The Boat Race 2018: Q&A with James Letten
American rower James Letten tells us about competing for Cambridge in the 2018 Cancer Research UK Boat Race
Cambridge University | Hughes Hall College | Course Affiliated Hons Classics | 24yrs • 208cm • 106.5kg
Where are you from in the States, and what brought you to the UK? What are you studying here?
I was born and raised in a small suburb on the North Shore of Chicago. I came to Cambridge in 2016 to pursue both an MA Cantabrigiensis in Classics and a full Blue, rowing for Cambridge in the Boat Race.
What got you involved in rowing, and how did you come to be a part of 2018's Boat Race?
I discovered rowing after seeing it for the first time in the David Fincher film, The Social Network. Previously, I had dreamt of being a D1 college volleyball player, but had to shelve that endeavor after an injury amongst other extenuating factors. I saw the film in theaters in the midst of making my college decision and saw rowing for the first time; previously I never even really knew it was a competitive sport as it does not get nearly as much exposure in the US as it does here in the UK. I decided it would be a great challenge to pursue in college and set off to Villanova University in Philadelphia. From there I transferred to a more competitive program in Wisconsin and ultimately was accepted into post-graduate studies at Cambridge where I trialled with the CUBC, earning a spot in the 2017 and 2018 Blue Boats.
The first Oxford versus Cambridge Boat Race took place over 180 years ago, in 1829. Is the Boat Race an event you were aware of before you arrived in the UK? What does it mean to be taking part in such a historic event, and one which Oxford and Cambridge alumni the world round take an interest in?
The Boat Race was certainly a motivating factor in my decision to ultimately come to Cambridge and the UK. It was not the sole reason, as I had known of Oxbridge before I even started rowing; my eldest brother did a year of PPE at Oxford when he was an undergraduate at Notre Dame. It is an incredible honor to partake in an event with such an illustrious and storied past. To have my name included alongside some of the most legendary men and women in rowing is a privilege I do not think I have come to fully comprehend yet. Being named a Blue last year and again for this year's race has provided a sense of meaning and accomplishment to my life that will have indelible effects on my remaining time on this Earth moving forwards.
Given the traditional British weather, is it more difficult to train in the UK than it is in the USA?
The training required at this level of rowing is monotonous and grueling regardless of the weather, so the constant rain and perpetual grey skies seem oddly appropriate. The challenging weather is an annoyance, but it paradoxically emboldens our spirits as nothing worth doing is ever easy. It is also great preparation for the Boat Race itself, as conditions on the Thames are variable and the race will happen on the day whether there is rain or shine.
How do you prepare in terms of training for the Boat Race?
We officially meet as a squad and begin the trialling process in late September/early October, although there is an expectation to train throughout the summer on your own ahead of time. A typical week consists of 11 sessions, 6 days a week. Typically, we spend the early mornings (5:45 or 6:30AM) on land in the Goldie Boat House. We'll erg as a team or have weight sessions. The afternoons are spent out at Ely rowing on the Great River Ouse from 1:30PM to a little after 5PM. This continues without interruption until the race in March or April, depending on the year. Over the course of those months, we'll leave Cambridge for training trips and other events related to the Boat Race campaign. This is all on top of our other academic commitments.
How intense is the Oxford / Cambridge rivalry when it comes to the Boat Race?
The rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge is the most intense I have ever been a part of. It is interesting being immediately indoctrinated into such a fierce and storied contest of two clubs, but it is one predicated upon decorum and respect. We train every day to ultimately beat Oxford on the day and we use them as a singular focus of motivation, however, we hold them in the utmost regard as it is necessary to train and prepare properly.
Although the US and UK speak a common language, given the slight differences in culture - and even US/UK terminology - how easy is it to be part of an international crew?
It has been an incredible experience training and racing with a number of different internationals. Over my last two years with the CUBC, we've had triallists from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Madagascar, Bermuda, Japan, and a handful of others that are escaping me now. It makes for interesting topics of conversation and occasional confusion on the water, but when it comes to the rowing itself, we all speak the common language of competition. With the exception of minor cultural differences in the approach to training and the rowing stroke itself, once you get into the boat, everyone is on the same page.
As an American, what do you enjoy about living and studying in the UK, and is there anything you miss about the USA whilst you're here?
I've very much so enjoyed the history and unique culture that Cambridge has to offer. Growing up in the typical American suburb, attending large universities and visiting storied metropolitan cities across the States, coming to the UK was quite a different experience. There is a certain reverence for the past and a fondness for antiquity that gives the UK a memorable character that will stay with me for the rest of my life. That being said, I do miss certain US franchises and food items.
A big part of the Boat Race is its charitable donations - in particular to Cancer Research UK. How does it feel to take part in a sport you love whilst also being part of raising money for a great cause?
It is incredible being able to support such a worthy cause and bear the Cancer Research UK name on our kit. I have to commend the Boat Race Company, BNY Mellon, and Newton Investment for having the foresight to use the visibility of the Boat Race to promote and bring awareness to such important social, scientific, and charitable endeavors.
How much of an accomplishment and a personal achievement is it for you to be part of the 2018 Boat Race? Is there a big sense of pride at representing the USA in your crew at the Boat Race?
Competing in the Boat Race has been a watershed moment in my life. Often, we are dogged with grand existential questions about what we want to do with our lives, what are we working towards, and what our legacies will be when we are gone. Racing for Cambridge, whilst representing the United States alongside my crew, has given me a sense of purpose and accomplishment that has answered many of those questions for me. I can only hope to represent Cambridge, the CUBC, the United States, and all of those who have come before me in a positive light on March the 24th as we race Oxford towards glory.
Find out about more of the Americans competing in this year's Boat Race below: