Under Pressure: Balancing Work and High Performance Sport

A sit down with the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club President Bronya Sykes

I was lucky enough to speak to our Women’s University Captain Bronya on her thoughts about keeping that work life balance alongside intensive rowing training around 12 times a week. After just graduating this summer with victory in the blue boat two years running, Bronya was able to shed light on managing such a tight schedule and what she has learnt in the process. 

The Boat Race

Bronya has had an incredible rowing career at Cambridge after taking victory against Oxford not once but twice. Having been chosen by her squad to take the lead for the openweight women’s 2021/22 campaign, she was able to finish her third year at Cambridge on a high.

“There is nothing else I could possibly have asked for.” Bronya explained, “After the 2020 race was cancelled we spoke a lot about what we would take away as a success from the year other than winning the race. I learnt more and grew in confidence and I have loads of amazing memories. It was a lovely and supportive squad to be part of, and I am really looking forward to return as a doting supporter for the 2023 Boat Race.”

Due to the pandemic, the 2021 Boat Race was moved from the Tideway to Cambridge’s own home stretch in Ely. For safety reasons, no supporters were allowed to watch and the long straight course was raced with silence from the banks.

However, this year the hoards of students and avid watchers returned to the Thames once again to scream their support. “I think this was one of the best parts about the Boat Race this year. We are incredibly grateful of the support we get in any year but this year we were so much more aware of it.”

The crowds gathered at the Boat Race 2022 (image credits: Michelle Crees)

The energy at the Boat Race was immense and overwhelmingly communal. Banks were flooded with seas of people and it was hard to see anything left of the pavement. Everyone clung to the edge of the bank just to get a glimpse of the crews racing round the bends. “In the run up to the Boat Race I could be sat in the dining hall in college and hear a group of people a table over from me discussing their plans to make the trip to London to watch. Moments like that made me so much more aware of how big an event it was. It was great having the CUBC alumni back as well on the banks. Cambridge supporters really came out in force that day and every time I saw a bit of light blue it felt like a good luck charm.”

Balance and Priorities

One of the core aspects of University rowing is its rigorous training programme. The volume and intensity of sessions piles up alongside a Cambridge degree.

I was especially curious to see how Bronya was able to constantly balance the two demands along with making time for socialising and importantly sleep.

“I know myself and I know that if I don’t get enough sleep things go wrong very fast, so for me sleep was always non negotiable. I am quite big on mid afternoon naps and also learnt to perfect the 20 minute power nap… It is perhaps harder to socialise like a normal university student, because everything has to fit around training and allow some time for university work, but it is still possible.”

Rowing is known to be an internally very social sport and Bronya definitely agrees. “CUBC is a big squad of people who are some of my closest friends and I would get to spend a couple of hours with them every morning and a couple of hours every afternoon, not to mention the many times I would go round to people’s houses for dinner, Tideway camps, or weeks before the Boat Race.”

It is said that the busier your schedule, the more you get done, and with such a structured programme, Bronya explained how “being busy made me more productive when I had a chunk of time to work because it had to be done then and I couldn’t drag it out.”


Another high stress point of any student’s year is exam term. Adding to that any high commitment, whether that be music, sport or drama, the danger of wearing yourself too thin increases. On the other hand, using other societies in a positive way as a break can be extremely beneficial to not only productivity but mental health.

“Rowing for me is a good way to de-stress and get out of my room. Also, as I was limited on time it forced me to be more deliberate when I did revise. I prioritised what was important, made a plan and stuck to it.”

Bronya wanted to emphasise the support that CUBC and the squad gave her, “if I asked for time away from training to revise they made sure that was completely okay. The squad are also a very useful resource, as they cover a wide range of degrees and levels so there is always someone to help or buddy up with to study.”

A winning row back from a successful bump day with her college Caius (image credits: Tim Schmalz)

Reflection and Doubts

With Bronya recently graduating from her Archaeology degree this past summer, I asked whether she had any doubts during her rowing career about the decisions she made. She was open about the fact there are always times when “it’s harder and not as fun as expected. It is really tough to juggle a high performance programme and university.”

Nevertheless, she was clear she never doubted her choices. “I would sometimes have moments of self doubt where I worried I wouldn’t achieve the goals I set myself, but the question was always about whether I had done enough, not whether I should have started in the first place.”

In such a high pressure environment, rowing is an incredible sport that teaches some of the most important qualities, such as resilience, discipline and commitment.

After finishing her journey at CUBC, I asked Bronya to reflect on what she believed she had learnt from the process. Physically, she explained she had never dreamed of hitting the scores that she now achieves.

Yet personally, she described: “I have also just learnt to have more faith in myself, I am much more capable than I tend to believe. This is not just in a rowing sense, but I have gained so much confidence in myself as a team member, a problem solver, a leader.”

Advice for Freshers

Looking back to the very beginning, freshers can be an exciting yet daunting prospect. Bronya’s biggest piece of advice summed it up: “If you think you want to have a go at something but you are worried that you might not enjoy it, remember that it is completely okay to quit if you change your mind. So have a go, throw yourself into it, but know that if it turns out not to be your thing, you can change your mind and find something else instead. But you never know, it might turn out to be something you love!”

And for anyone thinking to try out rowing: “Rowing is a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy being out on the river, seeing the wildlife and some beautiful sunrises, and enjoy spending time with some very cool people.”

The crisp sunrise morning sessions (image credits: Mike Taylor)

Rowing at Cambridge is an incredible opportunity as its range from high-level olympic dreamers to the occasional social college rower is all available 5 minutes away from town.

“Some people get sucked into the high performance side of it and that is great, but for some people it can be off-putting. The bulk of the community are not looking to be the next olympians, but instead just enjoy getting outside and being part of a welcoming group of people.” If you are thinking of trying out, get in touch with your college’s rowing squad and see where it takes you.

Hopefully, there are many great pieces of advice from Bronya to take away, not only for balancing University rowing, but any number of projects, societies or events. I wish you all the best of luck for Freshers to get stuck in and see what opportunities lie ahead!

Feature image credits: Nordin Ćatić

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