Becoming an athlete at 21…

…by Ali / from Glasgow / studying Chemical Engineering / 3rd Year (UG)

As someone who had lived a very sedentary life until coming to university, I took up rowing in my first year as a challenge. I had heard about the incredible lives of rowers and came to experience first-hand that it was true by all accounts. The novice programme at the University of Edinburgh is one of the most competitive in the country. Here, students with years of experience in other sports vie for a spot competing in local events, BUCS (British Universities and College Sport) and the largest club regatta in Europe. As someone who enjoyed cardio as much as most children enjoy Brussels sprouts, I had my work cut out for me. However, over time I gained more than anyone can imagine from the outside.

Waking up at 5am, two to three days a week, to stretch and then cycle to the Union Canal for a couple of hours rowing, making use of the ergometers with weights and circuit training, is not how most students start university life. However, I soon noticed the strides I made in my ability to organise my work and training. I learned to be an essential cog of a team and in the process made friends who I will know for the rest of my life. Although I was nowhere close to being the star of the team (in fact I was the proverbial benchwarmer!), I realised that for the stars to perform well they needed me threatening their seat in the boat. In the end, my perseverance was rewarded by being selected for the novice squad of 19 athletes from a pool of 40.

The great reward of this was even more intense training, with an especially tough camp during the Christmas break. Throughout the year, I missed race after race, with other athletes chosen over me to fill seats. After nearly a season of training, just as I thought my time as a novice was ending without much fanfare, I got to experience one of the best moments of my life: I was selected to row for the Novice VIII in the annual Scottish Boat Race against Glasgow University BC. It came as a complete surprise to me, but injuries to other rowers had opened up a space for me. In a short period, I slotted right into the boat and our crew went on to win the race. We led almost from start to finish and, amusingly, overran the race by a kilometre since neither coxswain knew where we were to finish, and neither crew was willing to stop! It was truly one of the happiest moments of my life, being greeted by all the club’s supporters congratulating us on a race well won.

I could have let the pressure of the situation get to me or been the weak link in the boat, but I believe I had the best possible environment to develop despite all my shortcomings as an endurance athlete. The facilities at the University of Edinburgh, the financial support given to maintain high quality boats and providing world class coaching, and the calibre of people around me, combined to give me one of my most cherished memories. I am still amazed to think that, having made my home in the UK, I’ve had the opportunity to do all these amazing things. I feel immensely lucky to have been able to do it all.

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