On Saturday 11 April 2015 history will be made on the river Thames. For the first time since 1829 (first men’s race) and 1927 (women’s first race), the famous Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities will see men’s and women’s crews competing on the same day on the same stretch of the river between Putney and Mortlake in London. The Boat Race attracts 9 million viewers in the UK alone, and it is broadcast all over the world – it is a big deal. Whether you care for the sport or not, it is a tremendous step forward on the feminist agenda. It is a massive achievement for women’s sports, gender equality and the future. When glass ceilings shatter, only sky is the limit for women who are up for it.
On the eve of this important page in history, I met with a former British Olympic rower Catherine (Cath) Bishop, who is currently chairing the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club (CUWBC).
Cath has had an incredibly diverse career. She studied German and Russian at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where she first got persuaded to try rowing. It was a sense of camaraderie that attracted her to the sport. After university Cath competed in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens Olympics. In 2004 she won a Silver medal, rowing in a pair with Katherine Grainger in Athens.
Cath studied for Masters in International Politics, got PhD in German and joined the Foreign Office. Just months after the Olympics she went to Sarajevo, which was the beginning of her career as a diplomat. Her next posting was to Basra.
“Iraq was the epicentre of the Foreign Office – everything was influenced by what was happening in the Middle East. I decided I had to see it for myself. We lived on a military base in sea containers; it was pretty rough and the danger was real. It was some experience.”
After Iraq, Cath moved to London.
“I found it hard to adjust. People worried about appraisals at work and getting rejected whilst bidding for houses in Fulham. I was just pretty glad I could take a shower every day!”
After rowing for Britain for a decade and working for the Foreign Office for 11 years, Cath set up her own consulting business, specialising in leadership and team performance. She helps corporate clients develop resilience of their teams, achieve high performance under pressure and make the most of human talent.
“Business world is a bit messier than the world of athletics, and we are not talking about matters of ‘life and death’ in air-conditioned offices, but I draw parallels from Basra and sport to help improve performance in the corporates.”
In her capacity as the chair of the CUWBC, Cath volunteers to help student athletes make the most of training opportunities whilst at university. It’s her way of ‘giving back’ for her own rowing experience as a student, which had changed her life.
Cath explains that with BNY Mellon becoming the main corporate sponsor in 2012, student rowers got access to better coaches, training facilities, body conditioning and nutrition advice. BNY Mellon is a parent company of Newton with Helena Morrissey, a gender equality champion, at its helm. Helena Morrissey made a call to increase funding for women to make it possible for them to compete on equal terms with men this year.
Helena Morrissey changed the game for female rowers. “At the first women’s race in 1927, The Times reported that “large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath” to heckle the crews. In 1962, in a letter to the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, the captain of Selwyn College at Cambridge wrote: “I personally do not approve of women rowing at all. It is a ghastly sight, an anatomical impossibility (if you are rowing properly, that is) and physiologically dangerous.” He added, “Wouldn’t you rather be playing tennis or something like that?!”” Cath remembers that in her days, women would not dream of training together with men. Now the crews go to the same training camps in the summer and have access to the same nutrition and other specialists. On 11 April 2015 women will race the same course as men. Perhaps in ten years’ time we won’t even think it was a particularly big deal.
A polyglot, an Olympic athlete, a diplomat, a motivational coach, a mother and a chair of women’s university boat club, Cath is an inspiration (her allegiance to the Cambridge blue notwithstanding..!). I asked her some personal questions, and this is what she shared with us:
What would you advise your 15-year-old self? I’d say do not waste time worrying about what others think, and do not worry whether you might fail or not – you will, and that will be an important part of any future success.
What are you good at? Pushing myself, leaving my comfort zone, always seeking improvement at whatever I do. Oh yes, and drinking champagne!
What is your greatest achievement? Good question – I don’t really see anything as a ‘great achievement’; I have always tried to do my best, and I’ve had some fabulous opportunities that have let me put myself to the test in various situations. Possibly my greatest achievement is that I have never given up, I have always kept trying, even after failing, and even after making lots of mistakes.
If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? Write a bestseller.
Who inspires you? Lots of people – people who volunteer (and get no glory, recognition or thanks) to help those who are disadvantaged, disabled, suffering and generally neglected as the ‘losers’ in our society. Big name role models would include Hillary Clinton, Katherine Grainger, Daley Thompson – anyone who has shown resilience, success under pressure and always had a good sense of humour.