Boat Races 2016: Daphne Martschenko has travelled a long way to reach Cambridge

The Boat Races 2016
Venue: Tideway, River Thames Date: Sunday, 27 March Times: Women's at 15:10 & men's at 16:10 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC One 14:25-17:00 BST plus Radio 5 live, online, mobile, and the BBC Sport app.

Daphne Martschenko did undergraduate degrees at Stanford University in medical anthropology, Slavic studies and Russian language. She then completed a masters in politics, development and democratic education at Cambridge. Now she is studying for a PhD at Magdalene College. So far, so Boat Race.

Yet the 23-year-old American doesn't fit the public perception of an Oxford or Cambridge rower. For a start, there's her skin colour.

Then there is her passion for education and social inclusion and work with disadvantaged kids. And an upbringing that took her from Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine to the United States.

When she takes to the water for Sunday's race, her focus will be on mirroring the movements of the seven other members of the Cambridge crew. But Martschenko has spent much of her life standing out from the crowd.

'The hospitals were not so good in Kyrgyzstan'

Daphne Martschenko
Martschenko (third from right) with parents Toyin and Alex and sisters Alexandra, Diana and Allegra

Martschenko's father, Alex, was raised in New York by Ukrainian parents before going on to work for the US Foreign Office. It was while posted to Nigeria that he met her mother, Toyin, and the couple moved to Kyrgyzstan and Russia before setting up home in the US in the early 90s. By then, little Daphne had been born.

"I spent the first few months of my life in Bishkek but I was born in London," she explains. "They [her parents] decided to have me in the UK that because the hospitals were not so good in Kyrgyzstan. They did the same thing with my sister."

After almost a decade in the US, the family spent a couple of years in Ukraine before returning in time for Martschenko to attend secondary school in Fairfax, Virginia, and go on to Stanford… just as her parents were leaving again, this time for Kingston, Jamaica.

'Life could have turned out differently'

Camp Phoenix
Disadvantaged kids between the ages of 11 and 14 attend Camp Phoenix

The family are now back in the US and Martschenko spends her summers there, working as a counsellor at an organisation called Camp Phoenix.

Based in a forest on the California coast, it's a charitable project that houses low-income, ethnic minority children in cabins for three weeks. For a cost of just $40 USD per child, they can continue their studies over the school holidays while also developing their social and physical skills.

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Cracking the code of the Boat Races

"The kids are about the same age as my littlest sister so it makes me think that life had turned out a little differently, it could have been her going to these camps," she says.

'Some days you feel like a superwoman'

But during term time in England, Martschenko is in a different world.

She reels off the Cambridge squad's six-day-a-week training routine with practiced familiarity. The 05:55 BST train to Ely. The two-hour stint on the water. The 14-mile dash back to study. The late afternoon weights or indoor rowing session. It's gruelling, demanding and, at times, downright unpleasant, but it's manageable.

"It might be a little difficult to wake up early," she concedes. "But our schedule fits around the times we have lectures so you can effectively get a whole day of work in once you learn time management. It's almost like your own little secret.

"Some days you'll feel like a superwomen because you crush it at a session then get through all the academic work you need to do. But others, it's very difficult when you're rowing with six layers on and the sun doesn't come up until you are finishing. It's physically and mentally demanding but I think I'm addicted to it."

Daphne Martschenko
The Cambridge squad have 'Friend Monday' where they have dinner and talk about anything but rowing

'Rowing puts you in a meditative state'

Martschenko was 14 when she took up rowing, her interest piqued after seeing crews on the Potomac River during a trip to Washington with her theatre group.

A stranger to the sport before then, she has since shone in the American national championships and twice represented her country at the world under-23 championships, finishing sixth in the four in 2012 and ninth in the quad two years later.

"Rowing now means everything to me," she says. "I keep telling myself I'm going to put down the oars but I'll take a couple of weeks off and I'll be itching to get back to training.

"There is a lot of calmness involved in the sport because you have to focus really hard on being in sync with the eight people around you and blocking out the distractions.

"It almost puts you in a meditative state so I come off the water feeling really relaxed. Say you had a rough day, it's a great way to put that behind you and cleanse yourself, so to speak."

'We have a lot a fire for this year'

Cambridge
There are six new faces in the Cambridge crew

One thing Martschenko is eager to consign to history is last year's race. Six-and-a-half lengths and 19 seconds separated Cambridge from Oxford over the four-mile, 374-yard stretch between the Putney and Chiswick Bridges last April but a significant weight advantage this time could remedy that disparity.

Is revenge on Cambridge minds? "Of course we've thought about it," says Martschenko, one of three members of the losing crew who will return on Sunday, along with bow Ashton Brown and cox Rosemary Ostfeld.

"It was challenging last year but it means that those of us returning have a lot of fire for this year. The energy on the squad this year has been incredible because the new people who have come in - like Thea Zabell took up rowing last year when she arrived at university - have brought such positivity and had a real impact."

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