The Rowing Spirit: The Quest for Improvement

In anticipation of the upcoming announcement of the 2016 Filippi Spirit Award finalists, I wanted to reflect on what receiving the 2015 Parmigiani Spirit Award has meant for my club, my teammates and me. The Parmigiani (now Filippi) Spirit Award recognizes a scholar athlete demonstrating the rowing spirit—the core values of the sport of rowing, which have been identified as commitment, dedication, determination, endurance, fairness, focus, inclusiveness, life balance, respect for nature, self-discipline and teamwork.1 More simply, this is the “growth mindset,” as described by Dr. Carol S. Dweck of Stanford; a mindset driven by the belief that “talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence.”2 In rowing, the growth mindset manifests itself in the quest to learn and improve, even when making improvements becomes evermore challenging.

I was given the award at a time of major improvements and change for Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club. The women were finally in 2015 (and much overdue) brought onto the Tideway to race the historic 6.8 km Boat Race course. Just earlier this month, I witnessed the opening of the Cambridge University Boathouse in Ely, which symbolizes the beginning of an improved era of rowing at Cambridge for not only the women, but the men as well. The new boathouse will be shared among the Cambridge University teams, women and men, open and lightweights. It will allow for the collaboration across the teams that will enable our growth as community of scholar athletes, and people.

The Parmigiani Spirit 2015 Boat was used in a mixed row-past celebrating the opening of the new Cambridge University Boathouse. Photo: Angus Knights

The prize Filippi couldn’t have arrived at a better  time for the Club.  Despite the very generous support of our sponsors, CUWBC doesn’t have the funds to be able to purchase equipment to match the calibre of the current Squad. The addition to our fleet reflects our pursuit of excellence. When we first rowed in the brand new Filippi 8+, it was alongside another eight of our teammates. We intended to row the boats side-by-side, but the crew in the Filippi just glided out in front. Whether it was due to a superior design, or the psychological lift of rowing in the sleek new shell, I don’t know, but all of us who had been in the Filippi came off the water beaming. Since then, the Filippi 8+ has been raced to a University Pennant award at the British Championships in October and more recently, a win at the CUWBC Trial VIII’s. While we are racking up a list of great performances in the boat, and more collectively as a team, we need to continue to challenge ourselves to learn and grow, even when things feel like they are going well.


Taking the time to reflect in the year since I received the award, I see how the “rowing spirit” has permeated my life. I am currently in the midst of working on one technical tweak to my rowing stroke, knowing that once I make this improvement, I am a step closer to making the next improvement. A similar process is mirrored in my PhD research: as I work to improve my understanding of entrepreneurial innovation towards healthy food systems, I gain knowledge and skills that bring me a step closer to pushing that understanding further and learning the next skill.

The rowing spirit has also been instrumental in my interest in researching food systems. It follows from challenging myself to seek out personal, societal and environmental improvements. For example, I made the decision in 2012 when I had stopped rowing to transition to a largely vegetarian diet. After all of the meat I consumed to make sure I was meeting suggested protein requirements as a junior rower and Harvard scholar athlete, I felt that I had more or less consumed my lifetime share of meat, especially when I considered the social and environmental impacts of much of our meat production and consumption. I returned to the sport in 2014, but did not feel I needed to return to the meat heavy diet. Since 2012, I have learned how to consume a diet that is equally beneficial for both the planet and me (e.g., lentils and beans have a surprising amount of protein and can be very filling). I am keenly aware that given my daily calorie requirements at 3,500-4,500 calories, my food choices have a disproportionate impact as compared to the average person’s choices. If I decide to eat unsustainably produced and sourced food, I am essentially having twice the impact that the average person would have eating the same diet.

I understand that in the current system not everyone has the means to eat more sustainably produced food, but it is inspiring to see the number of peers who on a student budget decide to consume more sustainably produced food, the number of people who are doing good work to help others access better food and the number of people who are just downright resilient in their determination to find ways to make it work. Not too long ago, a former coach posted an article about US National team rower, Megan Kalmoe, who as a full time rower was living on wages that put her right on the poverty line, yet she inspiringly found a way to grow her own organic veg, fruit and pulses.3 It is the tenacity and creativity in people that gives me hope that our food systems will change for the better.

I recognize that change and continuous improvements are not easy. I know this very well as I am writing this in the midst of making many technical changes to my rowing. Yet, change is possible, and there is always room for improvement. Similar to the way the rower constantly aspires to attain a better technical stroke through experimentation, learning and practice, we must as people aspire to continuously improve ourselves and the world around us.

Kirsten Van Fossen is the recipient of the 2015 Parmigiani Spirit Award. Kirsten is an American PhD student in the Centre for Industrial Sustainability researching how entrepreneurs build out businesses that transition towards a healthier food system. She joined CUWBC in September 2014, and raced to a 2015 Lightweight Boat Race victory. Kirsten began rowing in 2006, and rowed at Harvard from 2008-2012.


1. spirit-award-nomination-form/

2. carol-dweck- on-the-growth-mindset- and-education/

3. megan-kalmoe-money- struggles-olympians