Q&A with the Oxford University Swimming Captains
Written by Giulia Filocca
Oxford University is often hailed for its reputable academics, distinguished professors, and quirky traditions. Yet few recognize its sheer dominance in the sporting arena, particularly when it comes to swimming. As of 2008, the Oxford University Swimming Club (OUSC) captured eight of the 10 titles against its rival Cambridge. At the most recent British University Swimming Championships (BUSC) in May, the team retained its eighth position among a host of elite U.K. universities.
Two key returning Oxford team members are captains Lauren Burton on the women’s side and Declan Pang on the men’s side. Burton is a third-year geography student specializing in the sprint and mid-distance freestyle events. She was elected vice-captain in 2016-17 and has made tremendous strides in the pool and open water domain. Former OUSC treasurer, Pang is pursuing a degree in medicine and excels in the shorter butterfly and IM events. As with Burton, he has won various accolades at Oxford, including three second-place finishes in the varsity match against Cambridge.
Balancing a rigorous degree and time-sapping sport is no easy feat, particularly at an institution like Oxford. Yet Burton and Pang have managed to excel both in academics and in athletics. They share about their hectic schedules, grueling training regimen, and specifics about swimming in the U.K. with Swimming World.
Swimming World: Is there a recruiting process for sports at U.K. universities?
Burton and Pang: Sports scholarships are offered at some U.K. universities, especially at specialist centres. At Oxford, it may come as a surprise that the only recruitment criteria are academic ones, meaning that athletes can’t be offered admission or financial support before they have gained their place at the university. Despite this, Oxford is still home to many top athletes and still has its fair share of Olympians walking its grounds! There are awards on offer once an athlete has gained their place at the university.
SW: How does your experience swimming for Oxford differ from that of high school?
Burton and Pang: Both of us swam competitively at age group level before joining Oxford, and were both quite nervous about the transition, as our home clubs were like our second families! One major difference is the number of competitions in our season schedule. We would race a lot at home, but at Oxford, we have very few competitions each year. Because of this, the training plan has to be slightly different. We find that most people adapt well to the change, as many still swim personal best times in all their events.
Another difference that we’ve noticed is the freedom each swimmer has in their own personal programme compared with age group swimming. The complete lack of parents taking you to the pool (which we greatly miss) and the more relaxed feel to training is a little strange at first, as is the heavy focus on specific events for competitions. The club is also much smaller than our age group clubs, which allows the programme to be personalized to a much greater degree and really benefits our racing.
SW: How challenging is it to balance sports and academics at Oxford?
Burton: I’m asked this question a lot when people find out I’m a Blues [varsity equivalent] athlete! For me, it’s all about habit. I’ve swum competitively since I was eight years old, so I don’t see training as lost time, as I’ve never really had it to lose. Training is an integral part of my day-to-day life. In Oxford, it also helps that I read geography so I don’t have many contact hours – maybe four to six per week – meaning that I can tailor when I work individually around training times more easily than some of my teammates.
Pang: Unfortunately, I’m “one of those teammates” and have a lot more contact hours as a medic. We have about 20 hours of lectures and practicals per week in the first few years, and the equivalent (plus a little more) in essay writing on top of that too. It’s pretty tricky to balance it all, but as Lauren says, swimming has become a habit over the years and you learn pretty quickly to organize yourself so you can just about squeeze both in!
SW: What does your competition schedule look like?
Burton and Pang: We train hard for primarily one competition: the annual varsity match against Cambridge. Cambridge is our main rival, so it’s always the highlight of our season! As it is the main competition of the year, it’s what our training programme is geared towards and is the only meet we properly taper for. Varsity is held in a 25m pool, so a majority of our training is SCM except on training camp, where we tend to reap the benefits of training LCM. The 2019 varsity match marks the 127th anniversary of the event [taking place every year except those during World War I and II] and, with both teams drawing for the first time in its history last year, we’ll be looking to come back with a strong victory next year!
Biennially, we also hold an open water varsity match in the form of a Cross-Channel relay swim. A team of six – three men and three women – from Oxford race against a team from Cambridge across the English Channel from Dover to Calais, in France [21 miles]. This requires a very different training programme to our standard one, and competitors often train in a nearby lake as well as in the sea to acclimatize to the cold [Lauren is braver than Declan, so she’s doing it this year].
Aside from varsity, we compete in the three British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) Championships that are held each year, where we compete against other university teams from around the country. Two are individual-focused, with the emphasis on personal performance [one being SCM and, the other, LCM]. One is a team event, where universities put forward one swimmer per event and individual rankings are summated to give an overall team score.
We also host a friendly match each year with four other universities. This is the first competition in our calendar and is the first time we get to see our freshers compete, so it’s always exciting – even if we are all a little unfit at that point!
SW: Is there a strong focus on non-swimming activities at Oxford?
Burton and Pang: Dryland exercises are so important for developing in the pool; unfortunately, it hasn’t picked up in Oxford as much as it should have. It’s pretty demanding to ask swimmers to even train on top of studies, but its importance is recognised and we aim to introduce at least one weights session during the week, and two body-weight dryland sessions this season.
We also like to hold a lot of social events to bring the team closer together. We have these things in Oxford called crewdates, where the men’s team from one sport goes out for a meal with the women’s team from another sport. There are a few drinks involved, some good (and bad) chat, and it always ends up being a really enjoyable night. We also like to go for a team brunch after Saturday morning practice, which is always a highlight of the week – after all, we’re swimmers and we do like our food!