I never would have guessed that I’d be coming to Cambridge to begin my PhD work as a Gates Scholar. I wanted to uphold the message of the Gates Scholarship of having an impact on society and I also wanted to thrive in the wonderful environment of Cambridge. The choice to trial for a coxing place within the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club (CUWBC) was a tough one. I have been a coxswain since my first year at University, in the States, but was not sure that I would continue at the University level when coming to Cambridge as I was worried that a commitment to CUWBC would leave me incapable of fulfilling my role as a Gates Scholar and beginning my PhD work.
I chose to take the plunge and committed to CUWBC. For the better period of six months, I arose before dawn. My alarm rang during the week at 5:18AM, and on weekends at 6AM, at which point I struggled to find warm enough clothes, pack my things for the day and cycle to the train station. I hopped on the train bound for Ely to join my team mates in an often chilly and fog-laden training session on the river.
As a cox, my role might encompass being particularly motivational or upbeat to overcome the 6AM fatigue. I may need to be very analytical about the start and finish times of several hard pieces that we’re doing or focused on perfecting a technique change in the boat. I may need to steer into gale force winds and through blanketing fog, having to split my focus between motivating, intuitively feeling the boat and making technique changes and trying to calculate the subtle movement of the rudder that will move us away from the bank but not throw off the balance of the boat.
All throughout our gruelling training sessions, my rowers, as lightweights, had the particular challenge of maintaining power while dropping weight to reach 59kg and I myself had to drop nearly 10kg to be as light as possible for race day. In all, we committed, mentally and physically, to the better part of 22 hours per week together.
We competed in races against some of the best crews in the country, defeating even heavyweight crews in competitions such as British Universities & College Sports Head.
Suddenly, we found ourselves at the 2013 Henley Lightweight Women’s Boat Race, competing against Oxford. The wind chill that day was -5C, with a crosswind of 25+ miles per hour. Off the starting line, we maintained a four-seat lead, though despite our best efforts, Oxford made their way clear of us, moving to win the race by a good-sized margin.
One would think that at the end of this race, when all was said and done, my thoughts would’ve been this: six months I trained for this. I balanced a clinical neuroscience PhD, my first year in Cambridge, weight loss, competition within the squad, early freezing mornings…
I never thought one of those things. Coming across the finish line, and in the moments after, my thoughts were these:
There was nowhere I would rather be, on that incredibly cold, blustering day, than in the boat, amongst the eight women who had selected and trusted me to motivate and steer them against Oxford.
That I had made mistakes throughout the year, but that I had ultimately become a better person for overcoming them.
That I was able commit to countless practices, training camps and races without sacrificing my life/work balance.
As we came into the changing room, having just lost the boat race, the nine of us hugged. We embraced for a long time. There was sadness, but, above all, the team that huddled together in the changing room that day, frozen and completely exhausted, knew that they had achieved the greatest objective of any team: the creation of an irreplaceable, once-in-a-lifetime bond.
I came to Cambridge as a Gates Scholar to be a part of something special, to have my life changed by others, and to make my own contribution to society. Coxing the lightweight women of CUWBC has been an integral part of my Cambridge and Gates experience and is something I will cherish forever.
*Brielle Stark  is doing a PhD in Clinical Neurosciences.