Katie Davidson: The Women in the Boat

By ENS Katie Davidson, USN

I first learned about the 2015 Newton Women’s Boat Race when I showed up to the University of Cambridge’s Goldie Boathouse in late 2013 having never touched an oar.  I had just landed in the United Kingdom as a Marshall Scholar for a one-year master’s program, and with next to no knowledge about the sport or the history of the Boat Race, I sent an email to the coaches mentioning my interest in learning to row.

At an imposing six-feet tall, with long limbs and twenty years of competitive swimming under my belt (four of which spent swimming the mile for the U.S. Naval Academy), I received a reply inviting me to Goldie for a meeting.  It was sitting across from the coaches who would later become the opposition that I first learned about the Newton Women’s Boat Race and its historic move to the Tideway.  Having traditionally been held in Henley, separately to the men's race and with comparatively little publicity, this year it will be held in London on the same day as the men's race, the BNY Mellon Boat Race.

While my inability to remain at Cambridge for the second year of my Marshall tenure precluded my long-term training, the coaches lit an inexorable fire, one that could only be quenched through intense competition and victory.  When it came time to think about my second-year program, there was not a question in my mind regarding where I wanted to go.  I applied and was accepted at Oxford.  While it was the academics that drew me in, the rowing proved to be a massive bonus.

Training with the Oxford Women’s Boat Club has been a privilege.  The Boat Race itself is an event that has come to touch the lives of many athletes, coaches, and spectators alike.  Once you have participated, in whatever capacity, you become part of the ongoing narrative that is the long and illustrious history of the Boat Race.  That is why this year is particularly special.  It not only marks a first, it marks progress in one of the oldest sporting events in the United Kingdom and the world, a 161-year battle between light and dark blue.  

There is nothing traditional about our Oxford experience.  Each individual athlete has a personal reason for putting her body through the anguish of practice, but it is our collective goal as a team that carries us far further than any individual ever could.  It is that collective goal that gets us out of bed at uncivilized hours, power us though steady-state rowing, and will ultimately drive us for nearly seven-kilometers, over approximately twenty minutes, in a steady, perfectly cadenced march of insane courage from Putney to Mortlake. 

I took up rowing because the message of this year’s Boat Race resonates with me.  It is an empowering call to arms for women everywhere, in every walk of life, and it is a shame that it has taken this long to happen.  As a female U.S. naval officer, this really speaks to me.  Working in a male-dominated environment in which women’s capabilities are still up for discussion, the opportunity to race on the Tideway speaks volumes as to the capabilities of women that we as a global society continue to question.  This year tells us that the world is watching, that perceptions are changing, and the future is brighter than ever. 

We, the Oxford University Women’s Boat Club, will be an indomitable force on April 10 and 11.  We will row for the other women in the boat.  We will row to establish a precedent for the Newton Women’s Boat Race for years to come.  We will row to show women of all ages that sports are not just for the boys and to prove to the rowing world and society at large that women are capable of so much more than they have been allowed to do.  To put it simply, we will row to win. 

I have no idea where rowing will take me after April 11, but training as part of this team for the 2015 Newton Women’s Boat Race has been quite the adventure, and I am inspired every time I step into a boat with these women.  There is something empowering about overcoming adversity together, something fundamental about the unflinching beauty and infinite grace of putting eight blades and nine bodies to work, perfectly synchronized towards this year’s common goal: showing the world what we, OUWBC and what women as a whole, can do.

Katie Davidson is a 2013 Marshall Scholar currently completing an MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Oxford. She is a member of the Oxford University Women's Boat Club and is rowing in the Osiris-Blondie Race for the Newton Women's Boat Race.