Reigning world champion oarswoman Catherine Bishop returned to Cambridge on Saturday hoping to inspire the latest generation of university rowers.
The former light blue, who seized gold in a nail-biting final at this year’s Milan world championships, spoke at a special reception held by Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, and attended by this year’s squad.
Taking time out from training for next year’s Olympics in Athens, Cath told guests that the formative moment in her own sporting career was losing to Oxford in the 1991 women’s boat race.
‘I probably wouldn’t be here now if we hadn’t lost that day,’ she said.
‘That was the moment when the bug really bit me. I was amazed how much it meant to me, and how much I hated losing.
‘There were no nice silver medals. Rowing is a brutal sport.’
Twelve years on Cath is now among the brightest hopes for British gold at the 2004 Olympics, where she will compete in the women’s coxless pair event, with her rowing partner Katherine Grainger.
She told how learning from failure was a lesson she faced in her first few weeks at Cambridge.
‘When I arrived I had never been near a rowing boat. I decided to have a go in my first term but I didn’t even get into the Pembroke College first novice boat because I failed the ergo test.
‘Maybe that first failure spurred me on. A few years later when I set a new ergo world record, I did think back and wonder what happened to the girl who beat me and got into the boat.
‘To be standing here now as a world champion, having been to two Olympics and looking forward to my third, has been a very special journey, and this is where it all began.’
Defeat by Oxford in 1991 was followed by victory in 1993, and rowing has dominated Cath’s life ever since.
She is now balancing intensive daily training with learning Serbo-Croat, prior to taking up her first Foreign Office posting to Sarajevo.
Before that there is the small matter of the Athens Olympics – which Cath insists will be her last.
After losing at Sydney Olympics three years ago she was ready to quit rowing for good, but a sense of unfinished business drew her back.
‘I felt that I’d given everything to rowing for so long, but I wasn’t done yet. I hadn’t got what I was owed,’ she said.
‘Analysing the low points is a difficult, painful process, but I have always learned more from the failures than from winning.
‘I have stronger memories of losing than winning. That’s when you find out what you’re made of – if you are able to look at yourself honestly.’
Payback finally came at this year’s world championships in Milan, where ‘everything clicked into place’ for Cath and her crewmate Katherine Grainger.
After a poor qualifying heat and a disastrous accident which left a hole in their boat, the pair made it to the start line for the final, only to make a dismal practice start which almost ended in a crash.
‘I don’t think that psyched the Romanians out as we’d hoped,’ Cath recalls. ‘I just laughed, and said fine, we won’t do that in the race now.’
Trailing in third place with three quarters of the race gone, Cath describes the last 500m as ‘the best rowing I’ve ever done,’ as the pair overtook their rivals one by one to cross the line first.
‘We just got more and more powerful,’ she recalls. ‘It was an incredible feeling.’
Cath told this year’s CUWBC squads there was ‘no question’ they could win their own boat race in March, despite a recent run of difficult years where the club has found success on the river hard to come by.
She paid particular tribute to coaches Ron Needs and Roger Silk – both back with CUWBC this year after three years absence – calling them ‘two of the most influential people in my life,’ who had nurtured Cath and shown her just how far she could go in rowing.
This year’s CUWBC President Rachel Smith, 20, reading economics at Newnham, said: ‘Having somebody of Cath’s stature to talk to the squad has been a real inspiration, especially as it all started for her right here in Cambridge.
‘To think that a few years ago she was doing just what we’re doing now – it makes you realise what is possible.’
Other guests at the reception, which was hosted by CUWBC chairwoman Pat Marsh, included Dame Veronica Sutherland, President of Lucy Cavendish College, Wolfson College President Dr Gordon Johnson and Tom Davies, President of Rob Roy Boat Club.