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What the Boat Race taught me about overcoming failure
Tuesday 21 March, 2023

What the Boat Race taught me about overcoming failure

by Rebecca Esselstein

Rebecca Esselstein (Ohio & New College 2015) rowed for Oxford in the 2017 Boat Race. She shares how she became involved in rowing and how to overcome failure.

Upon arriving in Oxford, I felt a bit lost. I had been expecting it. After four years enveloped in the bubble of a US service academy, where a rigid structure defined my days and the constant rack-and-stack of cadets in the graduation order of merit, based not only on academic performance but military and physical, kept me on my toes, I knew that the freedom of a DPhil programme at Oxford would be both a welcome blessing and a difficult curse.

After the first couple of weeks settling into my new environment, I found myself struggling with a minor identity crisis. I didn’t have the external validation of grades by which to gauge my academic efforts. A former Division I athlete in track and cross country, I was having difficulty measuring fitness standards by something other than how fast I could run.

It was at this relatively low point that I found rowing.

Introduced to rowing through my college’s boat club in my first year, I immediately got addicted to the sport. I was a scrappy novice, but I found myself training outside my college’s sessions to get stronger. I soon realised that rowing at the college level wasn’t enough. I wanted to seem how good I could get, and I sorely missed competing at a higher level.

I decided to trial for the University squad the following year, to attempt to be a Blue. And in the back of my mind, getting to row in the Boat Race would be the validation I needed, that external signature of success that proved I was the same purposeful, driven individual from undergrad. If I couldn’t get it through my programme, I was going to do it through rowing.

I knew trialling was going to be hard, but I didn’t expect it to challenge me to the extent that it did. Despite having pulled one of the top 6k erg time trial scores  - a measure coaches use to determine an athlete’s fitness and strength - in the squad when training started in September, I was put in the lower boats for the majority of Michaelmas due to my less than perfect technique.

Frustrated, I slowly started to improve and move my way up the squad. However, I began developing pain in my ribs around the end of October and was prohibited from rowing due to an impending stress fracture on 9 November.

Two months of grinding away thousands of minutes of boredom on a stationary bike, isolation from the rest of the team as they all bonded over racing and training together, and realising that I had never put so much effort into something and gotten so little in return, followed. When I finally was able to row again, on 17 January, I felt like the black sheep of the squad. I didn’t feel like I belonged, and I had no idea if I would be given a chance to show what I could do, having missed so much.

I was miserable and desperately wanted to walk away, a desire that went against every fibre of my being but was undeniably there.

That’s when I learned one of many lessons from rowing with the Blues. I had to stop basing my worth on whether or not I made a crew for the Boat Race or any other source of external validation.

Failure, even when you’ve put in your best effort, is a part of life, and your strength of character and chances for future success are based on how you deal with it. I forgave myself for wanting to quit and stopped caring about crew selections. I just wanted to enjoy rowing again and see how good I could be.

As a result, I relaxed. I pulled a top-eight 6k erg score and huge personal best on 24 January. I started winning seat races. I quickly went from the bottom of the squad to being on the border between Osiris, the reserve boat, and the Blue boat as I competed for the last two varsity seats on 1 March.

And on 2 April, I found myself sitting in the Four seat of the Blue boat at the start of the Boat Race, nervous but confident in my crew and, finally, myself. Despite having been ready to fail, I ended up succeeding. I got the external validation, anyway. That is, until life decided to reinforce the lesson I had learned a mere second into the race, when our boat became unbalanced and my blade got caught in the relentless stream in front of all my family, friends, and millions of other people.

We rowed our best following the crab, but Cambridge dominated. It doesn’t matter. I am not my successes or my disappointments. I define myself by the resiliency and persistence that got me in the boat and, in the midst of mortifying failure, to the finish line.

Rebecca Esselstein (Ohio & New College 2015) has a doctorate in Astrophysics from the University of Oxford. She is a pilot and serves as a Captain in the United States Air Force. 

Congratulations to Jess Glennie (New Zealand & Pembroke 2015) and
Lise du Buisson (Paul Roos Gymnasium, Stellenbosch & Christ Church
2015) who were both also in the 2017 women’s Blue boat