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Ollie Cook: LSE student turned Olympic Rower

I was told not to apply for LSE and then, when I got in, that I wouldn’t enjoy it; “It’s not that sporty… it’s not that, you know, fun”. LSE was, in the words of my head of sixth form teacher, “not a place for sporty all-rounders.” To some extent, he was right – LSE is one of the most academically focused universities in the country – but he was also woefully wrong. I graduated from LSE back in 2012 and since then I have been a full time member of the Great Britain rowing team. I have won the National, European and World Championships and I am currently training for the 2020 Olympics this summer in Tokyo, Japan. But I’m far from the exception. Attending my LSE classes was a full time rugby player for Wasps; a good friend of mine was (and still is) an Olympic fencer; I knew a GB/LSE triathlete; a GB judoka; an internationally ranked tennis player; a GB track and field athlete. The list goes on. For a relatively small university in the middle of the UK’s capital, and with a pretty uncompromising attitude towards academic excellence, LSE definitely punches above its weight. 

Nonetheless, the reality of being an LSE student in the middle of London is not easy to always get around. The University of London Boat Club (ULBC) is nine miles from LSE along the Thames in Chiswick. Some days I would clock up almost 40 miles cycling between my flat, LSE and ULBC. This would then be on top of two 16 kilometre water sessions, or one water session and an indoor ergo session, as well as morning lectures and classes (disclaimer: I was heavily fuelled by the flapjacks at Wrights Bar). 

LSE wasn’t always the most understanding of places; it’s just not in the fabric of the university in the same way it is at Oxford and Cambridge. I remember having my termly meeting with my academic advisor at the time. The morning I met with him I had already cycled 20 miles and had a 20km rowing session. I sat down with him and he asked if I was managing to find any time to do any extracurricular activities outside of my academic commitments. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was more a case of finding time to do any work alongside my training commitments. I did say that I was doing a bit of rowing, he replied this was fine as long as I found my ‘pareto optimal’ level of studying for five hours a day. Even though many at LSE didn’t know or couldn’t understand the commitment of something like rowing outside of university work, it was a culture I came to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate.

A lot of guys on the GB rowing team went to universities that would give academic credits to their athletes or help them with access to easier modules. Indeed, American universities give out huge bursaries and scholarships to talented sportsmen and women (note the recent college admissions scandal in the USA). Although British universities don’t engage in the same kind of rapacious recruitment as their US counterparts, there is still plenty of acclaim on offer for playing in the varsity team for your university. At LSE, not so much. It was at times frustrating. It seemed as though no tutor or lecturer cared or knew I was captain of the University of London rowing team or that I was competing for GB; they certainly weren’t sympathetic to a request for an essay extension or if I displayed a clear lack of preparation for a class. But I loved LSE for that. At LSE, it was about you as the person who turned up for class, what you got up to outside of Houghton Street was up to you. It felt like, almost uniquely at LSE, you were held up to the standard of your classmates and they respected you, not for how far you had cycled or trained that morning, but for your thoughts on US foreign policy, student debt or whether snake bite is genuinely rancid. 

In my first year at LSE I was an active member of the LSE drama society and the rugby team. In the drama society we put on a rather forgettable play which involved me accidentally breaking character (and accent) to the unexpected enjoyment of the small audience. In the rugby team we managed to get promoted that first year and gave KCL a close shave. The weekly session at Tuns was always a highlight, but for me I had an itch that I needed to scratch, so I found myself drifting down to ULBC. I started in the ULBC second 8, we only had two 8s at the time. By the following year I was trialling for GB but I didn’t make it through, and by my last year, with a great squad, we won Henley Regatta and I was selected for the GB U23 team. That was back in 2012 and following the London Olympics a few guys in the GB senior team retired, opening the door for a few of us younger guys to step in. I have been a full-time member of the senior team ever since. 

Sport and LSE have always been very special to me – ever since the teacher back at school told me I wouldn’t enjoy LSE, possibly hinting that it would be too academic for someone who enjoys playing sport. It is possibly why, while I was LSE, with the help of Prof David Marsden, we set up what was then called the LSE Ambassadors for Sport Fund – now known as the LSESU Sports Performance Program. It was an initiative founded upon financial support for LSE students who were aiming to compete nationally or internationally and it quickly became the most well-funded initiative of its kind amongst all London universities. 

LSE is not a ‘non-sporting’ university. It definitely has its challenges for someone who wants to take sport seriously (or even not seriously). But many of these challenges, if managed right, can be excellent assets. The boat club is a trek from LSE but it meant, for example, I could warm up or cool down after a session. Most boat clubs are quite far from university campuses, meaning university students will often have to drive to them. But the notion that LSE doesn’t have any sportsmen or women is just plain nonsense. They’re just not on show like at other unis, but they were there when I was there, and there is no doubt there are great sportsmen and women at LSE now. 

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