There are so many people working behind the scenes just for one race, and that's pretty unusual.
My schedule here is pretty demanding, and the training is as close as you can get to a national team training program, given the time that you are allotted to spend rowing. But it's not all about rowing.
row2k: What are your days like?
Coffey: It's been a great experience so far. I get up at 5 and go train, and then I sit in class from 9 to 5:30 every day. And then I go back to the boathouse and I work out again until 7:30. By the time I get back to my room, it's 8:30 at night. So, from the time I get up till the time I get back to my room, it's like an all-out sprint. I've never had to do anything like that for months on end. It gets pretty tiring, but what's fun about it is how new rowing can feel after doing it for so long.
row2k: How is it training for elite level rowing and studying for an MBA?
Coffey: It's fun to train. Training with the national team for so long, and putting in all those miles every year, makes performing at a high level achievable. But I feel like I can be at 99 percent of the level I was training at while not putting in those amounts of miles and still get good results.
But the days are demanding. I'm having fun, but I'm working hard and that's the underpinning of everything. Training full time and doing the MBA work is hard. There was a professor who was talking in class about the program and he said, 'at Cambridge you cannot pursue an MBA and row...you cannot do this, the schedule is just too hard.'
He didn't know I was a rower. A few classes later, he found out I was on the team and he asked if I rowed for my college and when I told him, no, I rowed for the university, he turned bright red. I don't think he was saying it to be discouraging, he was just saying it was hard.
row2k: Your last year on the national team was disappointing in that you did not make one of the boats for Rio. Is this a way of stepping back or taking a break?
Coffey: I wouldn't necessarily say I feel like I needed a time out or a break. Even though I didn't get the results I wanted for Rio, I really enjoyed the training. I think what I've learned about rowing is that I enjoy the rowing.
I am here mostly for the school and getting an advanced degree and that's what is refreshing about it. I'm advancing my life outside of rowing. Right now, I'm here and I'm having fun, and light blue is a good color on me.
Really, this is a great opportunity. I worked full time last year and I wanted to prolong that experience and learn more about corporate finance and accounting and the things I started learning in school.
And I am also getting the opportunity to speak with people who are very different from me. It's a huge international population, people have a lot of different backgrounds and it gives me different perspective.
row2k: Do you think about coming back to the US and trying to earn a spot for the 2020 Olympics?
Coffey: I think about it, but there is a lot of uncertainty. I'm just getting comfortable with school. I don't know what I am going to do about it, but I think about it.
Coffey stroking the quad in the 2015 World Rowing Championships
To see a current listing of both the Cambridge and Oxford crews go here.