Rowing with Olympians

Jane Gilbert reports…

Once in a Lifetime: Racks Out take on the Olympians
My dream race, you ask? Well, it would be against a world-class crew – current Olympic medallists would do nicely. On a beautiful river, in a regatta with a great atmosphere and with vocal support for all competitors. With old friends, of course, and the chance to meet people who look likely to become new ones. For charity, ideally. If you could throw in a beautiful river, a fairy-tale setting, and perfect rowing weather, that would be just fine.
And what do you know? Sometimes dreams do come true. On 17 September 2016, Racks Out rowed in Heidelberg, Cambridge’s twin city, at the invitation of the Mayor of Heidelberg, against a crew representing the city and against a late entrant, the German Men’s Eight, silver medallists at Rio and current world champions. The event was Rudern gegen Krebs (Rowing against Cancer), one of a series of regattas held across Germany to raise money for the charity Leben mit Krebs (Living with Cancer), which funds various life-enhancing projects for people with cancer. The experience was awesome: in so many respects unbelievable, extraordinary, and humbling.
“The nicest thing of all was how pleased everyone seemed to be to see us. The warmth and generosity shown by everyone we met was really wonderful. Special thanks must go to the lovely people who did most of the on-the-ground organizing of our trip: Viola Frech of the Heidelberg Mayor’s Office, Dr Joachim Wiskemann of the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) at Heidelberg University Hospital, Dr Klaus Möller of Stiftung Leben mit Krebs, and Susanne von Schellenburg of Value Events. We were wined, dined, and lodged for the weekend, along with a few of our SAPs (Spouses and Partners – usually poor SAPs, though not on this occasion!). We arrived on Friday (tip: don’t fly to Stuttgart, the traffic is terrible) in time for dinner with the Mayor, Prof. Dr Eckart Würzner, organisers and dignitaries, and with both our rival crews. Saturday was regatta day, then another sumptuous dinner, and Sunday was a leisurely lunch followed by a fascinating walking tour of the city, then home. I can’t convey how friendly, hospitable, and fun everyone we met was – the Cambridge flag was flying in the town square, in our honour!. We handed over a giant cheque (that’s another lifetime ambition crossed off) for 800euro (many thanks to the Cantabs members who donated; if anyone else would like to do so, we are still collecting – please email me for details,
“The regatta was held on the Neckar river, in perfect conditions. Most of the races were for quads, since there isn’t much sweep rowing locally. Contestants ranged from ‘really good’ to ‘first time in a boat’. But everyone seemed to have a good time, there was plenty of good-humoured hilarity, and SAP Kelly Bolen saved one crew’s day by subbing in. The highlight was our three 300m races against Heidelberg and the Olympians. In the first, the Olympians had a 10-second time penalty and simply strolled past both other boats, with us coming second. For the second race their handicap was increased to 15 seconds, which still didn’t trouble them much – a few beautifully controlled, very powerful strokes and they were through, with Heidelberg in second place. So, all to play for in race 3, with a 22-second handicap, which turned out to be finely judged. After an excellent start on our part, a gate unfortunately came open and put us out of contention, but the Olympians beat Heidelberg by less than a length! Do you know what a world-class crew looks like when you’re racing them and they’re really trying? Neither do I, to be honest, because all I saw was The Wave as they came up and past. Video footage, however, has been most instructive. Gold medals all round, and also for us an attractive trophy, the 1st International Rowing against Cancer Award!
“Our Heidelberg competitors were a mixed crew drawn from the city’s two boat clubs. Coxed by Rio gold medal-winning sculler Carina Bär, the boat was ably stroked by 79-year-old Hartmut Kempf, who over dinner shared fond memories of visiting Cambridge in his youth, including fruit-picking and a surprisingly hospitable police sergeant! The Olympians were terrific sports, applauding us, singing my husband happy birthday (it was, in fact, his birthday, but the rest of us wished we’d claimed it was ours too), chatting over meals, and signing their autographs with ‘Thanks for letting us win!’ messages. Our cox took the opportunity to make a ‘Losers!’ sign at them in race two, to which they were generous enough to respond with ‘Come on if you think you’re hard enough’ gestures. They did also laugh, as we’d hoped (crippling them with mirth was our best chance of beating them, and all’s fair in racing. Unfortunately, it made us laugh too).
Once in a lifetime? Well, the lovely Heidelberg people said they’d like us to come back next year, so watch this space. On a 22-second handicap, those Olympians don’t look so unbeatable …
“With our heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped make this possible,
Jane Gilbert, on behalf of Tracey Allison, Darcy Weaver, Anna Huefner, Jenny Darsley, Elena Provenzano, Hannah Becker, Jane Thorpe, Sue Lacey ”

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