It is a time-honoured tradition for Boat Race crews to head abroad in the early days of a new year. Usually nestling on the bank of a European shore or a long winding waterway, Cambridge’s women chose to head to Sabaudia in 2024 as preparations for The Gemini Boat Race stepped up a notch.
Filippi UK flew down to Italy to catch up with head coach Paddy Ryan about camp, culture, Cambridge colours and his focus on winning a third consecutive race.
First of all, how is camp going?
Camp has been good so far. We’re a couple of days away from flying home so the end is sight and I think everyone is excited for a change of scenery. We’ve made good progress and although there have been some challenges – not least the sheer number of national teams also holding their camps here in Italy – it’s been a really productive trip.
Talk me through the hypothetical purpose of this camp, from a timing, bonding, personnel, boat-building perspective.
There are a few milestones in the Boat Race season, and this is an important one. We come on camp to bring the squad closer together and start to formulate real seats in boats. It’s also a good opportunity to row in a different environment, with minimal distraction, and focus on what’s ahead of us. I’ve obviously been on a few of these trips now and always enjoy them – people start to forge real connection, on and off the water.
How important is culture to a winning team?
Culture is one of the most important tools to bring about success. A lot of what we do day in day out is about building culture carriers and so many of the fastest Cambridge crews, both men and women, have had extraordinary cultures. As the coach, it’s quite important for me to empower the athletes to set their own cultures and be ‘culture carriers’. They’re the ones going out every day, training together and racing together, so that has to come from within and our squads are built to spotlight the more experienced and allow them to guide and support those who are more junior.
After two successive wins, how do you go about rebuilding your squad?
We’ve clearly had two extremely gifted groups of women and the results and times speak volumes. Imogen and Grace leading the squad in 21/22 was an amazing year for Cambridge and to secure the record in my first year as head coach was an unbelievable feeling. Although last year’s crew were a few minutes off the pace of the 2022 boat, that margin would have been a lot closer had conditions been equal.
In 23/24, we have a different composition but the strides this group have taken are remarkable. I’ve seen athletes make meaningful change in their outlook and consequently their results. We had one girl whose erg PB had been the same for the entire time she’s been at Cambridge. This year, she’s taken multiple seconds off that time, which is so impressive to watch.
Those who have had Boat Race experience before have risen to help lead the team whilst we have a lot of talent to nurture for multiple campaigns to come. The Boat Race season is partially set up to cater for this, with the exposure to the Tideway building over the months leading into the race itself, so that certainly helps us recalibrate with a more inexperienced group.
Oxford have had a coaching change on the women’s side. What do you think the new team will bring to the table?
I know Allan really well – right back to his days at Brookes – so I know what a superb job he will do with Oxford. The reality of our race is that they’re always fierce competitors – as the previous two boats have exemplified – so I expect more of the same in 2024. Allan and I have a good off-water relationship too and before Tideway work and around trial eights, we were in touch frequently to discuss outing times and patterns.
During your involvement with CUBC, what has been your high point?
That’s a pretty tricky one as I’ve had so many wonderful moments. What I will say might surprise you a little. I remember the first time the squad felt able to openly discuss how the menstrual cycle was affecting their training and performance. For so many years, women were simply treated as ‘little men’ – everything was built for men then downsized accordingly. We’re now moving into territory where sport is catering for women specifically as opposed to simply refracting what men want.
The fact that these girls feel empowered to discuss reproductive health so openly and now we’re building programs to cater for those needs makes me proud to run the program. Don’t get me wrong, winning is wonderful and it’s what we pour our heart and soul into achieving, but these shifts in mentality are the foundation for success and what truly stands out to me.
How have Filippi supported and enabled the project?
I’ve been a long-time supporter of Filippi, since my days coaching Blondie. The responsiveness of the yard to my asks have been amazing. They built our Filippi shells according to my specifications and have adopted the mentality I mentioned before, around not just treating women as smaller men.
I visit the yard maybe once a year and am always greeted warmly and given time to express my thoughts and suggest improvements. I’m not saying they’re always necessarily implemented – coaches don’t always know as much as they think do – but Filippi are always happy to listen. We’ve had a variety of different shells over the course of the Boat Race – our men used to row a Hudson shell, especially when Steve Trapmore led the program. I took Filippi on in my first year because they’re a brand I really trust and who I have an excellent relationship with. I know that when my crew turn up on the start line, they’re in a boat that won’t let them down.