From the time she moved from Seattle to Great Britain when she was eight years old, the Boat Race has been a part of Larkin Sayer's history. Her British hometown is Cambridge, and the annual rowing dual on the River Thames between Cambridge University and Oxford University is a very big deal there.
"As a kid, I heard a lot about the Boat Race, since I grew up I Cambridge." But rowing in the event was not something she thought much about. First, until 2015 the Boat Race main event was the men's race. There was a women's race, but it did not occupy the same spotlight the men's race did.
Second, even after the women's race was fully included in the actual Boat Race event on the Tideway, and even if Sayre had taken up crew at her second Cambridge address - MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts - she still did not consider applying to Cambridge, or rowing in the Boat Race.
But a very personal life event helped Sayre reconsider her personal goals, and moved her to apply to Cambridge. "This is probably a bit personal, but I wasnt planning on applying to Cambridge until part way through my senior year at MIT when I went through a breakup.
"It made me realise I'd been holding back on going after what I really wanted," she said. "Sometimes when you go through something sad and difficult, it gives you a clarity. For me it was to send in an application, and I can't tell you how glad I am that I did."
And now, on April 7, Sayre will meld her two Cambridge experiences - one as a child growing up in the UK, and another as a student athlete at MIT - and row as one of four US collegiate athletes in the Cambridge University Blue Boat. The four women will be part of a group of seven Americas participating in the race, including two in the Cambridge men's crew.
Like Sayre, all six of the athletes rowing in the 2019 Boat Race have rowed competitively in US colleges and have known of the storied event.
Some, like Sayre, didn't consider trying to make a Boat Race before applying to Cambridge, while for some of the others, being in the race was a factor in their choice of post graduate education. One is Penn alum Dara Alizadeh, who is rowing in the men's Cambridge boat along with Brown University's Grant Bitler.
Rowing as the only American on the Oxford crew is lightweight Ben Landis, who won an IRA Championship in Columbia's varsity lightweight eight last spring.
"It is a great honor to be member of the OUBC Blue Boat," said Landis "I race in the same shell that rowing stars like (two-time British Olympian) Constantine Louloudis have rowed in and go through the same training program that made them fast," he said. "I can clearly say that racing in the Boat Race is the peak of my rowing career.
"The first time I watched the Boat Race was during my state team's training camp in 2010, when I was 16. At that point I was by far the weakest member of the squad and could not have dreamed competing in the race myself.
"Only when I was a junior at Columbia and the end of my collegiate rowing career came in sight, I started thinking about giving rowing one more year and to try out for the Blue Boat. After rowing lightweight for years, I was especially interested to see what my body could achieve without the weight constriction."
Joining Sayre in the women's crew are Laura Foster (Michigan), and Kate Horvat and Liliane Lindsay who both rowed at Yale. Sayer and Lindsay are dual US and British citizens. Landis is a dual citizen of Germany and the US, and Alizadeh is multi-national, and hold citizenships in the US, Bermuda, Great Britain, and Iran.
This will be Alizadeh's second year racing with Cambridge, and it is a race he had been thinking of competing in since rowing in high school at the Belmont Hill School, in Belmont, MA.
Dara Alizadeh racing in the 2014 Head of the Charles Regatta
"It's pretty special to be involved in the Boat Race," Alizadeh said. "I was fortunate enough to be involved last year as well, but each year is a new season and new challenge, so I've been lucky to be a part of it once again. Being part of the CUBC has been life-changing, and to be surrounded by guys who work so hard is a real privilege.
"I probably first heard about the Boat Race when I was a junior at Belmont Hill, where one of our coaches, Kip McDaniel, showed us a video of when he raced for Cambridge in 2007.
"But seeing the standard of athletes in the race, it seemed like quite an unattainable goal. By the time I was at Penn, there were two Penn alums who raced for Cambridge, Grant Wilson in 2013, and Matt Jackson in the 2014 and 2015 races. I think at that point I decided that it was something in which I wanted to be involved, which led me to apply," he said.
Rowing at Michigan, and having participated in the US junior national team system, Foster originally planned to take a year off between completing her undergraduate education and applying to Cambridge.
She did not have the Boat Race on her radar - until Cambridge assistant coach Patrick Ryan visited Michigan her senior year.
"I had always planned on applying for graduate study at Cambridge at some point since I study early medieval British archaeology, but I didn't intend to row or even realize it was an option until (Ryan) visited Michigan during my senior year," she said.
"That was when I scrapped my plans for a gap year and put together my application for the following fall. I figured the chance to pursue both graduate study and rowing was an opportunity I couldn't let pass by," she said.
Foster rowed her junior years as part of Princeton National Rowing Association's Mercer Juniors program, where some of the assistants there had rowed in the men's boat race, she said. But said she didn't understand the intensity and level of attention the race generates.
"Rowing at Mercer as a junior, I had a few coaches who had been in the men's Boat Race at either Oxford or Cambridge, but as a (Cambridge) novice I had no real idea what that meant," Foster said. "I vaguely knew there was a race between Cambridge and Oxford every year, but I certainly didn’t imagine anything on the scale at which the Boat Race operates.
"I think I'm actually quite unusual here in that I didn't really realize what the Boat Race entailed until I watched it for the first time in 2017, when I'd already been accepted in my master's program. Rowing at Mercer as a junior, I had a few coaches who had been in the Men’s Boat Race at either Oxford or Cambridge, but as a novice I had no real idea what that meant."
Like Alizadeh, Kate Horvat grew up in a Philadelphia family rowing environment, and rowed her high school years at Germantown Academy. She had heard all about the Boat Race, and started thinking about applying to Cambridge her senior year at Yale.
"While there were many reason for my decision to attend Cambridge, both academic and personal, the opportunity to trial for the race was certainly a large motivating factor," Horvat said.
"There are not many places aside from national teams that offer the type of competitive and high performance program for college graduates that Cambridge has, and I saw the Boat Race as an opportunity to continue pursuing the sport I love at a high level."
She also said the single race format, winner take all, tradition of the Boat Race added to the level of competition.
"While I have raced in multiple high stakes and intensely competitive races, the singularity of this one race makes it a vastly different experience from any of my previous races," Horvat said. "I have never experienced this type of lead up to a single race, or such a large media presence, in my race experiences in the United States."
Lindsay, Horvat's undergraduate - and now Cambridge - teammate had a similar experience to Sayer, having also grown up in Cambridge, England, taking in coverage of the Boat Race from a young age having always been aware of the world-wide media attention the event draws.
"I grew up watching the Boat Race on television, and was fascinated by the intensity and tradition of the rivalry," she said. "I remember thinking how cool it would be to race in such a highly anticipated and highly publicized event, but never considered it to be a real possibility—mostly because only the men’s Boat Race was televised in the States
"I remember watching and thinking, wow, why can't the women do this as well? I didn’t actually think of participating in the Boat Race until women started racing on the Tideway in 2015," she said.
"It is truly amazing to see the Boat Race promote gender equality in sport, and I am incredibly honoured to be a part of the change."