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Stroke of genius: How our Head Rowing Coach got creative during the pandemic

Wednesday 24 March 2021

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the safety and welfare of our students on and off the water have been paramount for Carmen Failla, Head Rowing Coach and Boathouse Manager at St Catharine’s. With changing public health restrictions, our rowers have been out on the river far less than usual, but Carmen has found creative ways to lift the spirits of our students, staff and Fellows.

For the first few months of the pandemic, College rowing came to a sudden halt. Students were advised to leave Cambridge in March 2020 and public health restrictions meant that our sports facilities were closed, even for students who needed to remain in the city. After months away from the water, the College was delighted to be able to reopen the boathouse for October 2020, in line with the guidelines issued at the time by the government and British Rowing.

Carmen explains, “When the boathouse reopened in October, things felt very different. Students were down at the river throughout the day, because online lectures meant they could somewhat choose when to schedule studying and rowing. This required some careful coordination to ensure there was never any crossover of sessions as I permitted only one crew at the boathouse at one time due to social distancing regulations. All students were respectful of this – even though they were of course keen to hang around and socialise, they prioritised safety of themselves and others.

“It was difficult not to get swept up in the excitement of reopening but I, along with my Captains, were adamant that safety and welfare would be a priority. I was very clear to all rowers that 2020/21 would be a pressure-free year when it came to rowing. As many know, I am very competitive, but limiting the spread of infections and following COVID-secure protocols had to come first before we even thought about performance. It spoke volumes that the rowers agreed and seemed to just enjoy their time training, a welcome distraction from current affairs. It was an absolute joy to welcome so many novices, the Lower Boats Captains did a phenomenal job of recruiting and coaching, getting everyone having fun together and fostering a genuine love for rowing.”

Carmen, along with the Captains, created a schedule of engaging and COVID-secure activities for members of the St Catharine’s College Boat Club (SCCBC) during Michaelmas term:

  • Running or small circuits in the mornings before outings
  • Three outings in an eight each day, plus ‘tubbing’ sessions for novices
  • Online circuit training via Zoom twice a week

With lockdowns starting in November 2020 and January 2021, there were actually only two windows in Michaelmas term when boats were on the river: from the start of October until 5 November, and then even fewer days in December before the Christmas vacation. However, a combination of in-person and online sessions meant that Carmen was in a good position to respond to changing public health restrictions.

During lockdowns, Carmen adapted the schedule of activities to include:

  • Online circuit training via Zoom three times a week (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays), which have been open to all students not just SCCBC members with optional ‘fancy dress’ themes (a few pictured below)
  • Mobility sessions via Zoom once a week (Tuesdays)
  • A weekly online quiz to encourage SCCBC to socialise while they were apart (Thursdays)
  • Regular mobility sessions via Zoom tailored to staff and Fellows
  • Cycling with students on an individual basis, when exercise with one other person was permitted
  • Two series of YouTube videos: one on mobility and the other providing exercise demonstrations

Carmen comments, “The benefit of these different online sessions to students has become clear over time: there’s been a definite improvement in overall fitness and bodyweight strength/durability. We’ve had lots of fun embracing different fancy dress themes each week. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to involve non-rowers in our sessions and help different year groups to interact. I’ve been grateful for the care that students have taken with COVID-19 precautions and their resilience to an ever changing environment. Within these peculiar circumstances, the students’ energy and enthusiasm in person and online has been absolutely priceless.”

Looking ahead to Easter term, Carmen will assess when and how rowing will resume based on the latest guidance from the government and British Rowing, and local conditions in Cambridge. We are all hopeful that the positivity and fun will continue (and even be enhanced) when the rowers return to the water, likely on or after 12 April.

Pictured: Carmen outside the College's boathouse at the start of Pink Week 2021 (credit: Cambridge Independent)