University of Melbourne Magazine

Rivals vie for rowing glory

  • Science student Hedda Cooper

    Picture: Chris Hopkins

    One student is determined to be on Sydney Harbour to experience a fierce contest.

    Science student Hedda Cooper has already led an Australian team to victory in the world’s top junior rowing competition. Now one of her dreams is to help her university win a legendary rowing event much closer to home.

    The University of Melbourne will face its traditional rowing rival, the University of Sydney, in the annual Australian Boat Race on Sydney Harbour on October 26 – and hoping for crew selection is no minor ambition.

    The universities alternate the race each year between the harbour and the Yarra River. They have the two most successful rowing clubs in Australia, both more than 150 years old, and between them contributed 18 athletes to the country’s 2012 Olympic rowing team. “I was stunned to get into the boat race crew last year, which was stacked with previous and future Olympians along with a few of us young ones,” Cooper says.

    “It was awesome to be in that, and I learned so much from others in the crew.”

    On a typical day, 19-year old Cooper rises at 5am, cycles to the University’s boathouse for a few hours’ tough training on the Yarra, and then sprints up Swanston Street for her University classes before another rowing session or gym workout in the evening.

    In between, she somehow sets aside the necessary private study time for her Bachelor of Science degree and works as a coach for both the cross-country skiing and rowing teams at her old school, MLC. 

    A clearer picture of this talented and determined sportswoman emerges when you visualise her battling rapids during her primary school years and dreaming of competing in international whitewater canoeing championships.

    Cooper eventually left the rapids to concentrate on rowing at high school. Her prowess blossomed at the University’s rowing club. In a remarkably short time, she has graduated from state, to national, to international levels.

    Last year she represented Australia in the Junior World Championships in Lithuania as a member of the women’s coxless four, and led the crew on the water as the rower who makes the calls from the bow seat. Her race in the B final was unforgettable.

    “We were neck to neck with Canada with 400 metres to go,” Cooper says. “I was the one doing the calls, and I knew if we started the wind early (winds are when a crew rows as fast as possible) we’d just die and they’d pass us.

    “But we got a half boat length ahead, and won.”

    Apart from arduous training – which included three-hour non-stop speed rowing sessions as part of her world championship preparations – there are lots of tactics to learn. Even minor psychological warfare can be involved. “In Lithuania, the German team were playing all sorts of rhythms on their legs to try to distract us. Even people’s attitudes walking around the boat parks; there’s a million factors come into it and they’re certainly not only physical,” Cooper says.

    “It’s such a consuming sport, and you can end up just being friends with rowers. That’s something I’ve realised quite recently, so I’m very conscious of making sure I still maintain other relationships.

    “I think the biggest thing I’ve achieved is learning a lot about myself. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge from rowing about how to react and how to communicate with other people. Often when people are driving me crazy, I remember that if I was rowing I’d either leave it, or confront the issue right away and get it sorted.”

    Cooper can feel the Australian Boat Race beckoning as she trains for next year’s world championships. Given that Melbourne beat Sydney on the Yarra last year, there will be a fierce battle on Sydney’s home water in October.

    “This year it’s going to be even more competitive to be selected,” Cooper says. “But I think I’m at the level to get in, and I’m definitely hoping.”

    Don’t miss all the excitement of the Australian Boat Race 2014 to be held on Sydney Harbour on Sunday, October 26. Alumni can cheer from the shore or indulge in a spectator package. For more details visit the InTouch alumni portal. 

    – Iain Gillespie