Former Sweeps Member Trades Stripes for Cambridge Light Blue

With The Boat Race fast approaching, we took a moment to catch up with Ali Abbasi, a former member of RBC’s Men’s Sweeps, who will be competing in Cambridge’s Blue Boat on Sunday.

Ali’s path to The Boat Race has been a little bit circuitous. He began a joint B.A./M.A. degree at Cambridge’s Trinity College in 2010 and it was there that he began his rowing career. But in 2014 he left Cambridge, enrolling in an exchange program at The University of Chicago. While he was able to continue to gain some fitness with their club team, he still wasn’t making the progress he wanted to on the water.

Then, at the end of his year abroad, he got a summer fellowship in Boston at the non-profit Health Leads. He began looking for a competitive summer program and immediately reached out to Riverside’s men’s sweeps. Initially, he was unsure if he would be good enough to row for them. “Riverside,” says Ali, “was the highest standard of rowing I had been exposed to up until that point. For the first time, I was training with a group of guys who were just as determined as I was. It was great to have strong competition, and we had a pretty good atmosphere amongst the team. For the first time I got detailed technical coaching (thanks to Jeff's efforts) and spent a lot of time in small boats.”

When he went back to Cambridge the next fall, Ali felt like he was finally ready to try out for the university team. “Obviously the Cambridge team was another step up,” says Ali, “but I was ready for it, thanks to my summer at Riverside where I had gotten in a lot of mileage, allowing me to pull a massive PR on the ergo. It put me on the radar of the Cambridge coaches. That season I was selected for the Goldie boat, which is the men's reserve crew. We had a pretty hard fought race (at one point leading by almost 2 lengths), but we blew it during the final mile and ended up losing.”

That was the end of Ali’s fifth year at Cambridge, and he had just finished both his B.A. and his first M.A. “Rowing in Cambridge,” says Ali, “is quite different from other programs, because it is so black and white, and focused on one day, one race. Nothing else matters. You can't have a solid showing, or mediocre results. You win or you lose. So losing felt pretty awful but it left me determined to come back and have another go.” Unwilling to call it quits, he applied—and was accepted to—a second master’s program in Computational Biology, allowing him to train and try out for the Cambridge team once again. This year, Ali has been selected as the 2 seat for Cambridge’s Blue Boat.

The commitment is no joke. Every morning sees the squad in the gym hitting the weights and the ergs. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons are spent forty minutes off campus in a town called Ely where the team practices on the water and where they run two-a-days on weekends. Every other weekend the crew travels down to London to practice on the course. Physical therapy, meetings with the team, and PR commitments mean that athletes are spending about fifty hours a week dedicated to race day preparations—on top of a full class load. But Ali, who feels that the high level of rowing only compliments the academic rigor of his program, wouldn’t have it any other way: “This race means so much to me. It has been the sole focus of my rowing career. From the moment five years ago when I realized I was gifted with the right physiology, I have wanted to represent Cambridge in The Boat Race. So I’m beyond excited to finally earn my blue.”

And Riverside is beyond excited for Ali. We couldn’t be happier that he got to wear some stripes on his road to the Blue. Good luck this weekend Ali! We’ll be cheering for you!

By: Graeme Calloway