Bermudian rower prepares to make history
When Shelley Pearson takes to the Tideway on the River Thames tomorrow for the Newton Women's Boat Race, along with eight team-mates representing Oxford University, it is inevitable that somewhere along the course of, say, 20 minutes of sweat and grind, the family genes may come to mind.
A simplistic interpretation would be to compare her to father Kevin, who established himself in May 24 Half-Marathon Derby folklore in 1983 with a daring run to upset perennial favourite Mike Watson. And then there is brother Erik, who is a fourth-year senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has a fair degree of rowing pedigree himself.
But there is more to this familial thread. More than that which can be gleaned from at-a-glance analysis — and it is a tale of determination that helps to explain why Shelley is among 18 young women who will capture the rowing world's attention, and that of millions of others, at about 12.50pm Bermuda time tomorrow (the men's BNY Mellon Boat Race follows an hour later).
Eyebrows were raised when Kevin Pearson, then an 18-year-old budding track star at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, showed the bravado to match strides with Watson well past the five-mile mark.
Watson was meant to be locking horns instead with Cal Bean, another May 24 legend, yet one of the last such races to finish at National Stadium before the course was amended to take in Bernard Park would be played out to a different narrative.
It was a surprising victory because no one really knew this spindly, bespectacled young man to be anything other than “the son of Ted Pearson”, the respected educator and road running stalwart. But it was also a very popular turn of events, as could be seen from the reaction of the television announcer Al Seymour at the finish line. And then, as soon he had arrived, he was gone — a diagnosis of Barrett's oesophagus that brought about chronic acid reflux from any form of strenuous exercise signalling the end of his athletics career.
Shelley Pearson has an aneurysmal cyst in her pelvis, which has left her without 50 per cent of normal bone density. She has had nine surgeries since the autumn of 2012 and showed up at Oxford for a one-year course last September on crutches. Former junior world champion or not, a place in history at the 2015 BNY Mellon Boat Races had to seem beyond improbable.
“Not only did I need the cyst to remain under control in order to start training again but I wasn't sure that even if I did manage to start training that I would be able to get my fitness back in time to make the boat,” she said when interviewed by The Royal Gazette for the first time.
“Ultimately, I was given the thumbs-up from my doctors in December and began the process of getting back into shape. I was rowing again by January and had most of my fitness back by February. However, I have and will always need regular MRIs to make sure the cyst stays in check. The possibility of another surgery is still very much in my future.”
Her not-so-distant past gave few clues that Shelley would go on to become a sports star of international repute — “I was always quite tall and athletic but absolutely horrible at anything that required hand-eye co-ordination” — but it was her father to whom she turned for a bit of parental advice that has worked a treat.
“My dad had often suggested to me that I try rowing and when I went away to boarding school, I gave it a shot,” she says.
“I was lucky enough to have unknowingly chosen a school with an amazing rowing team.”
What followed was success after success, as Shelley rowed for Peddie School, in Mercer County, New Jersey, with her coxed four crew winning the US Youth National Championships three years in a row before she moved on to Harvard University to row for the Radcliffe team, with whom she won the Ivy League Championship as a junior. In between, there was the small matter of capturing the gold medal in the United States eight at the Junior World Championships.
So Shelley arrived at Oxford with the primary aim of writing a dissertation to complete her Master's in childhood development and education, but also to give a better account of herself as a rower after a spring attempt to make the Great Britain team floundered because of her injuries.
So far, so spectacular.
The dark blues of Oxford go into the Women's Boat Race as favourites, having won the previous two editions and six of the past seven, but this year is special — and unprecedented.
They will not only row over the same course as the men — the previous 69 races dating back to 1927 were rowed over two kilometres in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, about 60 miles from London — but also on the same day. This came about after pressure was applied to the sponsor to live up to its slogan that “no one has the monopoly on good ideas”.
So the women will now row over the same 6.8km stretch of the Thames from Putney to Mortlake, called the Tideway. And Oxford's recent dominance may count for little, especially after their much publicised capsizing last week, when they required rescuing from a passing lifeboat.
In the overall scheme of things, who wins may prove to be secondary in importance; as long as both female crews get to Mortlake intact, the male-dominated traditionalists will be forced to hold their fire.
Shelley will row in the No 3 seat on the stroke side (starboard) — or, in more layman terms, with her oar on the right-hand side of the boat. The announcement of her selection last month, and the fanfare that came with it, was enough to get the hairs standing on the back of her neck.
“Making the boat has been more of a gradual process rather than a specific time when you find out that you've made it,” she recalls. “That said, the extent of what I was doing, and what I had achieved, didn't really hit me until the day of the official announcement. I couldn't quite believe that I had managed to get myself a seat in the boat.
“Throughout the day there were cameras everywhere and we were required to do a lot of photo and film shoots. It made me realise that what we're doing is so much bigger than us and I'm honoured to be a part of it.”
For many years Shelley has been among the 15 million tuned in to the BBC to watch the Boat Race live on television. Now all those eyes, not to mention the 250,000-strong crowd that is expected to cram the banks of the Thames along the route in southwest London, will be trained on a Bermudian.
“What intrigues me the most about this race is that absolutely anything can happen over 6.8km of turns, waves and current, and at the end there is only one winner and one loser,” she says.
“The looks on the faces of the winning and losing team suggest such extreme feelings because of the nature of this ‘all or nothing' race. We all do it for the chance to feel what those winners have felt in the past. This year is particularly special because we'll be the first women to race on the Tideway.”
Before last week's training mishap, the women of Oxford were kept grounded by a punishing regime that includes 6.30am sessions on the water of between 80 and 140 minutes nine to ten times over a six-day week. There is also the weight room — seats 3 to 6 are considered “the engine room” of the eight and are required to be bulkier — where the women are on the ergs (indoor rowers) and lift for an hour to 80 minutes.
“Training has been good,” Shelley says. “We work hard and dedicate a lot of time to our mission. Christine [Wilson] and Tash [Natasha Townsend, the Team GB Olympian from 2008 and 2012] are amazing coaches and everyone is united in our goal. So while it's certainly gruelling, we have a great time doing it.”
The timing of the Women's Boat Race could not be better for the Pearson family. Shelley turns 24 five days later and brother Erik is about to graduate from MIT with a Bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and math. Celebrations, celebrations and more celebrations.
“It's exciting,” she says. “It will certainly be an incredible week. To be honest, though, we try to stay focused on our boat and our mission rather than thinking too much about everything else that's going on.
“More than anything, we need to be prepared for the things that come along with an international audience — like cameras, helicopters and loud crowds — so that we aren't surprised.”
Easier said than done. The world will be watching.
What: Newton Women’s Boat Race.
Where: River Thames, southwest London.
When: Tomorrow, 12.50pm Bermuda time (men’s race follows at 1.50pm).
Who to watch: Shelley Pearson, of Bermuda, rowing in seat three for Oxford.
Television: BBC World News (Ch 8 for CableVision customers; Ch 106 for WOW customers), BBC.com (streaming customers).
The numbers: Cambridge lead the rivalry in both categories of the Boat Race — 81-78 (men), 40-29 (women).
History: The university race has long been seen as representative of the social elite in Britain and often frowned upon by the working class. However, the lower class “suffered in silence” until three years ago when Trent Oldfield, an Australian, casually went for a swim on the Championship Course in protest against inequalities in British society, government cuts, reductions in civil liberties and a culture of elitism. He was jailed for six months and ordered to be deported upon his release. However, in December 2013, he won an appeal to have that order reversed, but his actions meant future Boat Races would become subject to security measures worthy of the head of state.