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The competitive spirit was bred into Josh Hooper at an early age. Growing up in Flinders, a town an hour from Melbourne in southeast Australia “where the coast meets the countryside”, Hooper, who will row for Cambridge in the BNY Mellon Boat Race this weekend, was the eldest of six children. “We’re all pretty sporty,” he says, “even my Mum and Dad, so it got a bit competitive.”
Hooper, 25, has a strong rowing background. His uncle rowed for Australia under-23, and so far three of his siblings have represented the country in their respective age brackets – his sister Rebecca, 23, the clan’s second oldest, is in the national squad and is hoping to compete at the Olympics in Rio in 2016. “We’re a big rowing family,” says Hooper who, like his father and uncle before him, trained from the age of 16 at Mercantile Rowing Club in Melbourne, which has a longstanding reputation for producing Olympic athletes.
It was at Mercantile that he had the idea of applying to Cambridge. “A close friend of mine at the club, Alexander Sharp, applied to read for a law degree at Cambridge the year before me, and he rowed in the Boat Race in 2012 and 2013.”
In his final year studying business at Monash University in Melbourne, Hooper followed suit and filled out the application forms. He is now in his second year reading land economy at St Edmund’s, a college which takes postgraduate and mature students and is a favourite among rowers.
“When I got accepted I was over the moon, and my parents were happy, but it was a big shock because it suddenly hit me that I would be moving to the other side of the world.” Hooper says the hardest thing – bar the UK’s terrible weather – was leaving his friends and family behind. “It’s tough not being there to see my little brothers grow up,” he says, “but that’s part of the adventure of being over here . . . And don’t get me wrong,” he adds, “I love Australia, I think it’s a great country, but it’s not the whole world.”
Any doubts he might have had faded after he arrived in Cambridge in September 2012. “Growing up in Australia – which is only a young country – to come to study at a famous university like Cambridge, with all that history, was amazing for me.”
Hooper applied to join the Boat Race team as soon as he arrived, and last year raced in the reserve or “Goldie” boat, narrowly losing to the Oxford reserves, a few hours before the first teams, or Blue boats, raced.
He has a demanding schedule; and though he has to study hard, Hooper concedes that Boat Race training takes up most of his time. A typical day will see him get up at 5.30am and leave the house he shares with three other Blues rowers in north Cambridge for a two-hour session at the boathouse on the rowing machines. Then he just has time for breakfast before his lectures start at 9am. At about 12.30pm, class finishes and he goes home for a quick lunch before getting back into his rowing kit and taking the bus to Ely, 16 miles to the northeast of Cambridge, where the afternoon training session takes place on the river. Hooper and the rest of the rowers get back to Cambridge at about 5.30pm for dinner and a few hours of study and, if there is any time left, some socialising before bed.
Hooper is a member of the Bears, a drinking society based at St Edmund’s, which is popular with rowing and rugby Blues and is notorious for its riotous nights out.
When not with the Bears, Hooper indulges a more sensitive side by attending Camerata Musica, a series of classical music concerts held at Peterhouse college throughout the year. “I don’t play any more,” he says, “I used to play the drums and piano back in Melbourne but now I go just to listen with a few friends outside of rowing.” It is a way to relax from his punishing schedule, and it is certainly a world away from his hobby back home, kitesurfing. “When we lived in Flinders we spent pretty much all our time at the beach,” he says, “and kitesurfing was one thing we used to do as a family.” Hooper worked briefly as an instructor before taking up rowing.
In Cambridge there is little time for hobbies. “It’s a hard schedule, and it’s tempting to stay in bed or neglect your studies, but I’d never consider throwing in the towel,” he says, “that’s not what I’m here for.”
Oxford and Cambridge have been criticised in the past for filling their boats with “ringers”, international-standard athletes who are drafted in on soft academic courses simply to row in the Boat Race. It is a criticism Hooper has heard before, but it could not be further from the truth as far as he is concerned. “I didn’t even put that I row on my application form, because it is frowned upon [by admissions tutors],” he says. “You have to be academically sound . . . [In Australia] we get a lot of Olympian rowers apply for Cambridge every year, but they don’t realise how academic you need to be. That’s the biggest barrier for those types of guys.”
This weekend, Hooper will be racing in the seventh seat, the second rower from the back of the boat. “It’s my job to mimic the rhythm that Henry Hoffstot, the stroke seat, is setting up and to communicate that rhythm to the bow six behind me. Everyone is pulling as hard as they can, but my job is a little more technical than the guys in the middle of the boat [known as the engine room]. I have to have a good feel for the boat and the way it moves.”
Whatever happens on the day, Hooper is hoping for a chance to row for Australia in 2016. If that doesn’t work out, he is planning to work in London’s finance sector, having already secured a place on the summer analyst programme at Gleacher Shacklock, a City firm in St James’s. He is also a budding entrepreneur, having run two cafés in Melbourne before he left for Britain.
“Training for the Boat Race is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,” he says, “and to go through all that and lose last time [in the reserve boat] was devastating.”
Has it spurred him on to win this year? “Absolutely,” he says, “It’s fuel to the fire, and this time I am determined we’re going to beat Oxford.”
● It is fascinating to study in a place where so many famous and historic people have been students
● Cambridge is a great place for networking and increasing your international exposure
● Excellent local schools
● The city has an average 568mm
of rain each year
● The crime rate in 2013 was higher than the UK average at 81.92 crimes per 1,000 people
What you can buy for . . .
£500,000 – A two-bedroom apartment in a new residential tower in the city centre like the Marque
£1m A four-bedroom Victorian terrace with a garden
£5m A restored Grade I-listed manor house near the city with six bedrooms and 60 acres of land