On The Other Side of HY

Photo by Robert K. Harle

In December, HepsTrack shared the experiences of former Heps athletes who were competing for other schools while pursuing graduate degrees. Competing outside the League as a graduate student can be an eye opener, depending on the new school and its ‘sports’ culture.

Last month former Heps pole vault champion Clara Blattler had one of those eye-opening experiences, participating in the biannual Harvard-Yale/Oxford-Cambridge dual meet as a graduate student on the opposite side of the Ivy aisle.

Competing in both hurdle events and the pole vault, Blattler claimed victory in the 400-meter hurdles in the white Oxford University Athletic Club (OUAC) uniform. This was her first experience in this biannual tradition as in previous years she was unable to compete because of injury and followed by a career opportunity.

Mary Boggs of HepsTrack was able to catch Blattler while she was taking a break from her graduate studies to ask her of her experiences of training and competing on European soil.

How did you get to be studying at Oxford? What are you studying?

I was lucky enough to receive a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. I’m currently in my third year of a D.Phil. (Oxford-speak for Ph.D.) in geochemistry in the Department of Earth Sciences.

What made you interested in continuing your athletic career with the Oxford team?

Initially, I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue track & field after I graduated. I didn’t know if I’d have the time or support or motivation — but then I realized that I could make a significant contribution to the team by just maintaining my pole vault skills at some level. So I joined first really just to help out the team at Oxford and have a bit of fun. Once I became involved, I found that I didn’t want just to do it half-way, and that I could really try to keep getting better. Now every year since, there’s been another good reason to commit fully to the team and the training. I’m really grateful for a chance to continue doing amateur sports. It’s sad to think of so many good athletes suddenly stopping to do a sport they love just because the opportunity to do so ceases after college.

You mentioned you got a new personal best in the 400m hurdles not long after the HY/OC meet. How does it feel to get these accomplishments while also working on your graduate studies? Is it hard to balance the workloads with practices?

Balancing an academic workload with training is the same as always — you can make it work if you want to! The club system is much more flexible as well — if I have to miss practices, I sometimes make it up on my own time. Yes, that means training on my own sometimes, so it’s a good incentive to try to make the club practices. My work schedule comes first, but it’s always good to take a break and let out some energy at the track.

Can you explain in some detail about some main differences between the American and English track systems and atmosphere?

In the UK, most athletes are exposed to track & field a little bit at school, but there aren’t high school teams and seasons the way there are in the U.S. Athletes often start training and competing more seriously through local clubs. The club season runs through the summer, with competition opportunities through leagues at different levels. The university season is really secondary to the club/league competition for a lot of athletes.

Our university team (OUAC) is a student-run club, with no full- or part-time staff or coaches. We have a whole range of abilities — from people who are just trying it out for the first time to top national-level athletes. I think this is great! I love the welcoming atmosphere of the club, and that it gives people a chance just to learn and try it out if they want. It’s fantastic to be spreading love of the sport, with everyone competing and improving at his/her own level.

We plan our own practices and hire coaches to come for specific training sessions. Students are in charge of planning meets, organizing entries and arranging transport. We’re funded largely through membership fees, corporate sponsorship, and a grant from the university sports federation. When you’ve seen how the club system works in the U.K., you realize what an incredible privilege it is to be a part of the programs at American universities!

Was it any different to compete in the HY/OC meet between the two times you have participated?

I’ve actually only competed in HY/OC from the Oxford side. I had sprained my ankle my freshman year when the OC team visited, and I passed up the chance to travel during my junior summer in favor of a fantastic fieldwork opportunity I had through one of my professors. I think the travelling team in particular always comes away with a deep new-found perspective about the sport and about their opportunities.

What is the Oxford-Cambridge relationship like outside of the meets with the joined Ivy teams?

It’s quite similar to the Harvard-Yale relationship, I think. Oxford and Cambridge have a fierce rivalry, both academic and sporting, but at the same time they’re quite similar in a lot of ways and therefore friendly as well. The whole university season leads up to one big team meet: the Varsity Match (Oxford v. Cambridge). It’s always a great head-to-head competition, but then in the true tradition of amateur sports, the teams meet up to celebrate with a post-match dinner and party.

Have you participated in any other meets with joined Ivy teams? If yes, how are they similar or different to the HY/OC meet?

We competed against both Penn/Cornell and Harvard/Yale teams in 2009; in 2010, Penn and Cornell visited the U.K. in return. It’s a similar meet, although with a little less history and tradition. Penn/Cornell have had stronger teams recently, so they definitely inspire awe and they have also been very good hosts to our team when we travelled.

Does Oxford have any meet that is like Heps?

There is no Heps. The big meet at the end of the season is the Varsity Match, just Oxford v. Cambridge. It’s a hard-fought dual meet, with two people entered in every event, and every point counting.

If there was a graduating Heps athlete who was considering furthering their education in Europe, what would you say to them to convince them to continue their athletic career at the same time?

As far as I can tell, the club system is strong across most of Europe, meaning that you can participate at whatever level you want to for as long as you want to. Universities have clubs, which are open to graduate students as well of course, but even if you find yourself working, you can still join a local club and keep participating. There may not be such a strong team identity as during high school or college, but if you want to strive to keep getting better individually, the opportunities exist and you should absolutely take advantage of them!

Now is it “track and field” or “athletics”?

Haha! I think it’s technically called “track & field athletics”, as opposed to road running or race walking or cross country which are all other forms of “athletics.” But generally, when we say “athletics” we mean “track & field!” It’s similar across Europe — Leichtathletik in German and athlétisme in French, for example.

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