Is it worth it? Rowing at US or UK universities.

Over the past few years a new phenomenon has been on the increase. For many UK junior rowers, when it comes to choosing a university the choice is no longer as straight forward as it once was. Previously, there has always been a well-trodden path up to Durham, Newcastle, Oxford, Cambridge, Brookes, and UL; but now the new and tantalising offer of US universities has become a popular option for many. The number of junior rowers heading over to Ivy League or equally successful US Colleges has hugely increased in the past few years. Their recruiting system captures the attention of many an athlete with their impressive training facilities and coaching, with some very substantial scholarships to make it all possible.

Due to this rapidly growing trend, top UK universities and GB Rowing are now having to work much harder to keep athletes in the UK.

Despite the promises from the coaches of huge opportunities, subsidised with equally huge scholarships, it is now important to raise the question as to whether it is always the better option. The topic is quickly becoming a highly debated and sensitive issue among the junior and university rowing communities. The opportunities in the US have doubtlessly been invaluable for some but this might not be the case for everyone. But coaches and athletes on both sides of the pond have different perspectives.

Athletes who have applied to the US generally say that one of the main draws for them was the US liberal arts system where one doesn’t have to major in a particular subject for the first two years, allowing the continuation of a broader range of subjects. Sport is also a larger part of American university life in comparison to the UK. Seb, a successful applicant to Princeton, said:

‘At Princeton, for example, far from having to work in training around academic work, a three-hour period is set aside every day in the afternoon for sports teams to train. The standard is incredibly high, and by all accounts it’s a lot of fun – so really, the US was compelling on all fronts.’

In terms of the application it seems that the recruitment scheme is very successful, whilst UK universities in comparison make little effort to attract potential athletes. By the time an athlete arrives in the US they feel like they know the coach and are loyal to the system, but constant contact with the staff is also necessary. In order to secure places in the most competitive universities, it can be hard work for the athlete: persistence and being proactive is incredibly important, as earning the respect and approval of the coach can sometimes have a large influence when it comes to admissions, especially in the more competitive systems. Harvard for example accepted less than 5% of applicants for their class of 2009.

Of course one of the factors than can deter British athletes from applying to the US is the SAT exam, as Seb explained.

‘As a British student, taking the SAT and writing the essays for the application can feel rather alien – the SAT is totally unlike any exam we have to take in the UK, and the application essays are also very different, with a large weight on creativity and fluency of expression – so anyone would benefit hugely from advice and instruction.’

This extra help may not be easily accessible to all, depending on school facilities and financial situations. Some British students also find areas of the exam difficult due to the plain fact that the British education encourages specialisation from a younger age.

Due to this, it is important to recognise that the US is more suitable for some than others. For those with a clear idea of what they want to do for the next three years, the UK is the obvious choice. Those who have chosen to go the US recognise that culture and the country itself is a key part of the decision.

“The culture is very different – the US is more sport-based, and with this comes a different atmosphere around the campus, and I think ultimately the country itself has to play an important part,” said Seb. “For me, the US has always been somewhere I resonate with – often when I visit, I end up feeling more at home there than in the UK, – so as a lover of the country it’s always been easy for me to see myself living there for my university years. For others, that might not be the case. Ultimately, the US university system offers a sense of breadth that I don’t think one can find at a UK institution – therein is the fundamental difference.”

Of course the US is a natural choice for some. However others take issue with the differences between the two. One major factor is the recruitment system employed successfully by the USA, and the frequent lack of information given to applicants. Since junior rowers are often contacted over Facebook, it can be very hard for the athlete to gather enough reliable information on the system to make a good choice.  One GB athlete who chose to remain in the UK said this:

“It took a very long time for the coaches to tell the truth about there not being any lightweight rowing in their programme. It would have changed my ability to trial for GB, nor would I have had the support for weight management. In the US system they care more about their university rowing than trialling. But for openweight women, rowing with some of the world’s best u23s in the US is a fantastic opportunity. There’s a huge volume of training to put you in a position to come out of nowhere and smash final trials.”

As for the opinion of GB? One coach said: “There is a general belief at Caversham that those going over are really fatigued when they return. And they could be right. They do so many races in the summer, and although the race experience is great, it can ultimately affect you later on in your career. Again, it might be too early to say, but Peter Shephard is doing a great job bringing them back into the GB system (No easy task) and hopefully, in time we will see a better marriage between the GB system and the USA system.”

Those who have chosen to remain in the UK, despite being offered scholarships in the US, stressed the risk associated with choosing to move. The issue is that someone can be a very fast junior rower, due to varying rates of development and general differences in junior training programs, but senior rowing is completely different.

“Someone could realise that they’re not cut out for it by which time they’re across the ocean on another continent and it’s very hard to turn back. It’s a very big risk to take, especially with th pressure to perform that comes with scholarships. Everyone thinks of America as the Land of Hopes and Dreams and I think to an extent it is, there are so many opportunities over there, but you have to look after yourself and think about the pros and cons.”

In order to make a choice one has to look at the whole picture, both in terms of academics and rowing. When searching for success in these fields, it’s good to think about these words from Ryan Demaine, Head Coach at Oxfordshire based Headington School:

“We tend to blame the system. But ultimately, it’s the athlete’s decision as to where they go and they have to take ownership of their own development. There are no free rides to success in this sport, only good choices or bad ones. Your degree comes first. Make sure it’s a good one.”


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