Twin sisters’ simmering sibling rivalry at the Boat Race: ‘Mum is worried we’ll fall out’

Catherine and Gemma King with oars
The twins are happy that the British Heart Foundation is the official charity partner of the Boat Race - PA/Tim Bekir

Ask Gemma King who is going to win the 78th women’s University Boat Race next month and she is unequivocal.

“Cambridge, obviously,” she says.

Ask her identical twin sister Catherine and the answer is somewhat different.

“I’ll have to say Oxford, definitely.”

But then they would say that. On March 30 the 24-year-old Kings could become the first twins – male or female – to row on opposite sides in the great race: Gemma for Cambridge, Catherine for Oxford.

There have been twins compete on the same side before. Not least the Winklevoss brothers, who rowed together for Oxford in 2010 and whose crypto currency firm, Gemini, is proving appropriately named sponsorship for this year’s race.

But should the two Kings be named in opposition when the respective crews are announced on March 13, this could be a familial feud of a new order. There’s an added touch of potential spite given the pair rowed together at Cambridge before Catherine defected to the other lot last summer.

“Actually, I’m not sure it will make much difference,” says Catherine, who is studying for a PHD in cardiovascular research at Balliol College and is speaking to the Telegraph on a three-way telephone call during a break from her studies.

“We’ve always been really competitive with each other. Even when we were in the same crew, we were forever comparing times.”

Her sister agrees.

“When we rowed as a pair we were known to have disagreements,” says Gemma, who is researching blood platelets at St John’s. “Let’s just say being twins we are open to being honest with each other. It’s called sibling rivalry. For us it would be just another competition.”

Catherine and Gemma make a heart sign with their hands
The twins have a healthy competitive streak against one another when they are rowing - PA/Tim Bekir

Though it will not be quite like that for their parents. Liz, a chiropodist, and her husband Mike have been watching their twins intently ever since they first picked up an oar as 12-year-olds at Lady Eleanor Holles School in London, just down the Thames from Hampton School where Mike works as the bursar. Rowing was, for two sporty young girls, love almost at first sight. Though for their parents it represented a significant commitment.

“From the start, our parents were our taxi drivers, therapists and biggest supporters,” says Catherine. “It was a huge thing for them. There were weekend competitions, there was rowing training almost every night. They were renowned everywhere we went as insanely supportive, the keenest parents, there at every race.”

And the Kings followed their daughters as they progressed to Cambridge University, where both studied natural sciences, Gemma at St John’s, Catherine at Gonville and Caius.

“Initially when we first went up to Cambridge we were in the lightweight crew because of our size, we’re not that big,” says Gemma. “We’d always spent so much time together, but we went to different colleges and had pretty separate lives. We came together for the rowing.”

The pair were, however, sufficiently talented that despite their scale they were selected for the Blondie boat, the women’s second eight, for the 2020 Boat Race. To their huge disappointment, the event was cancelled because of Covid. But they were back the following year, albeit when it was raced under lockdown at Ely, with a very limited crowd.

“I think we were allowed two supporters each, so it was obvious who was coming, yes our parents were there,” says Catherine. “But it was a very odd setting.”

Fortunately for the Kings, their daughters made it to the Blondie crew the following year when the race returned to Putney. With Gemma in the second seat and Catherine at No 4, they won by a record distance, a wonderful, proud family moment.

But then, in mid-2022, Catherine slipped two discs in her back and was obliged to have an operation. Her rowing was put in abeyance, even as Gemma established herself in the Cambridge system, this year taking up the bow seat in the first eight. And their chances of rowing together in the same university boat ended in the summer of 2023 with Catherine’s decision to move to the dark (blue) side.

“I looked at doing post-grad research at various universities and thought Oxford looked interesting,” she says.

So, she headed west and, with her back recovered, was finally able to return to the water this January. She has been rowing in the Oxford’s second women’s eight most of the year, but is hoping for promotion by the time the squads are announced. She is particularly glad to be back involved as the British Heart Foundation, who fund her research, are the official charity partner of the race.

“I like to think exercise in general is good for your heart,” she says. “But rowing is particularly good.”

The big question is, however, should the pair line up in opposing boats on the start line at Putney Bridge, who will their parents support?

“They are definitely more worried about this than we are,” says Gemma of the potential for family rift. “My mum read that book Blood Over Water about two brothers having a feud over the Boat Race and really struggled with it. She’s worried that we’re going to have a massive fall-out. But I don’t think we will. I suspect we’ll still be talking at the end of it.”

Half-and-half woolly hats

Indeed, in order to maintain her impartiality should she be obliged to watch her daughters up against each other, Liz King has taken an unexpected sartorial turn.

“You know those half-and-half scarves people wear at the football?” says Catherine. “Mum’s been joking for a while she’s going to get her and dad a half-and-half woolly hat each, light blue on one side, dark blue on the other.

“Anyway, she just called to say she’s found some for them to wear on the day. That way they can be supportive of both of us.”

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