Abba Parker '13 (fourth from the right) stands with her Boat Race crew. Photo courtesy of Peter Minnig.
While many in the Winsor community are familiar with the Head of the Charles, held each fall on the Charles River, fewer might follow the wildly popular tradition of The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, held in London on the Tideway each spring.
Abba Parker '13, captain of this year's Cambridge University Women's Boat Club, will race in the famous Boat Race on Sunday, April 7, 2019 in Blondie, CUWBC's second boat.
Read on as Abba tells us about her rowing training, her Ph.D. studies, and her memories of her time at Winsor. And be sure to tune in to The Boat Race coverage online.
What are you studying at Cambridge?
I am doing a PhD studying vertebrate paleontology. I'm in my second year now and should finish my dissertation sometime in early 2021. My work is on the evolution of reptile body size. The questions I am researching are about how climate change and mammal evolution may have influenced body size in turtles, crocodiles, lizards, snakes, and birds. I have really enjoyed it so far, especially when I got to do field work searching for fossils in Ethiopia last summer.
In the future, I hope to continue learning about past ecosystems and studying vertebrate evolution in the context of environmental change. I also want to continue to travel to interesting places and be involved in the rowing community.
What has it been like to serve as CUWBC captain?
Being President of Cambridge University Women's Boat Club has been an absolute honor. The position involves everything a typical team captain would do—I definitely use my experience being captain of Winsor Crew for two seasons every day—as well as a lot of more administrative and strategic planning for the club, which I do as a member of the Executive Committee that runs the boat club.
This year, the women's boat club has merged with the lightweight rowing club, so we train with three squads each preparing for their own Boat Race against Oxford—the lightweight women, lightweight men, and heavyweight women. This new structure, as well as new coaches this year, means that I and the other student leaders of the club have a lot of organization and coordination to do! We work to be as prepared as possible for the Boat Race, which involves not only a lot of rowing training, but work on sports psychology and team culture as well as balancing our training with the academic commitments of the squad.
As President, I keep in constant contact with our coaches and all the athletes on my squad to make sure we are operating at the highest standard and taking care of any issues that come up!
What has it been like to train with the CUWBC team as a student-athlete?
Our training program consists of around 12 practices a week, either rowing on the water, training on the ergs, or lifting weights. The team is the most amazingly focused group I have ever been part of. Each rower is deeply invested in improving their boat and figuring out how to make technical changes to go faster.
We train early in the mornings and in the evenings, with a full day of academic work in between, so grad students like me can be in the lab or in the library 9-5. I love the student-athlete lifestyle because when I arrive at the boathouse, I'm able to check my studies at the door so my PhD doesn't become my whole life, and equally academic commitments every day keep rowing in perspective and force us to be very efficient with our training. It feels great to know that I am progressing in both things at once. While all of the team share our love for the sport, my teammates study many different things, which makes for really interesting conversations on the bus to practices!
What are some of the similarities and differences between Head of the Charles and the Boat Race?
The Boat Race, while it's over a long distance like a typical head race, is much more like the type of dual race I did when I rowed in college in the U.S. It's head to head, just you versus the other crew, which can make it much more tactical in a different way than Head of the Charles, where there are many crews racing at the same time.
Both events are a coxswain's race though, as the Tideway course that we race in London has turns like the Charles, and the added challenge of a strong tidal stream that you need to steer in to push your boat along the fastest. What I do love about being in England, and in Cambridge in particular, is that rowing is such a big sport here. It seems like everyone follows the Boat Race, and the crowds along the river on race day are unlike anything else you see in rowing.
What was it like to row on the Winsor team?
Rowing for Winsor set me up not only to continue on in the sport at a high level, but also essentially to be the person I am today. From my first season rowing for Winsor as a freshman, I was completely hooked. The team had a real sense of legacy and I felt that what I did every day was contributing to something larger than myself. I made probably my closest friends ever as we pushed ourselves to win championships.
Rowing for Winsor taught me how to dedicate yourself to something fully and work with others to achieve it; at Radcliffe and at Cambridge I have been carrying on this dedication with new groups of amazing strong women. Rowing for each of the three teams I've been part of has brought me joy every day, as well as taught me how to negotiate challenges and handle disappointment.
One of the most surreal moments of my rowing career was pushing off the dock for my final at NEIRAs my senior year and hearing the absolute roar of people cheering us off (This team is what??) because I knew that the four years of work I had put into the team had helped to build it to what it was and felt so deeply connected to the whole team.
Do you have a favorite memory as a Winsor student?
I have so many great memories of my classmates and teachers at Winsor! One thing that I particularly appreciate looking back is the class discussions that we had, especially in English and History classes. Never in any of the academic environments that I have been in since have I felt the same atmosphere of building off of what others are saying to reach new understanding of what we are studying together. I loved how my classmates would discuss what interested them and respond to each other's comments to learn collaboratively.
Photos courtesy of Peter Minnig.