Many dream to one day wear the home country’s flag on our backs during an international sports competition, but only a small minority of us ever get the opportunity. An even smaller minority ever get to walk away from these competitions victorious.
But for junior Hope Cessford, a member of Radcliffe Heavyweight Crew from Durham, England, this dream became a reality this past summer at the U-23 World Rowing Championships in Florida.
“I knew we had speed, but I didn’t know we were quite that fast,” said Cessford in regards to her boat this past July. “We definitely weren’t the favorites.”
Cessford competed for Team Great Britain’s Women’s Four, rowing in three races. The four rowers came second to Team USA in the first heat but later advanced to the final after a second race. And then came the moment.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt more ill than when I was sitting at the start of the World Championship Final,” said Cessford jokingly.
Even under an immense amount of pressure, the Harvard junior led her team to a gold medal in the 2,000-meter race, finishing with a time 06:34.22. This international success did not happen overnight; the gold medal is the product of years of dedication and hard work. Hope began rowing in the summer of 2013, a year removed from the London 2012 Olympics.
“U.K. schools had this big push to get more kids in sports, especially after [the London 2012 Olympics], so we had people come into our school to talk with us,” said Cessford. “We did things like netball, basketball, and rowing.”
Cessford excelled at most of the sports she tried, but she was naturally drawn to rowing. When she started at the Durham Amateur Rowing Club in her hometown, she was immediately welcomed by an incredibly supportive network of coaches that worked closely with her to channel her natural talents in the sport to success on the water. After a few years of rowing in England, she joined the junior national team and competed in multiple countries, including the Netherlands, specifically Rotterdam, in 2016.
Her initial success back home led her to Radcliffe Crew at Harvard, and since being in Cambridge, it has been quite the change.
“It’s definitely different here, but I love it. At home, I predominantly trained on my own in a single,” said Cessford. “At Harvard, I have such a great group of girls around me. I love training as part of a team, it’s just so fun to come in every day and have that group.”
Having such a close-knit community at a place like Harvard has been crucial for Cessford. It has helped her become more confident as an athlete and as a person. She’s developed trust in herself, which has enabled her to accomplish such lofty goals as winning a world championship.
And while the competition from other teams, both at the international and the collegiate level, has encouraged much of this personal growth, it has been her time with teammates that’s helped her the most.
“I love challenging myself and my teammates to be the best athletes we can possibly be. I think my teammates are the strongest competition that I could possibly have,” said Cessford. “I’ve loved being in an environment where we challenge each other, but also support each other.”
Cessford also noted that since her accomplishments this past summer, the dynamic between her and her teammates has not changed. It is this mutual respect and trust in one another that has helped Hope, and her other teammates, blossom at Harvard.
While rowing for Harvard does not allow her to have too much extra time for other out-of-class endeavors, the Crimson rower has found another family in Cambridge with her concentration department, Human Evolutionary Biology. She went into college with the expectation of studying Earth Sciences, but after coming across this department, she found her new passion.
“I love how it combines all of my interests; I can still do a lot of science, and I can still do lots of writing, and some anthropology,” said the junior. “There are so many amazing faculty members in the department, I can’t even explain how great they are. I’m in a class about social behavior and game theory at the moment which is really cool, and I also took a class last year about human nature which completely changed the way I think about life.”
It has not been the easiest transition moving from northern England to Cambridge, but after adjusting to the constant flow of academic work and a heavy training load, Harvard has begun to feel more like a second home for Hope. However, it has been finding a home in these two communities, the women’s heavyweight crew team and in the Human Evolutionary Biology department, that has made the transition and decision to come to Harvard completely worth it.
Looking forward to this weekend at the Head of The Charles Regatta, Cessford says the team has multiple goals.
“The big thing that we as a team focus on for racing is having fun. I think that’s what makes Radcliffe such a special thing to be a part of,” said Cessford. “Obviously, we want to do really well, but I think at the forefront of this weekend is taking the whole atmosphere in, and challenging ourselves to be the best we can be.”
Having the opportunity to not only compete, but also to train on such a historic river like the Charles has been an incredible experience for Cessford. She stated that while it can sometimes be easy to forget to appreciate where she is, her friends from England often remind her of how fortunate she is to be in place so rich with stories from the past.
For the rest of the year, Cessford has sights set on the NCAA Championships for the Crimson team, which the team competed in last year. Individually, she hopes to compete at the 2020 U-23 World Championships in Slovenia. For an already accomplished student-athlete like herself, these goals seem well within reach.