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The MBAs In Oxford & Cambridge Sculls

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For six MBA candidates at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, the first half of the program this year was as much an athletic endeavor as it was academic. Earlier this month, their athletic preparation culminated in the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race, a tradition that dates back 161 years. For some, rowing in what is known simply as The Boat Race was the realization of a lifelong dream.

In the race, eight-person boats from each university cross a 4.2-mile stretch of the Thames River known as the Tideway. Thousands of spectators watch live every year, and millions more watch on TV. This year, both the men’s and women’s races took place April 2. It was a split decision for Oxford, whose men’s blue boat team won by one and a quarter lengths while the women’s team lost by 11 lengths.

Oxford Saïd MBA candidates Olivier Siegelaar and Matt O’Leary competed in the men’s boat, and Harriet Austin competed in the women’s boat. Dusan Milovanovic and Jessica Glennie were in the men’s and women’s reserve boats, respectively, and Jake Cushnie competed in the men’s “spare pair” event, a separate race involving small, two-man crafts.

“Oxford University Boat Club has always had MBAs in the squad, but this year it was definitely a lot,” Siegelaar says. “I think this makes total sense. Generally, MBAs are ambitious people and athletes are obviously very ambitious as well. I feel that almost everybody in our boat will eventually end up doing an MBA of some sorts.”

Olivier Siegelaar. Courtesy photo

CHOOSING OXFORD IN PART BECAUSE OF THE RACE

Siegelaar rowed for the Netherlands in the Beijing, London, and Rio Olympics, winning a bronze medal in Rio. His day job is at a high-frequency trading firm in Amsterdam. “As a rower myself, I knew about The Boat Race before I came to Oxford,” he says. “It is one of the most prestigious and best-watched races.”

After Rio, Siegelaar says, it was an easy decision to get an MBA. He had studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley and hoped an MBA would strengthen his understanding of finance and business, as well as expose him to potential employers after he retires from rowing. Ultimately, he says, he chose the Saïd Business School because Oxford is one of the top universities in the world — and of course because it would give him the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win The Boat Race.

Siegelaar isn’t the only Saïd Business School rower who chose Oxford at least partly because of the race. For Harriet Austin, who competed in the women’s blue boat, rowing in the race was a dream come true.

Austin was a Rio Olympics hopeful for the New Zealand national team, for which she had been rowing full-time. When she started seriously considering graduate school, she says the chance to participate in The Boat Race through the Saïd Business School was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. “I was trying to make the Olympic team, and this was always a post-Olympic dream of mine,” she says.

While Austin was rowing with the New Zealand team, she completed an undergraduate business degree by correspondence. Later, no longer rowing full-time, she worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she realized the value an MBA would add to her career.

“I think it’s something that’s on everyone’s career path,” Austin says. “When they’re trying to retire from professional sports and trying to make a career, getting an MBA is a good option.”

Harriet Austin. Courtesy photo

‘NOT THE USUAL UNIVERSITY EXPERIENCE’

But neither Austin nor Siegelaar, nor the other MBA rowers have had a typical MBA experience so far. Austin says her training schedule was “pretty full-on,” and that she definitely didn’t have much of a social life outside of the rowing team.

Her alarm clock would go off at 5 a.m., and training would start at 5:30. By 8:30 she would be in class until 5:30 p.m., with a break for lunch. After that, it was back to the gym for as much as two hours of training before dinner. Austin would try to be in bed by 9 p.m., she says, so she could get up at 5:30 again the next morning.

“It’s not the usual university experience, but I think doing this has improved my organization and motivation skills, and you develop relationships and networks with the rowing crew,” she says. “There’s definitely been some hard times, and I think when you’re a student-athlete, you have to make a decision about what you’re going to prioritize.

“At the start of the program, I was sometimes finishing assignments at 3 a.m., which is fine for a normal student, but when you have to do four to five hours of exercise the next day, you have to make sure you’re keeping up with nutrition and sleep.”

Oxford Men’s Team. Courtesy photo

‘I MISSED ALL MY AFTERNOON CLASSES’

Siegelaar also sacrificed sleep, as well as some classes, to make time for training. He would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to train for 80 minutes on the rowing machine, he says, and then it was a race to shower, get to school, and eat breakfast before class at 8:30. He would stay in class until lunch, but then leave to train again until around 5:30 or 6 p.m.

“I missed all my afternoon classes, which was not ideal,” he says. “And with an MBA, every evening and night there’s a social gathering. Especially my first semester, I wanted to invest in getting to know people, and since I had to wake up every day at 5:30 a.m., this often caused me to run very low on sleep.”

Perhaps the busiest time for him was the three weeks before the race. “Thankfully, there were four MBAs in the squad, so we could push each other to work hard,” he says. “The last week before the race, we stayed at a hotel, where you would normally just focus on the race. But there was an assignment due on the 31st of March, and the race was on the 2nd of April. The assignment turned out to be a bit more intense than expected. After I finally submitted it, I had one more day to study for an exam.”

After winning the race, Siegelaar says he wore his “sub fusc” — formal clothing worn for exams at some universities — to the celebration dinner, and then after an hour of sleep he took the train back to Oxford for his exam. Despite the rush, he says his schedule taught him to be productive and use his time wisely.

In the end, he says, it’s more fun to be busy than bored.

Oxford Women’s Team. Courtesy photo

THE RACE WAS WORTH IT

Both Austin and Siegelaar say participating in the race was without a doubt  worth the sacrifices and challenges. “The highs and lows are incredible,” Austin says of being a student-athlete. “You should understand what you’re in for, but it’s an experience that’s hard to get in anything else in your life.”

At times, Siegelaar admits, he really wondered why he was doing it — especially during the dark and wet Oxford winter. “I know the road can’t always be pleasant,” he says. “However, I know that the outcome can be magical and unique, and therefore addicting. The Boat Race experience was truly one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had.”

He advises future student-athletes to enjoy the ride and keep the final goal in mind. “Combining athletics with your studies is insanely hard,” he says. “But it will define you for the rest of your life. After all these years, I now enjoy working hard and juggling multiple activities at the same time. I firmly believe that every successful student-athlete will be successful in every aspect of the rest of their lives.”

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