On Saturday 13th June we hosted the first ever inclusive virtual boat race – screened live on Power2Inspire’s Give-as-you-live page. What a spectacular event!

Olympic, Paralympic, World Championship and club rowers, representing teams from Oxford and Cambridge, competed side by side in the mch.london virtual boat race to raise funds for Power2Inspire!

The race is still available to watch online at Power2Inspire’s Give as You Live page – with an option for viewers to donate to the charity – and experience the thrill of watching these fantastic oarspeople compete in an inclusive sporting event.

Rowers including World champion Oliver Cook, Rio Paralympic Champion Grace Clough, Olympic Triple Gold Medallist Pete Reed, Australian para rower Renae Domaschenz and Gold Medallist Tom Ransley, all raced from their homes across the world. Garry Herbert and Martin Cross – of the BBC –  provided commentary of what was a high action, shared sporting occasion online.

Although this event was in gestation for 4 years, its delivery came together in a whirlwind two weeks!

It was seeing the women competing in their Boat Race on the Thames just before the men’s race, that inspired me to dream that we could create an inclusive race.  And the success of the Power2Inspire Inclusive Festivals – including badminton, hockey, tennis and golf –  encouraged me to find a way to make a rowing event with the same philosophy, to include people of different abilities participating together. The link with Cambridge Blue Fiona Macklin was crucial: she connected me to the Cambridge University Women’s and Lightweights Rowing Club and that led to a PowerHouseGames with them in 2019.

The teams had to be matched AND to be inclusive.  We settled on two disabled rowers in each team, one male and one female, and overall an equal number of men and women – 4 of each.  With lockdown and the cancellation of all the Boat Races – lightweights, women and men – there was an extra desire amongst the club rowers to be involved.  Some real competition, and accessible from their own homes – the enthusiasm has been contagious.

We then started to recruit.  Ian Middleton, Cambridge cox in 2014, connected me to Oxford’s Ollie Cook – current World Champion and Blue in 2017.  Ollie recruited Pete Reed (Olympic champion, 2008, 2012 and 2016, Blues 2004 and 2005) who is undergoing rehab from a spinal stroke and will fill the disabled male seat in the Oxford boat; and Grace Clough (Paralympic gold 2016) who completed her Masters in 2017 at Kellogg College.

Meanwhile I had been introduced to Jan Helmich, a German Paralympic hopeful, studying for a Masters at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, a perfect fit for the Cambridge male disabled seat.

With a world champion in the Oxford crew Cambridge needed to up their game.  John Pritchard introduced me to Sean Gorvy who recruited Tom Ransley (Olympic champion 2016), Pippa Whittaker and Ollie Parish (world juniors silver 2019 and in the current Cambridge squad).

The crews were really coming together.  Amelia Standing, from Chester – where I coxed briefly – joined with Alexander Bebb (the Oxford President) and recruited Martha Birtles, Amy Hosking and lightweight Jan Ole Ernst to complete the Oxford eight.

The Cambridge crew was finalised with the link to Renae Domaschenz an Australian cox for their national PR3 (a disability category) mixed coxed four.  Sophie Paine, in the Light Blues 2020 squad, eagerly picked up the ‘captaincy’ of the Cambridge virtual boat race crew from outgoing President Larkin Sayre (a key mover in the PowerHouseGames happening back in September) and completed the crew: lightweights Freddie Markanday and Miranda Clements.

We were good to go!

By then mch.london had come on board, first as marketing advisers and then more importantly as sponsors and finally as project managers. Mark Howarth, their founder and CEO, has described the last few weeks as a whirlwind. I have likened it to the runway on a ski jump after a 4 year climb to the start! Their help, introductions – to Small Films, Give as you live and GingerMay – have been invaluable.

Small Films created the video from all the home movies the rowers submitted of their rows; award-winning GingerMay advised on the PR; and Give As You Live hosted the landing page where the video was watched by thousands on Saturday 13th June. Over £20,000 has so far been raised by this incredible event!

An unexpected challenge which made this a truly global event is that the rowers are spread around the globe. Renae is based in Australia, Sophie in the Bahamas and Jan Ole in Berlin.  A fun problem to have. What truly excited me has been the enthusiasm of all the rowers to be involved in something so inclusive. Grace summed it up beautifully when she thanked me:

“Thanks for having me involved, such a great thing to be part of and would love to be part of many more. It’s something close to me. Please let me know if you need anyone to speak or talk to the media about the importance of inclusion and sport for all. I’ve had my fair share of fights to be included and feel very privileged to have experienced a Paralympic Games and the power of sport and disability there.”

There isn’t any sport she can compete in for her university, despite being a Paralympic champion. Creating opportunities like this and not just for disabled athletes, but for all, regardless of age, ethnicity, faith, gender or sexual orientation is crucial to creating a fairer world.

I am proud that Power2Inspire is starting that journey, though I admit we have so far to travel.  A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – at least we have started!

Watch it here

Watch the mch.london virtual boat race all over again here…

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Crew line-ups

Find out more about the Paralympic, World Championship and club rowers representing Oxford and Cambridge

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