Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“Most rowers have no desire to deal with the ‘elite’ aspects of the sport”: Cambridge rower James Letten debunks its myth of elitism

Posted on 23 March 2018 by Matt Bowers

The Boat Race is an annual rowing contest between the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Clubs. Ahead of the event Saturday, we spoke with James Letten about the misconceptions around the sport, its funding, and more.

James Letten is the tallest rower to ever compete in the storied University Boat Race, and is just the next in a long line of University of Wisconsin rowers to pull for the famed Cambridge Boat Club. Sitting in the fourth seat at 6 feet and 10 inches, it’s no secret that his size gives him a massive advantage in the water: 

Naturally, people who are taller can get more leverage and produce more power in the water. So I’m one of the more powerful guys on the team. I think I fit the bill in terms of height I would say.” 

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The first Boat Race was held in 1829, and the BBC have been covering the event for the last 80 years. The historic rivalry is closely contested, with Cambridge just leading Oxford with 82 wins to 80. They expect a quarter of a million people to witness the Thames spectacle in London on Saturday. James might be the largest human to ever participate, but he’s certainly not the first American. In fact, he’s not even the first Wisconsin Badger:

“I knew I wanted to take my rowing to the next level, so I transferred to Wisconsin. The rowing community and world is actually very, very small. My head coach had done the Boat Race, Christopher Clark, he rowed for Oxford. This is actually going to be the 10th year in a row that a Wisconsin Badger has been in the boat race. So there’s a long line of us. I also had academic motivation.” 

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There is common speculation that rowers for the famed English university boat clubs get an easy ‘back door’ pass into arguably the greatest academic institutions in the world, but it’s simply not true. If anything, Letten thinks it could work against Oxbridge hopefuls: 

So in the initial application process, they could give a crap about rowing. There’s certain people who think if you’re applying to these schools that it’s not entirely academic and equal for everyone. We actually try to hide the fact we want to do the Boat Race.

“You have to get in initially on your academic merits alone. There’s been people in the past, valedictorians, who have highlighted rowing in their applications and have been dinged. They’ve been rejected. At Oxbridge, they take their reputations as academic institutions very seriously.” 

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The debate around whether to give university athletes a salary is heavily based in Lettens’ native America, as college sports generate copious revenue numbers compared to British universities. It goes hand-in-hand with misconceptions around the funding of rowing and boat clubs, and whether they receive an unfair amount of financial support: 

We didn’t have to pay for everything at Wisconsin. Rowing was actually the first varsity sport at Wisconsin, but there were things we still had to pay out of pocket for, even there. Traveling fees, airfare, training camps, it’s very similar here. The CUBC (Cambridge University Boat Club) and OUBC (Oxford University Boat Club) are private entities.

“We have a positive relationship with the university, but technically we are private. So we have a senior executive board that manage finances and things, but there are a number of things we have to pay for here as well. You have to be very committed, it’s not a free ride. People like to think its very posh and we’re these wealthy people who like to go out and row leisurely on the weekends, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.” 

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Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of rowing is the inaccuracy of the assumption it’s part of an elite or exclusive environment. James himself first became interested in the sport after watching 2010’s The Social Network, which featured a couple of Harvard University rowers. Regardless of this, he didn’t fail to emphasize the outdated and mythical perception of rowing culture:

Maybe there are a few universities and a few clubs that still dabble in that elitist atmosphere, but I have to say for the most part it’s quite an antiquated understanding of rowing. People always think this. But I really thinks it’s just a lack of information.

“What people don’t understand about rowers is how hard we work. You have to like pain, and to be insane to a certain degree. We’re a bit crazy. People are attracted to rowing because of the physical challenge. The average rower has no attraction or desire to deal with the ‘posh’ or elite aspects, we’re just guys who love to work hard and love to race.” 

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The biggest rowing event on the calendar will come and go, but rowers’ fierce commitment and passion for the sport will not. James must maintain a healthy balance between his academic and athletic life at Cambridge, but doesn’t see his rowing career ending in light blue: 

The Olympics are the pinnacle. I want to be the best of the best, I want people to remember me for something I’ve done. I think Tokyo 2020 is very much in my sights at the moment. At the moment 2020 is the dream, but I have to be level headed and responsible and know I can’t do this forever.

“I’ll have to put food on the table eventually, and up until the boat race have been living in a blissful oblivion. My professional career will be my main focus at some point down the road.”



Featured image credit to Professional Sports Group, the Cambridge University Boat Club, and Getty Images.