Boat Race coxswain given ‘hard’ perspective after volunteering on Covid wards

Cambridge University Boat Club women's crew train on the River Great Ouse near Ely in Cambridgeshire ahead of the 2021 Boat Race. (Joe Giddens/ PA)
Cambridge University Boat Club women's crew train on the River Great Ouse near Ely in Cambridgeshire ahead of the 2021 Boat Race. (Joe Giddens/ PA)
8:50am, Thu 25 Mar 2021
CBAD8A00-D2B9-4E0E-ADDF-D0366C357A34 Created with sketchtool. E9A4AA46-7DC3-48B8-9CE2-D75274FB8967 Created with sketchtool. 65CCAE04-4748-4D0F-8696-A91D8EB3E7DC Created with sketchtool.

A coxswain competing in the 2021 Boat Race said that volunteering on a hospital’s Covid-19 wards while preparing for the event gave him a perspective that was “hard to deal with”.

Dylan Whitaker a fifth-year medical student at Cambridge University, worked as a healthcare assistant at the city’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital at the height of the second wave in January and February.

The 23-year-old, who is the coxswain of the women’s crew, said he would work a 12-hour night shift, sleep for a “couple of hours” then complete a virtual training session.

Cambridge University Boat Club women's coxswain Dylan Whitaker, who volunteered on Covid-19 wards at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge during the second wave. (Joe Giddens/ PA)

“In some ways it was quite challenging to go from such a life and death environment to what’s essentially just a race,” he said.

“It was hard to deal with that perspective, but I think it’s more than just me and it’s more than just the crew.

“It’s everyone that’s come before us, everyone that’s doing everything they can to make sure the race happens this year and everyone that we hope’s going to come after us as well, and hopefully all the people who watch this and think ‘that looks cool, I want to give rowing a try’ or ‘it would be great if I applied to Cambridge or Oxford’.

“That’s I think what we’re really doing it for.”

boat race 4

The 2021 Boat Race will be staged in Ely in Cambridgeshire for the first time since 1944, taking place on Easter Sunday.

The annual contest between Oxford and Cambridge universities was switched from the Thames to the Great Ouse due to “the challenge of planning a high-profile amateur event around continuing Covid-related restrictions as well as uncertainty regarding the safety and navigation of Hammersmith Bridge.”

Mr Whitaker said he volunteered at Addenbrooke’s in January as hospitals began to fill up, more intensive care wards had to be opened and a call for medical student volunteers was made.

boat race 9

“In terms of how I made the decision, I don’t think I really did,” he said.

“It was just I felt the need to.

“There’s no other way to describe it really, I couldn’t not do it.

“I knew going into it that there was always the risk that if I get Covid is that going to be the end of my season?

“Am I going to pass it onto my friends, am I going to pass it onto other members of the crew?”

Cambridge University Boat Club men's crew train on the River Great Ouse near Ely in Cambridgeshire ahead of the 2021 Boat Race. (Joe Giddens/ PA)

He said he helped support nursing staff, assisted with patient care and ensured those who sadly died had dignity.

“It sounds silly, but as hard as it was to see those things it’s made me realise the amazing work that happens,” he said.

“The amount of care is just phenomenal.

“It was really inspiring to see everyone working there and I think I would hope that in a couple of years’ time I can give back in the same way.”

He said he wants to go on to work in critical care in anaesthesia.

Turning to the race, he said: “There’s been a lot going on this year, it’s been a very busy year for everyone not just me.

“We need to do our best to get our focus on as we know we’ve just got one job left to do really this season and that’s to finish what we started last season and that’s to win.”

Sign up to our newsletter