“I aim big. I am extremely competitive and driven- I’m not afraid to admit that. I don’t settle for anything less than what I want in anything. Not in school work, not in sport. I won’t stop until I get there.”
A bristling intent seeps into the inflection of Steph Clutterbuck for the first time, as she reflects on becoming the first student at York to be awarded the inaugural Santander Elite Sports Scholarship. This is a £5,000 grant awarded to assist the career of an athlete at the university who can demonstrate excellence in their chosen sporting activity at regional, national and international level.
“It was definitely a shock, I hadn’t expected it at all.” Steph admits, “The president of the rowing club pointed (the scholarship) out and I thought that as much as I could do with the money, no way was I good enough (sic).”
Steph, for her modesty, is an exceptionally gifted rower who has been fast-tracked through the Great Britain Development Programme. Having progressed through crunch trials in Cardiff in January, she was invited into the Tees Rowing Club GB U23 squad and has been advised to target the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 as the goal for her meteoric rise. Not the ordinary second-year History student, to say the least.
As Steph explains, rowing is an expensive sport and this injection of funding could be crucial towards realising her goals. She begins to eloquently expound her precise plans for the spending of the money.
“I’d like a set of rowing blades- they cost 470 pounds- which is not amount I can fund by myself. We don’t have a coach in York and I’m doing a lot of analysis myself, so a speed coach would also be especially useful. This would allow me to see changes in my stroke and what’s working and what isn’t.
“Coaching is so vital in preventing injuries and they are able to spot things that you aren’t.” Steph stresses, “It’s like proof-reading an essay- you can’t see the mistakes you make until someone points them out to you.
“Therefore, I need to send footage to my coaches, so I would purchase some video technology, in the form of a GoPro, which is waterproof and you can stand on the front of the boat. They are the three big things.
“The rest is travel and accommodation for coaching and competitions. Oh, and food. I need to be eating upwards of 3,000 calories a day with my training regime.”
Amazingly, Steph’s sporting career begun in the water rather than on it. She spent nine years in competitive swimming at county, regional and national level. Consistently ranked in the top 25 nationally, Steph was drafted into the Commonwealth Youth Games development squad after ranking in top three in Wales in backstroke.
However, she almost literally undertook a sea-change and decided to give up swimming altogether to take up rowing.
“I’d been swimming for ten years and reached a point where I didn’t think I could progress any more” she reflects, “I got to a stage when I’d been training so hard for so long without getting any better. It was better to stop then before I stopped enjoying it. There are some regrets though, and it was unfortunate that I stopped a season before the Commonwealth Games as it would have been fantastic to represent Wales.”
“I came to university intending to stop sport- obviously that didn’t last very long!”
This abrupt change of disciplines drew instant results. She came fourth nationally as a novice in the BUCS Indoor Rowing competition and, after competing at Henley, was introduced to a GB coach operating out of Bath University.
Steph had to learn how to single scull in a matter of months. This was a huge task, but she is ostensibly not the type to shirk a challenge: “It was ridiculous, like being thrown in at the deep end. Up here, we didn’t have a women’s sculling boat so I had to get in touch with the coach at Bath.
“I spent most of the summer months in the water, ironically, falling in. I had to be able to race by November, this was in July, and I only had five months to become extremely competent at sculling and get through a race without capsizing. It was a push but I enjoyed the challenge, it kept me on my toes.”
Although Steph’s ascent through the rowing ranks has been prodigious, it has been laced with adversity and punctuated by obstacles, foremost of which has been injuries to her back.
“On a GB development camp in Cardiff I had been having problems with my back since July and the physio sent me to have an MRI scan. It wasn’t a stress fracture, but I was in so much pain, some days just walking was painful.
“There are those days that make the pain worthwhile. When you’re out on the water and it’s just so lovely, you think ‘I wouldn’t give this up for the world’. The difficult days have been the days when the Boat Club have been most helpful, able to give you a boost and help you get to those sessions.”
Steph sings the praises of the rowing club at York, who she considers absolutely indispensable to her progress to date.
“The club have been amazing, I couldn’t have done it without their support. The fact we don’t have a coach has really brought us together, and a crowd funding initiative at the end of last year also allowed us to buy a trailer to transport our boats.
“There are quite a few guys that have sculled before, such as Tom Calvert, and they have all been willing to come out on the water with me and scull, especially before November trials. It was also the club president, Tom Eames, who put me onto the Scholarship.
“I’m doing such a huge amount of training… some of the girls who went with me to Cardiff come out and do sessions with me to keep me company, which is fantastic. You don’t always see it unless you’re involved- you just see a huge crowd in Salvation- but it is a fantastic club.”
On the small matter of her undergraduate degree, Steph feels her lifelong commitment to sport has stood her in good stead when it comes to managing academic workload.
“It’s not difficult to balance degree work and sport because it’s a balance I’ve been juggling all my life. I balanced A-Levels with swimming, and I have a flexible degree- with 5 contact hours a week this term. There is reading to do around it but I can do that when I want.”
Steph acknowledges that the Olympic dream is very much one that motivates her and an ambition to compete in an international competition was a desirable criterion for the scholarship itself.
“I would absolutely love to be at Tokyo in 2020. I wanted it throughout my swimming career and now I want it even more.”
“I want to eventually establish myself in World Championship senior crews. For now, I have this and next season at Under-23 level to focus on. I’d love to think I’d be invited back for final trials in April, but I’m wary of the competition.”
With this injection of funding potentially propelling her further, it feels like the competition should be wary of Steph Clutterbuck.