Youth's demons tackled in Head of the River

PIP Harry is no stranger to the early morning wake-up calls and grueling training regimes that come with competitive rowing.

At high school, Pip rowed in the Victorian Head of the River regatta before coaching three schoolgirl crews in her twenties.

In her latest novel, Head of the River, Pip explores the intense mental and physical challenge teenage twins Leni and Cristian face as they gear up for the prestigious regatta.

The children of Olympic athletes, Leni and Cristian juggle family commitments, school studies, relationships and the weight of expectation.

"The build-up, expectation and training for that one regatta was so intense and I thought it would make an interesting backdrop for a YA novel," Pip said.

Rowing remains one of the toughest sports Pip has ever competed in, but she was hooked from the first wobbly stroke.

"I loved the feeling of being both one with the water and bonded with a crew," she said.

"You can't be successful in rowing if you don't click with the people around you, and the friendships I made in the sport were very special."

The mental and physical strength, discipline and accountability rowing gave Pip was something she wanted to transfer to Leni and Cristian.

Pip said she wanted them to see strength of character was more important than winning.

But the feeling of pressure to achieve, academically or athletically, is something many teenagers face and an issue Pip explores through the character of Leni.

Pip said as a teenager she put more pressure on herself than teachers, parents or coaches, never giving herself the smallest break from her high expectations.

"I think it's important to send a message to teens, especially those facing their final year at school or a sporting or academic goal, that their result isn't life and death," she said.

"It probably won't define them as an adult and there are plenty of other opportunities beyond the ones they see right in front of them. "

Head of the River also looks at Cristian's struggle with body image and eating behaviours, which see him kicked out of the top rowing crew.

"I wanted to show that disordered eating happens to boys as well as girls, although it's not as socially accepted and often kept hidden," Pip said.

 "I think many young guys struggle with how they should look, especially now that there's such emphasis on 'selfies', 'six packs' and unrealistic body shapes in young men in the media."

The issue of performance enhancing drug use also plays a role in Leni and Cristian's story, with Pip exploring the influence of high-profile athletes.

Pip said she also wanted to question whether there should be formal drug testing in school competitions to protect teenagers from potentially dangerous substances.

Head of the River is a beautiful and compelling story, one which will stay in your thoughts long after the race has ended.

"I hope readers feel like they've been sitting in the boat with Leni and Cristian - blisters, foul river water, sunburn, burning lungs, shaky legs, nerves… the whole experience," Pip said.

A copy of the book was provided by University of Queensland Press for review. 

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