How Caius Boat Club sparked sporting climate activism

  • 24 March 2023

Melissa Wilson (English 2011) began rowing with Caius Boat Club and went on to represent Great Britain at World Championships. She talked to Chloe Applin about her interest in environmental activism and using the athlete network to spread messages about the climate emergency.

Please tell me about how your involvement in rowing began…

When I arrived at Caius sport had never really been on my radar. I’m really uncoordinated and had actually been voted most likely to be a librarian in my school yearbook! It was heading along to the CBC freshers’ barbecue, and getting encouragement from my college Mum, that got me to try rowing out. And I soon loved it as a way of spending time out on the river and as part of a team. 

I did struggle at times with the balance of sport and work, especially in my first year trialling for the Boat Race, when I remember feeling knackered almost all the time. But for the most part rowing provided a really brilliant outlet. The friends I made in the College and University through sport definitely gave me a strong support structure for all other aspects of uni. In the end I loved having sport and work running alongside each other and when I moved to rowing full-time I was always keen to keep some form of work or study alongside. 

women rowing celebration

Can you tell us when you decided to commit to environmental activism?

Climate change was an issue that I was feeling increasingly concerned about during my time at uni, and I was training to specialise as an environmental lawyer after the Tokyo Games. But lockdown was definitely a pivot-point for me. I started finding out more about the massive opportunity sport has to inspire social and environmental change, and felt that I could maybe use my background as an athlete to contribute to that space. 

An MIT study from a couple of years ago shows that over half of global cultural influence is held by athletes. The work I do now is about how to unlock that influence to increase climate engagement and action. 

In terms of challenges, I think one of the things I find hardest is keeping fear in check: it’s easy to feel like the problems we need to solve are maybe too big, or we don’t have enough time or willingness to change.  But I also come across examples all the time of individuals and communities achieving amazing turn-arounds. It’s what we see all the time in sport. So when I feel overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge, I try to focus on that instead – the opportunity we have to channel the best of what humans can do. 

How did Athletes of the World come about? On the website it says it is “an organisation driven to unlock the power of every athlete to be an advocate for change and progress in the face of our world's greatest challenges”.

The first piece of campaigning I did was in summer 2020, when I wrote a letter to the UK Government calling for a Green Recovery to the pandemic. We ended up with 320 signatories from GB Olympians and Paralympians, and when the letter was published it had a potential reach of 340 million people. I hadn’t expected anywhere near that number of athletes to get behind the letter, and knowing that there was that level of support for these issues made me want to work out how we could use that care to make more impact. That was when I decided to pause my plans regarding law and focus instead on how to work with more athletes and sports organisations on climate campaigns. 

One of the signatories to the letter was Hannah Mills OBE, a GB sailor who won two Olympic gold medals and was Team GB’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games. Hannah and I started talking in the run-up to the Olympics, and realised we were really aligned in terms of the impact we felt athletes and sport could make in the climate space. We founded Athletes of the World just after the Olympics, and that autumn created a video supported by the IOC and UNEP for COP26. In the video Olympic flag bearers from 35 countries and athletes like Tom Daley, Andy Murray and Eliud Kipchoge came together to call on world leaders to be ambitious in the policies agreed at the climate summit that November. Since then we’ve included over 600 elite athletes in our campaigns, and have delivered climate sessions for Team GB and Commonwealth Games athletes, BBC Sport presenters and commentators, international federations, and we just delivered a session with players at our first Premier League football club. 

In terms of plans for the future, at the moment we’ve got work with a few new sports lined up for this year, and we’re scoping a health and climate focused campaign as we head towards the Women’s Football World Cup and the Paris 2024 Olympics. 

Caius Boat Club has historically enjoyed great success and now you are on the Caius Boat Club Advisory Committee. What makes the Boat Club stand out from the crowd and are there any ways you would like to see it adapt and develop?

The Advisory Committee was formed part way through last year, and it was great to be offered the opportunity to contribute back to a community that gave me so much through my time at university, and had such an impact on the way the last decade panned out for me.

I attended last term's Boat Club Dinner and it was brilliant to see how much energy and passion is in the club. I was reminded of all the students who helped make the club what it was when I was there, and it's inspiring to see how much effort the current students plough in to making the club what it is. The energy is definitely infectious!

Do you have any advice for students today who are considering taking up a sport or campaigning for a cause they believe in?

My time at uni and life since would have been wildly different if I hadn’t taken up a sport. Rowing and the people I’ve trained with have probably been the single biggest influence on who I am as a person and the work I do. So, I would definitely encourage anyone considering getting involved in a sport to go for it! As a 17-year-old I was avoiding sport wherever possible. Having discovered the ‘right’ sport for me, I now enjoy all sorts of sports (even though I’m not very good!). It just takes a few good team-mates and a few good experiences, and I think it’s hard to look back!

I would also encourage anyone to get into campaigning, whether as a future career direction, or as something that sits alongside work or studying. Global problems benefit from a world full of people engaging across all sectors and countries. The crises we're facing now can feel overwhelming, but I think being engaged in these issues is the best way of feeling like you’re "controlling the controllables” – taking hold of what you can and trying to do something purposeful to make a difference. I can’t think of a better way to spend the time we have!

If anyone, student or alum, would like to have a conversation about avenues into campaigning please do get in touch using the contact page on the Athletes of the World site. 

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