Olympic champion Grace Prendergast admits she had no idea how big the Boat Race was until she rowed for Cambridge last year.
The New Zealander won gold in the coxless pair at the Tokyo 2020 Games, where she was also part of the Kiwis’ silver medal-winning women’s eight.
While an Olympic podium would seem for most the pinnacle of an athlete’s career, Prendergast encountered an alternate perspective when she began her master’s degree in business studies and occupied the seven-seat in the light blue boat.
“I was really caught off guard with the prestige around the campus,” the five-time world champion told the PA news agency.
“People would be like, ‘you’re actually rowing for the university? Not the colleges? Like the actual university?’ and the reaction, and it just felt so cool that people really got into the excitement of it for months beforehand, ‘we can’t wait to come watch you at the Boat Race’, and it just brings everyone together.
“You’re getting letters from people that have done the Boat Race years and years ago, to all the different alumni reaching out. I think that’s when I really realised the history and tradition and everything that comes along with it and was like, ‘this is a very special event.’”
The 77th women’s Boat Race begins on the traditional Thames Championship Course at 4pm on Sunday, one hour before the 168th edition of the men’s.
The now-retired Prendergast’s influence nonetheless still lingers amongst the Cambridge women’s crew, who are hoping to win the trophy for a sixth consecutive year.
Perhaps no one feels it more than Caoimhe Dempsey.
The Cambridge University Boat Club women’s president will be the only returnee in either women’s blue boat, tasked with emulating the examples of Prendergast and fellow Cambridge Olympians Imogen Grant (Great Britain) and Ruby Tew (New Zealand), alongside club chair Annamarie Phelps, herself an Olympian and world champion.
“It’s so amazing,” said PhD student Dempsey, now in her fourth season.
“In what other situation would a university athlete like myself, who has some accolades, but you’re never going to get that when you have the best rower in the world sitting right in front of you?
“That’s the amazing thing about the Boat Race is that it brings together such a mix of people. It was the best year of my life, I learned so much from them and it’s so different to what you learn from a coach, having someone in the boat that can feel what is going on and give you that athlete-to-athlete perspective. I feel immensely lucky.”
Wicklow-born Dempsey, who switches from six-seat to stroke this year, is looking forward to the new challenge of stepping up as a leader when her crew take to the Tideway.
She added: “It’s nerve-wracking a bit. I’ve seen how important and how much of a positive impact you can have in this position on other people.
“It’s an honour to feel like you could have that kind of an impact, and I feel like I’m hopefully doing that in a good way. But, yeah, it’s big shoes to fill.”