Athlete Interview: Lizzie Polgreen and Renée Koolschijn, Rowers at OUWBC

Renée and Lizzie make up seat three and four of the Blue Boat that are set to face Cambridge on the 7th of April on the Tideway. We catch up with them to see how they are preparing for race day whilst balancing their postgraduate studies.

Have you competed in the Boat Race before?

R: Yes, I did the boat race in 2018.

L: I rowed for Cambridge in the Lightweight Boat Race in 2009, the reserve Women’s Boat in 2010 and the Blue boat in 2011. 

What drew you to this particular race and sport?

L: Rowing is a sport everyone has a go at whilst at Cambridge, and it happened to be a sport I was actually good at. It’s different to to other sports I had tried, such as netball, as the harder you work, the better you get.  

R: I had similar reasons for trying rowing. Before coming to Oxford I had never really thought about it before, but thought the bumps racing in Torpids looked really cool. I then decided I would try it and I really took to it. 

What is your ultimate goal for this season/race in the lead up to the boat race? 

L: Beating Cambridge is the ultimate goal, but on a more personal level, I wanted to break my 5k PB. Also, I have lost three Boat Races, and feel like I have something to prove – I wouldn’t have come back to rowing in the final year of my PhD if I didn’t think we had a good chance of winning.   

R: Last year I felt that making the Blue Boat was a great achievement, but this year I feel fitter, more confident and ready to beat Cambridge. 

When did you start your training?

L: I had a big break from rowing from 2015 until the Summer Eights of 2018. During that time, I did other sports. So I have been training since summer 2018 – I even joined Dresden rowing club last summer whilst I was there for my studies.  

R: I started rowing two and a half years ago when I took up the sport. The official Boat Race season commences in September so we have had a training programme since then. I tried to stay fit over the summer after the last Boat Race by training in a pair. 

What does a typical training week look like?

R: During the week, we are in the gym in the morning and rowing in the afternoon. The weekends generally comprises of two sessions each day and can be quite heavy days. Most importantly, Monday is a rest day.

How do you expect this to change in the next few weeks?

L: We still expect to have big training weeks until a couple of weeks before the Boat Race, before starting to taper for the actual race.

How do you balance academic work and training? 

L: It can be very difficult. I am two and a half years into my PhD and so I am currently writing up my thesis. This means that it’s quite easy to work anywhere and I fortunately no longer have to rush off to labs. I don’t think I would have been able to maintain this training volume earlier in my PhD. 

R: I’m a first year PhD student and have been spent the first two terms this year setting up experiments. This has been quite timely as later on this year I will need to be available to work with patients and won’t be able to do all the afternoon training sessions. It’s working out quite well right now.  

How does your social life and training interact?

L: Social life? Haha. Most of my free time is taken up by rowing or low key social events like coffee or dinner with friends. 

R: I think that rowing is quite a big team sport and so it is a very intense social environment. I like to have time to myself as well so also have similar low key social events like coffee with friends. I’m looking forward to Trinity term when I can spend time with my non-rowing friends.  

How does your work affect your training?

L: I think it does affect my training, because it is an additional stress. I’ve found I have needed to be very organised. If I have needed to work long hours to meet deadlines it has affected my ability to train. I couldn’t have kept up with this training plan in my earlier PhD years as I had lots of deadlines that required all-nighters. Conversely, work can be affected by a lack of training. I find I need to have some exercise to be effective in the office. 

R: When I have a deadline, it definitely effects my training. Training doesn’t fit in very well with work. I find that when the deadline has passed then I can re-focus on rowing.  

Do you have a favourite post workout snack?

R: Oat Chocolate milk (vegan – though I’m not a vegan, it’s just really tasty).  

L: Whatever comes to hand first 

Do you like training as a part of a team or do you prefer solo training? 

L: I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy coming back into a team environment having been a solo athlete since 2015, but I have found it really enjoyable. I do still enjoy the solo work as it is easier to make technical changes on your own as you don’t have to worry about anyone else. But in an eight, going fast is fun!

R: The nice thing about rowing is having the land training and the water training. The water training is in a team but the land train is by yourself. If it was only water, I think I would go a bit crazy not working on anything individually. Equally, erging by yourself over the summer you can also go crazy – so it’s nice to have a mix.

We know recovery plays a huge part in training response and performance, how are you finding balancing training with your work and life commitments to make sure you get enough recovery and rest?

L: Something has to give all the time, and you end up becoming really good at prioritising e.g. sometimes work gets cut short or social life events get cut out completely.

R: I definitely resort to giving up social life in favour for recovery and sleep. I give up work to favour sleep sometimes because you just can’t work when you’re that tired anyway. Last year, I spent more time working, giving up sleep and that did not go well.

L: I think part of it as well is prioritising sleep because you reach the point where you can’t work – if all you’re doing is sitting there staring at your laptop then you might as well go nap.

[Wattson Blue: Although we definitely think it’s the way to go, let’s hope your supervisors don’t read how work gets cut in favour of sleep and recovery]

Are you feeling nervous about the race?

L: Yes, it’s a big race, i think everyone would feel a bit nervous; I think the trick is keeping control of those nerves and using them to your advantage.

R: Not yet, at the moment. I have a lot of confidence in the training and the process and I know come race day I will be well prepared to deal with the nerves.

If you could go back a year, and give yourself one piece of advice what would it be?

L: “The bug in your code is on line 354.”More seriously, a year isn’t a very long time ago relative to the number of years I’ve been rowing, and I think this year has gone pretty well to plan. If I could go back 7 years I’d tell myself to do less strength training and do more miles. I think I could have been a much better lightweight rower if I had changed my training to how I train now.

R: Focus on staying healthy and rest properly when ill, then everything will come along fine!

What has been your favourite athletic achievement so far?

L: The most fun was definitely finishing 3rd in the (shortened due to the river conditions) Devizes to Westminster canoe race last Easter. The most significant was probably racing in the A-final at GB rowing team senior trials, or winning the national championships.

R: My last 5k test; it was the first time I executed a 5k test exactly as I wanted to.

Do you have a sporting hero?

L: Lizzie Broughton, the only woman to have won the 125 mile Devizes to Westminster canoe race, the longest non-stop canoe race in the world.

R: Yuki Kawauchi- a Japanese amateur marathon runner who has beaten many professional elite level runners.

Interview by Clarissa Coveney

Wattson Blue: we would really like to thank Renée and Lizzie for a) taking the time to talk to us, and more importantly b) giving us lots of feedback over the past few months while using Wattson Blue. We wish them lots of luck in the Boat Race and hope Wattson Blue has had a positive impact on Oxford’s preparation for the Boat Race.