In Catalonia rowing goes way back. A regatta was held here over 100 years ago, so there is a long tradition, but it never gained much importance as a sport. That is due to the fact that there are not many places you can do it.” Yet, Banyoles is one of those places and, as Miquel Juncà adds: “You think of Banyoles and you think of rowing.”
Miquel heads the Agenda Sports & Elements agency, which for 25 years has organised the annual winter training camp in Club Natació Banyoles for one of the world's best rowing teams: the Cambridge University Boat Club. The men's and women's Cambridge teams recently spent two weeks in Banyoles, training on the lake and preparing for one of the biggest events in the sporting calendar, the Boat Race, which pits the Cambridge and Oxford university rowing teams against each other. Today, the race attracts 250,000 spectators with millions watching on TV as the two teams of eight rowers cover the 6.7-km course on the River Thames to earn bragging rights for another 12 months.
Yet, far from the media hubbub and the crowds, the Cambridge teams spend a fortnight in the idyllic surroundings of Banyoles lake, perfecting their technique for the upcoming race. This year was no exception and Miquel says that the agency, set up in 1993 after Banyoles hosted the rowing in the Barcelona Olympics, first welcomed Cambridge in 1994: “Since then they have come every year, which is what we are most proud of as a company,” he says.
Cambridge takes the Boat Race seriously and once the race is over, begins preparing for the next. Over the two weeks in Banyoles, the teams train almost every day. “Our role is to allow them to get on with their training and not have to worry about anything, to provide them with everything they need, transport and logistics, medical needs, nutrition, everything,” says Guillem Feliu, the agency's training camp manager, who adds: “We have to start preparing quite a few months before, and if they are happy they contract us for the following year.”
That Cambridge have returned to the Banyoles club without interruption for more than two decades is the best sign they are happy with what they find. Unsurprisingly, an association between the local community and Cambridge has built up: “Banyoles is pro-Cambridge. I remember once when Oxford came, a headline in El Punt Avui read: ‘Now the others are coming', which shows how there is an identification with Cambridge after 25 years,” says Miquel.
The annual visit of the rowing teams is the highlight of the year for Club Natació Banyoles, which hosts 50 major sporting competitions every year, about half directly involving the lake. The club president Albert Comas says they have 10,000 members and apart from being a regular venue for many Spanish open water championships, the club's reputation attracts elite sports people. Albert mentions some, including triathlete Carolina Routier, Olympic runner Esther Guerrero, New Zealand flatwater canoer Lisa Carrington and Ireland's gold medallist rowers, Paul and Gary O'Donovan. “It's fantastic for the young people here to see people of this level and how they train. It is the same with having the Cambridge people here now. It makes everyone at the club proud.”
That pride is reflected in the numbers who give up their time for the club. “Whatever event we hold, we always have at least 100 volunteers,” says Albert, “it makes us a special case, as the volunteers make it all possible.”
Banyoles is also a special case because there is nowhere else quite like it in Spain, and its suitability for rowing is something Cambridge certainly seems to appreciate: “What we have here is incomparable. What they find here they can't find anywhere else,” concludes Albert.
Donald Legget, a Banyoles vet
Donald has been involved in rowing for 50 years. He competed in the Boat Race in 1962 and 1963 (a loss and a win), went into coaching and was asked to coach Cambridge in 1968. “In those days it was amateur and unpaid and it stayed that way until 1995.” He explains that the medal success of the rowing duo Pinsent and Redgrave in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the advent of the National Lottery brought money into the sport. He has been coming to Banyoles with Cambridge since the early 1990s: “In those days we used to stay in a farmhouse with bunk beds, and we didn't fly, we used to come out by minibus to keep the costs down.” Donald says the team likes Banyoles because it allows them to work on their speed.