Matthew Holland: Coxing for Cambridge and commentating with Clare Balding

Cambridge alumnus Matthew Holland discusses coxing, umpiring and commentating the boat races

Matthew Holland was a cox for Cambridge for the 2017 Women’s Blue Boat and the 2019 Men’s Blue Boat.

In addition to spending many of his waking hours on the Ely river, he also got his degree in NatSci and is currently undertaking a PhD at Oxford in Chemistry.

In this interview we learn more about his life at Cambridge, what it was like coxing both a successful women’s and men’s crew team, umpiring The Boat Races, and what it’s really like commentating for the BBC.

First impressions

When you meet Matthew Holland, the words, “short, loud and annoying” don’t necessarily come to mind. A more fitting description is gregarious, good-natured, and yes, a bit short. But short is what is needed when one is a cox, especially one who has twice won The Boat Races, first with the Women’s crew in 2017 and then the Men’s crew in 2019 (a feat so far unmatched).

However, it was that initial description which the Head of Rowing used when recruiting him for The Westminster School’s crew team. It was an unexpected decision that Matthew says he hasn’t looked back on since.

“I joined a very good and motivated bunch of people at Westminster, and we had some very good coaches. So, my year group did very, very well. Because Westminster school trains on the Tideway in London, I gained a very good understanding of how the championship course where The Boat Races happen works and where the stream was and how to steer it, and the sort of various foibles therein. I was lucky in that regard.”

Matthew Holland With CUBC President Charlie Marcus. (Image Credit: Dan Innes)

Coxing at Cambridge

When he was offered his place at Cambridge, CUBC reached out to him and asked if he would like to continue coxing. Matthew responded in the affirmative, and after years of being part of the men’s teams, decided to cox the women’s team. “I thought it’d be a new challenge.

“I’d coxed men all my life. It was a good opportunity for me to develop both as a cox and as an individual and joining a women’s team would do that. It was exciting and the women’s team have been very successful since my year with them in 2017. They haven’t lost since.

“It was quite a special thing to be a part of.” The 2017 Women’s team would win by 11 lengths in 18 mins 33 sec in 2017, a new record.

In 2018 however, he took a pause from rowing to focus on his studies. He was a choral scholar and was required to fulfil his inherent educational obligations. He continued to help with CUBC via organising events, but it would not be until 2019 that he came back as a cox.

“I wasn’t originally going to return, I thought that 2017 was it. But I wanted to cox for the men’s boat race as well. I thought it would be fun. Rob Baker, who was my coach with the women’s team and who I respected enormously, got the job in the 2019 season as the men’s coach.

“He sent me an email saying, look, we’re after a few coxes. Would you like to work with me again? We’ve got a very strong team. And I said yes, I’d like to challenge myself again.”

The 2019 men’s team would be comprised of a powerhouse of athletes, with several former Olympians as part of the mix. This motley crew would garner much media attention before going on to win the 2019 boat races.

Matthew describes his experience as such, “One of the great advantages of working with the men’s team in 2019, which we had to a certain extent with the women’s team in 2017, was you had a bunch of very, very experienced athletes from a lot of different backgrounds coming in.

“Obviously, we had James Cracknell (2000 Sydney Olympics/2004 Athens Olympics) who had come from several Olympic victories and was incredibly experienced. We had Natan Węgrzycki-Szymczyk (2016 Rio Olympics), who’d come from the American and Polish system.

“We had Sam Hookway who’d come from the Australian system. Grant Bitler, who came through the American colleges.

“Freddie Davidson, who, like me had grown up with the British system at school and Dara Alizadeh (2020 Tokyo Olympics) who’d come through the American team and the Bermudan team.

“There was an amazing opportunity to work with a broad variety of athletes and develop my coxing through lots of different areas. In basically six months, you take lots of good people, with lots of very different experiences and lots of different patterns and you tie that into a functioning unit, one that’s capable of winning one of the toughest races in the world.”

Matthew Holland with Dara Alizadeh, Dave Bell and Natan Wegrzycki-Szymczyk (Image Credit: Marc Bates)

However, 2019 was not without its challenges. “It wasn’t as easy. We didn’t come together and click as easily in 2019 as we did in 2017.” he adds.

“I think that was the biggest lesson I learned from 2019 was that it’s no use carrying resentment or carrying hard feelings or saying, oh, I think we should do this, but not voicing it.

“You have to, as a team, address the difficult issues head on if you want to have an open culture.” But by the end Matthew felt that the team came together really well, and the Men’s team would win their race by 1 length in 16 mins 57sec.

Commentating at The Boat Races

After 2019, Matthew enrolled at Oxford University for his PhD, and simultaneously was asked by the BBC to commentate the 2020 Boat Races. However, due to Covid, it would not be until 2021 when Matthew would first start commentating.

When I ask him about the process, he enthusiastically states, “I think it’s fascinating. I love it. I had no idea how impressive the whole production was in terms of how carefully planned the broadcast is and how much art goes into what you see the viewer sees at home.”

He goes on to describe the filming process in further detail. “We fill and plan the content that goes on during the race and between the races, such as the interviews and the shots of the crews trading at home. I got to go out on the launch with all four coxes and all four coaches.

“I was able to watch how the different sides approach training, to see how the individual athletes come together to form a crew, and how each individual coach and each individual squad puts their own take on their rowing.

“I’m humbled that I got invited back again this year, because it’s nice to know that people clearly are interested in what you have to say, it’s a very special thing to do.”

Cambridge winning the 2022 Women’s Boat Race. (Image Credit: Chris McKenna via this Creative Commons License)

Women’s Elite Rowing Enters the Chat

Matthew Holland also took time to study and pass several exams so that he could become an umpire in rowing, which allowed him the opportunity to be a part of the umpiring panel for the 2022 race.

Although he loved the role, he admits, “I think the scary aspect of it is you have to be ready to disqualify a crew if necessary or penalise the crew. And that sits very heavy with me. I’d be willing to do it because that’s what you have to do, but I’m acutely aware, having come from the process recently of how much the race means to the competitors and how much work goes into it.”

I ask him what his favourite thing was about the 2022 Boat Races and his reply is immediate: “I think we saw this year for the very first time properly elite level women’s groups. It was just fantastic to watch. Absolutely world-class.

“When you’re getting to the stage where some of the best athletes in the world are coming to Cambridge or Oxford, because they want to take part in the women’s boat race, I think that’s a really fantastic position to be in. The men’s boat race has had that for several years because it’s been more established, but it’s fantastic to see the women catch up.”

Matthew would love to stay involved with The Boat Races for as long as he can. In the meantime he will continue working on his PhD, where he is focused on the nexus between biology, chemistry and physics, which he finds amazing.

“We can do so much to molecules without being able to see them or fully understand how they behave. I enjoy it very much and I really do think it’s an absolutely fantastic degree.”

Gregarious, good-natured, and smart as a whip. That’s Matthew Holland today. And all of us on the Cambridge side are ever so grateful for him.

Featured image credits: Dan Innes

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