How I found myself shuffling through puddles on a dark and rainy morning in pursuit of Oxford's most iconic athletic venture
First of all, thank you to everyone who expressed your concern and support after my last post. It was a truly frightening event that I'm glad to have behind me, and mercifully I would say that I'm now back to feeling my normal self again. It was a longer recovery than I'd first imagined, though, and probably wasn't until I woke up this morning that I felt ready to do more than lie in bed or gently shuffle around.
Which is good, because if one sensation has underlined my Oxford experience so far, it's been a distinct lack of gently shuffling around! As I've written about before, one of my biggest fears in coming to Oxford was trying to find a way to at least partially fill the void that riding was going to leave behind. I came in determined to go out and do some physical activity, hopefully meet some new friends on the way, and try not to think about how much I missed horses. (Though gosh, I really do. Like, a lot.)
What I didn't as much piece together until I got here is just how different the sporting environment is here than it is at Stanford. I'd been told this before by people wiser and more informed than me, but it hadn't really struck home until I found myself at the Oxford Freshers' Fair, being courted by every sport imaginable from rugby to "octo-push," which appears to be a version of ice hockey that you play underwater by pushing the puck along the bottom of a pool.
(yeah. this is a thing.)
The difference was simple, but profound. Stanford is a NCAA Division I powerhouse; if you're not already a national champion in your sport when you arrive, chances are good that they don't really want you (the sports I participated in, equestrian and polo, are among the exceptions to that rule... which is why I liked them! They also weren't varsity sports, which is why they were able to do that). Oxford is... not. Which means that if you're vaguely sporty, you're in! Pretty much anywhere you want to go! Even if you're not athletic per se, most sporting societies here seem to be based more around participation and having fun, at least at some level, than about winning national championships.
(Of course, that doesn't mean that there aren't very serious athletes or very competitive teams here -- there are! -- but sports clubs seem to do a lot more to cater to the bottom of the spectrum as well as the top here, whereas at Stanford it was about focusing resources primarily on the elite athletes only.)
I was surprised at how liberating I found this. Besides a brief period in high school where I was forced to do other sports, I've always considered myself an equestrian first and everything else second. Suddenly I was offered the possibility to become pretty much anything I wanted: a clay pigeon shooter, a cyclist, a pentathlete, a pole vaulter. There was no guarantee that I'd be anything but rubbish at any of these ventures, but the door was open wherever I turned.
So for the past few weeks, I've been dabbling. I've gone on some group rides with the cycling club, practiced some introductory footwork with the fencing team, and learned the basics of rowing form with the Pembroke College boat club. It's been really fun and exciting to get to use my body in new ways and appreciate the strength I've built through riding over the years put to new uses.
In the end, I decided that probably one sport was enough to focus on, and have opted to go for perhaps Oxford's most iconic activity: rowing. The Pembroke boathouse is fierce and venerated, but also large and friendly and very accommodating of newbies (or as they rather more poshly refer to them as, 'novices'). They have tons of boats, which means that even the newer rowers get a chance to race during the year, which I'm very excited about.
(The view from the Pembroke Boathouse)
It looks like it's going to be hard, perhaps somewhat masochistic, work, and has already involved some pitch black early morning practices in the rain, but I really like the group of people and find something about its repetitive technique-driven side very akin to the mindset that I enjoyed about dressage. So I guess it's time to invest in some warm wet weather clothes and hit the water!
Now you might be asking, 'but what about Marcel?' And no, I haven't forgotten him. I think I am going to join the cycling club (especially as it has one of the cheapest annual memberships at Oxford: £20! I don't even want to begin to compare how much cheaper this is than the Stanford Equestrian Team), but probably just as a social member or occasional slow ride tagger-on.
I've realized that the thing I enjoy most about biking is the quiet zen of being alone with the road and the bike, my thoughts reduced to the mechanistic necessities of going as fast as I can safely go and not much else. It's as close to meditation as I get, and as close to the wonderful calmness that I used to find on long solo car rides through the West. It was in those periods in the car that I've come the closest to having what you might call an existential epiphany, and I feel myself approaching that same understanding of the sublime when I'm alone on the bike. Cleared of all thoughts, the 'bigger picture' (whatever that is) starts to materialize.
(Pondering power lines in Oxford's southern industrial sector)
I don't get that same feeling on group rides, which I enjoy for their social aspect but in many ways find more stressful, as I not only have to worry about my safety in connection to the road but also in connection to the people around me. So, for the time being, I think my future lies as a soloist. And I'm fine with that. There's a lot of beautiful countryside out here for me and Marcel to explore :)