King of the river

After trading the Vistula River for the Thames, Polish Olympic rower Natan Węgrzycki-Szymczyk became a part of boat race history when his Cambridge team won the esteemed contest.

As a kid, Natan Węgrzycki-Szymczyk watched his father on the water participating in Krakow’s rowing club and his fascination with the sport only grew with age. What was once a favourite pastime with friends from high school, turned into a serious passion and he soon realised he was actually pretty good at it. Ten years later, the 24-yearold’s team won the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Even now, medal around his neck, he still can’t believe that rowing has got him this far.

To backtrack, Natan wanted to pursue rowing but also earn a degree. After winning the Junior World Championships in a single scull, he was accepted by the University of California, Berkeley, to study sociology. With the uncertainty that comes with being an athlete, Natan wanted to develop his skills on and off the water. “You never know what’s going to happen – one year you’re on the national team, next you’re shown the door. Someone told me that rowing can get you up to 40 years old but then you need to do something until you’re at least 80.” Unlike his countrymen who train with the national team only 200 days a year, Natan was able to attend university full time and keep up with rowing for the whole year. “Of course, it’s hard to do everything 100%,” said Natan, “but I have to say that I was very successful with it: I managed to do my degree and compete.” During his first year of studies, he rowed in the eights and won the US National Championships, and then competed in the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, in the men’s single sculls.

 

Natan Węgrzycki-Szymczyk is a Polish competitive rower. The Krakow native competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, in the men’s single sculls. He was in the stroke seat of the winning Cambridge Light Blue boat in the 2019 Boat Race. Natan holds a bachelor’s from the University of California, Berkeley and a master’s from Cambridge University.

With ambitions to attend Cambridge University for his masters, Natan needed to maintain high marks during his senior year, while continuing to row and train intensively. The hard work paid off and Natan headed to Great Britain to continue his education. While attending Cambridge, he participated in this year’s traditional Boat Race in April and was in the stroke seat of the winning Light Blue boat. “The Boat Race was pretty incredible,” said Natan. “The event is well-known in the rowing community, but I didn’t realise just how big it is in wider circles. Even when you’re at the Olympic Games you don’t get such hype around the race.” He added that the Boat Race is unique because hundreds of thousands of supporters gather on the banks of London’s iconic River Thames and tradition is a big part of it.

Rowing hasn’t exactly garnered as much enthusiasm from Polish sports supporters, however. “It’s definitely a niche sport [in Poland] when you compare it to the US, UK and other European countries like Germany,” said Natan. “Mostly when people see rowing, they confuse it with canoeing, which is too bad considering Polish rowing has had a lot of success in the last 20 years. We’ve won medals at every Olympics. There are around 1,000 athletes rowing in Poland while at Cambridge alone there are around 500 people competing.” Not willing to quit while he’s ahead, Natan said he will continue training for next year’s regatta. Maybe then he’ll finally accept that he’s going places.

Each year, the Cambridge University Boat Club and the Oxford University Boat Club compete in this rowing race on the Thames in London. This is one of the biggest spectator events of the British sporting calendar and more than 250,000 people take the banks of the river to watch. Also known as the University Boat Race, the men’s race was first held in 1829 and the course runs 6.8 km from Putney to Mortlake. Cambridge led the head-to-head with 84 wins to Oxford’s 80.

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