Grace Prendergast is a Kiwi Olympic champion rower who competed for Cambridge in the Boat Race in 2022. This year’s Boat Race takes place on Sunday 26 March. Grace can be reached via LinkedIn and Instagram.
I knew I wanted to do something different after the Olympics. I’d been doing the exact same pattern every year for 10 years. Trials, summer season, winter season, you just roll through. I’d never craved anything different but then after Tokyo 2021 – whether I carried on rowing internationally or not, I wanted to do something different.
It was a good blend of the familiar and the unknown. The rowing was a very different structure, and system; and it was a jump from a pair (in which I’d done most of my international racing) to an eight and big boat training. It felt quite unfamiliar – I hadn’t realised how ingrained that structure was – it was so nice to row in a different context, and have new challenges.
In the Kiwi rowing system, I’d been doing same thing every year, and I only had one focus – even if I had other things in my life, rowing always came first. At Cambridge, it was one of many things I did, and the same for all my team-mates and that bit was so inspiring.
I didn’t just want to row, I wanted to experience everything Cambridge had to offer. I don’t think I slept for a year! The training happens really early – there’s a 5.15am train that the rowers catch out to Ely, where the river work happens. You’d finish your training session and it was still pitch black!
Going from the Kiwi rowing set-up, with that singular focus on the World Championships and Olympic Games, to the Boat Race, just ticked all the boxes for me. An amazing education, an amazing university, and obviously the rowing is fantastic.
Virtually all elite rowers have the Boat Race on their bucket list.
Going to Cambridge, and shifting my focus from one goal to many, had such a positive impact on my wellbeing at a time – straight after the Olympics – when lots of athletes will struggle. I’d always studied alongside rowing, but the rowing came first. Whereas this was full time study and rowing of a high standard that fitted around the academic work.
The Cambridge experience was intense. I thrived, because I knew mentally, I wasn’t worn out, but I was conscious I’d been doing the same thing – rowing – for the last 10-12 years, I mentally needed a change and Cambridge provided that.
It gave me the perspective that you can fit a LOT in your day and you don’t have a lot of downtime! You’d get up for training before 5am, then everyone’s rushing off to labs, hospital placements or lectures, which was an impressive thing to see. But on top of that, what was most impressive was the commitment everyone would give to rowing, when they had such intense things going on. It taught me that you can have multiple priorities, and still do them all really well.
You have to be really good at parking things in your mind, if they’re not relevant to the here and now; and have really good communication with lecturers and coaches. It was a busy year, I didn’t sleep a lot, and even though it was a lot to cope with it was mentally really refreshing.
I am so glad I experimented with student life again for a year. I’ve since announced my retirement from international rowing and I’m glad I have a Cambridge degree to set me up for the next steps.