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Dispatch from the Trenches – Trying New Sports at University 

Deryn Cressey Rodgers, Junior Sports Editor, collects anecdotes from freshers who have tried new sports for the first time whilst at university.

Every October around 3,300 freshers travel to our lovely university to study for their undergraduate degrees. So it stands to reason that some of them must be at least vaguely interested in sport. While the University attracts athletes of the highest calibre , stories about them generally aren’t as funny as those from freshers who decide to take up new sports in Michaelmas Term. I have taken it upon myself to collect entertaining anecdotes from freshers who’ve decided to take the leap, picking up a new sport this year.

Therefore, I present my Dispatch From The Trenches. Unfortunately, as we are in Oxford, I was utterly unable to escape the presence of rowing.

From a coxswain at Oriel

Oriel has two religions. That was the first thing I heard when I arrived. The dominant one is Rowing. The many chalks adorning first quad, and the tortoise-themed décor of the college bar are a strong hint. But let me tell you; we are crazy for the water. Though, hopefully staying on top of it, rather than the soggier alternative.

I started out as most novices do – a couple of erg sessions, a meet-the-club barbeque at the boat house and my first on-water sessions as part of a novice mixed crew. Along with the customary complete ignorance as to how immensely tired 5 AM starts can make you. Such blissful ignorance. My first attempt at rowing was a success (all things considered). The second, less so. Suffice to say that after catching five crabs in as many minutes, the universe had spoken. I am not built to be a rower. So I did what every short, loud person who can’t row does:  I became a cox.  

Let me tell you, it is so much harder than it looks. My main job is steering, also known as battling a river that definitely has a life of its own, and avoiding other crews. Passing on information from your coach to your crew is also rather vital. These tasks are all performed whilst being splashed repeatedly in the face. Apart from this, I promise that it’s great fun! . Thankfully, crews are generally supportive of little blips, which makes everything a lot less scary. It also helps when you see that even the Blue’s coxes make the same mistakes as you do.I also once saw a few Olympians get stuck in a tree up at Wallingford, and have never been so entertained.

My advice to any new rower or cox is to always ask questions. It’s better to be informed than have no clue what you’re doing. All the senior members of the Boat Club will have that knowledge, or will pass you on to someone who does. Another super important thing is to spend time with your crew. Before boats are settled this can be hard. But once you have your crew, hang out with them! You can even organize group meals with them (looking at our M2 with their Ragu obsession). Get to know them, because a closer a team is, the more they can spur each other on .  

Overall, coxing is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done . It has introduced me to a wonderful community and the sense of team spirit that I have experienced has enriched my time in  Oxford, so far.

Editor’s note: No crabs were harmed in the writing of this article. Ive been told that “catching a crab” is a rowing term for when your oar gets stuck under the water. This flips the blade, and, means that the handle usually smacks the unfortunate rower in the face. However, in a race “crab ejections” are exactly what they sound like. Minus the ‘crab’ bit. The rower is ejected from their seat by ‘catching a crab’ whilst moving at speed. After watching a compilation video of these, I’m glad I didn’t pick up rowing!

From a rugby player at Brasenose

College rugby at Brasenose has been a great opportunity to meet people, whether on the pitch or at the many social events. There’s a camaraderie that comes hand in hand with the sport, and in the first term I met plenty of new people, not just freshers but from the whole college. We had a mixed bag of results last term, but even after a loss everyone enjoys a sing-along. There’s a noticeable ‘play for fun and not to win’ attitude: engaging in college rugby is easy and inclusive, and I’m looking forward to another term of it all.

From a rower at Jesus

If someone had asked me in August what I was expecting to do in Oxford, I’m not certain what I would have said. Probably something about lectures, tutorials and, on a more hopeful note, making new friends and having a laugh. While I’m pleased to report that my predictions weren’t that far off, there are several things I definitely didn’t foresee.

Careering around an ice rink at half one on a Wednesday morning, was one. Catching the rowing bug was another. But I found myself making my very sleepy way through Christ Church Meadow at five-fifty AM, with only the vaguest of ideas which boathouse I was meant to be at (there are so many!). Yet there is something quite surreal about trying a new sport for the first time in university. Willingly choosing to sit on a river in December with eight other mad people in the dark, desperately trying to remember which side is bowside (I’m pretty sure it’s my left), and which number you were assigned, seems almost rational.

It’s probably a matter of perspective. However, despite the cold and wet and the deceptively heavy boats (we can’t lift it), learning to row has been one of the highlights of my term. For a sport that seems to involve 3 parts carrying equipment (plus setting up and organizing) to one part rowing, there is nothing quite like the camaraderie of a boat crew. From sunrise photo opportunities to die for, to the absolute bedlam of the novices regatta, I’ve loved every minute of it. Though it may be some time before I fully master the ability to form rational thoughts before 8 AM, or understand the difference between full and half slide, I am learning alongside some amazing new friends and have had experiences I will always treasure.

So, to anyone considering beginning a new sport, give it a go! You have nothing to lose but your dignity, and that’s an optional extra anyway.

From a wild swimmer at Jesus

In Michaelmas 2021 I started wild swimming with the University Wild Swimmers group, emphasis on the ‘wild’. Before this, the only wild swimming I’d ever done was in the sea. In summer. ‘Cold’ has taken on a whole new meaning for me! 

Since beginning, I’ve swum most Monday and Thursday mornings – even when there’s been snow on the ground. The temperatures we swim in at the moment are typically below five degrees, making us officially ice swimmers – a fact I love to remind my family of.

I think starting the week by getting up early and going for a swim really puts me in the right headspace for productivity for the rest of the day. It’s also a positive way to connect with nature. The setting at Port Meadow is lovely and you even get to watch the sunrise over the river, which makes the regret of getting up with your alarm, as well as preparing to get in the water, worth it. Afterwards I make sure to get warm quickly with lots of layers and a warm meal in hall. Overall it’s a great experience and I’m so glad my friend persuaded me to come along.

I think the message here is that no matter how much, or how little, sporting experience you have there is a sport at Oxford with your name on it. Though I think it takes a certain kind of person to venture near a body of water that’s below 5 Celsius.I tip my hat to those who do, and wish everyone involved with a sport, or otherwise, a happy Hilary.

Photo Credits: Molly Cressey-Rodgers