Cambridge University Women’s Club president Caoimhe Dempsey relishes leading new-look squad

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Cambridge University Women’s Club president Caoimhe Dempsey relishes leading new-look squad


In the last two editions of the Gemini Boat Race, Cambridge University Boat Club’s women’s team has been full of “stars and superheroes”.

Among that group was Caoimhe Dempsey, who was able to learn her craft alongside Olympic gold medalists, international champions and those at the top of their sport on a national scale.

But all that experience and winning mentality has now moved on to pastures new, leaving this year’s President Dempsey to lead his untried crew into battle as they attempt to pick up a sixth straight win over their Oxford counterparts on the Tideway on Sunday 26 March. .

Two-time boat race winner Caoimhe Dempsey. Photo: Keith Heppel

Although there is high staff turnover, Dempsey, who is in her third year studying for a PhD in developmental psychology at Newnham College, relishes the responsibility of passing on what she has learned from the likes of Grace Prendergast and Imogen Grant.

“We’ve had a pretty high turnover this year on the women’s side. I’m just the guy who came back from the women’s boat and then we have four from Blondie, then everyone else is new,” she said.


“Getting everyone on the same page has been the main thing this year and building on those strengths that we have.

The Cambridge 2022 crew celebrate their victory. Photo:

“It’s about finding ourselves as a team because the year we had last year was massive. There were stars and superheroes – the best all-female team we’ve had, as some have said.

“I’ve been here for a while and I’m really happy to be doing this role now. It’s definitely the right thing for me at this point.

“When I first came here, all I wanted to do was think about my own rowing, getting as good as I possibly could, and last year was an amazing personal experience for me. It will go down as one of my favorite years of my life.

“I graduated last year and I felt like I got everything I wanted out of it – personally. I felt like I had reached the top and it was just a matter of what to do next. I didn’t want to stop rowing, but what would be the best thing to do?

“I started thinking how great it would be if I could just give that experience to as many people as possible, and that’s the main reason I wanted to take on the role.

“I’ve seen how much has been given to me over the last few years by all the girls that came before me.


“They really helped bring me up in a rowing sense and I liked the thought that I could give some of that back to the new people.

“I really wanted to not use my experiences as ‘I’m against you, but let’s all share this experience.’

“I liked it because it helped me get through this year. It was extra motivation to be able to have these conversations with some of the girls and be on the other side of things.

“When they’re worried about certain tests or exams, or how they’re preparing for this, that, and the other, it’s nice to be able to say, ‘I know exactly how you feel, and this is what helped me.’

“It’s a completely different vibe compared to other years, but I love it.”

But while Dempsey has no qualms when it comes to reflecting on past glories, she’s also eager to emphasize that the past is just that—the past.

This new set of rowers must do things their own way to give themselves the best possible chance of writing their names into Cambridge folklore.

And Dempsey was particularly impressed with the attitude shown, which allowed herself and head coach Paddy Ryan to “push the boundaries”.

She said: “I really wanted to not talk too much about last year. I didn’t want to compare or say things like “this is how we did it” and stuff like that. Paddy and I haven’t talked about it much at all because we don’t want there to be an element of living in the shadow of what it used to be.

“I was trying to figure out what this group of girls is like, what their strengths are and what we can get out of it.

“One of their great strengths is – to an impressive degree – that they throw themselves 100 percent into absolutely everything. Commitment, even blind commitment in some ways, is definitely there.

“It’s great because it means we’ve been able to push certain boundaries.

“When you have a group of more experienced athletes, you feel like ‘this is what I think I can do’ and now I’m kind of at that level. I know what I can do in erg tests and such aspects.

“But when you’re working with new people and people who don’t have that much experience, they have a great attitude and are willing to give it their all. There was a real sense of not putting a glass ceiling on ourselves and just pushing personal boundaries.

“We’ve been exploring how far we can go with all of this, and it gives us a real sense of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the girls.”

“We are talking about the development of the culture of the group and the team atmosphere. Everything comes very naturally, which is a good sign.

“The commitment and bond between the girls was really strong from the beginning.”

Yet while this new group quickly impressed Wicklow-bred Dempsey with the way they adapted to the demands placed on them on the river or back at base at the Goldie Boathouse, what couldn’t be exactly recreated was the day of the race.

This is similar to taking penalty kicks in soccer. Yes, you can hit shot after shot during practice, but nothing can prepare an individual for the pressure of walking in front of tens of thousands of people in a stadium and millions of others watching at home.

However, Cambridge is currently in the process of running a batch of meetings, focusing on replicating what lies ahead as much as possible.

“The approach at the club is very internally focused and what we can do with the time we have to prepare to get the most out of ourselves when it counts,” she added.

“As long as we’re in the best place we can be, whatever happens on race day is going to happen and we can ride it out knowing we’ve done as much as we can.”

“It’s always the same every year, but the difference is we make sure everyone on race day feels prepared for the experience.

“What’s helpful about having done it before is you know what it’s like to have thousands of people on the bank, what all the media stuff is like and how it can distract you. And also the fact that you don’t race them until the day because it’s quite unusual to have no idea what they’re going to be like.

“The extra challenge this year is getting everyone comfortable and trying to give them experiences ahead of time so they’re best prepared without actually having done it.”

“It’s not always easy, but the games we have against other clubs, the main goals of them are to work on the tactics and the goals of the competition.

“But it also lets them know how strict the start times are, the fact that there’s media around wanting to do interviews afterwards.

“The message to the girls was to think about how they react to all of this because we’re trying to make them aware of everything that’s going to be expected. These meets are not just about racing practice, but about everything else that comes with race day.”

If you scroll back through the photos from last year’s victory celebration, Dempsey can be seen among his teammates with a beaming smile on his face. And why not? After all, she had just racked up back-to-back wins alongside some of the biggest names in the sport, it felt like life couldn’t get much better.

But if Cambridge get to the finish line first again, the expression caught may be one of relief rather than jubilation, such is the level of commitment Dempsey has had to make as president.

“It’s a different thing because my neck is on the line! As I’ve moved from being an athlete in this program to a leadership role, I have a lot more investment in everyone else,” she said.

“In the past all I had to focus on was getting my best performance in the boat, now I need Blondie to win, I need the spares to win too

I want to look like I tick all the boxes.

“It will probably be more of a relief than the previous ones – it was just for celebration back then.

“But given how much more energy I’ve put into this in a lot of different ways, I can imagine it’s going to be a very different, but hopefully very satisfying success.”


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