What an oarsome achievement: Abbi triumphs as row cox despite brittle bone disorder

Abbi Brown
Abbi Brown
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Student Abbi Brown has broken 16 bones since arriving at Cambridge University in 2011.

But that didn’t stop her from coxing – or steering – her college rowing team in an event where boats aim to catch and bump each other.

The Lady Margaret Boat Club PNL-140617-171627001

The Lady Margaret Boat Club PNL-140617-171627001

The 21-year-old, who comes from Aldbury, took command of the women’s first boat during the May Bumps, which now happen in June.

Apart from the Boat Race itself, the Bumps are the most prestigious contest in the Cambridge rowing calendar.

The four-day tournament pits vessels from all 31 of the university’s colleges against each other in the River Cam.

They compete by attempting to catch – and literally bump – the boat ahead.

Abbi, who has just completed her finals in English, said: “It’s a sport where you sit down and shout, which is pretty ideal for me. I’m very short and light, so when I turned up at St John’s I was virtually chased down by the boat club because they thought I would be an ideal cox. It sounded fun so I went along. Initially I was pretty awful at steering, but over time I improved.”

Abbi – a student at St John’s College – was born with brittle bone disease and now uses a wheelchair, as her legs are not strong enough to walk on. The genetic disorder means her bones are fragile and prone to breaks or fractures.

As cox, she had to guide and motivate the crew and make key tactical decisions during the tournament, which ran from Wednesday to Saturday.

But if Abbi’s boat was struck, she could end up hospitalised with broken bones.

Abbi has become a skilled cox for the Lady Margaret Boat Club, the boat club of St John’s. The club takes its name from Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, who founded the College in 1511.

She applies a rule which allows the cox to raise her hand and concede defeat if an approaching boat looks likely to hit her own.

As coxes face the other way to the rest of the crew, she also relies on her ‘stroke’ – the rower closest to the cox – to watch out for any pending impact.

The former Tring School student said: “The time we came closest to getting hit, my stroke saw it coming but was so frightened for my sake that she couldn’t speak.

“Fortunately, I could tell what was about to happen because her facial expression was one of absolute terror!”

Abbi has had lots of practical support from the crews with whom she races.

When the Cam flooded during the winter and the water levels were too high for her to take her wheelchair down to the bank safely, her crewmates physically carried her into and out of the boat.

They also help her up the steps at the Club boathouse. Back in College, she has had her room adapted to include a ramp and electric doors.

Abbi’s college advanced two places in the May Bumps.