Seldom do the rival camps of Oxford and Cambridge meet. Yet, the respective light and dark blue campaigns will mirror one another through the season as they dance the dance of Boat Race preparation – shadow boxing the invisible enemy across; early morning starts, long cold head races, trial eights, final selection and pre-race fixtures. So, as the two universities came together for the Presidents’ Challenge, it was a rare opportunity for participants to size up their opposition in-person.
Held in the heart of London’s financial district between glistening towers of glass and steel, the four head coaches and some of their athletes fielded questions from the press before the presidents delivered their challenge.
Tradition dictates that the president of the losing university, challenges the president of the university that won. Thus, the lengthier script fell upon the incoming presidents of Oxford University Women’s Boat Club (OUWBC) and Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC), namely Amelia Standing, and Martin Barakso.
“…I hereby challenge Cambridge University Boat Club to an eight-oared race over the Championship Course on Sunday 3rd 2022.”
Fortunately for the freshly minted Boat Race sponsors, the light blues were game. Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC) men’s squad president Charlie Marcus told his Canadian counterpart:
“I accept your challenge.”
Likewise, Bronya Sykes accepted Standing’s challenge, on behalf of the Cambridge women.
The 2022 Boat Race squads have twelve Olympians, ten of which competed at Tokyo 2020. Gabrielle Smith who raced in the Canadian women’s double at Tokyo joins the Oxford women. New Zealand’s Grace Prendergast and Ruby Tew join Cambridge-born Olympian and two-time Boat Race winner Imogen Grant at CUBC. Two former Rio 2016 lightweights, Switzerland’s Olympic champion Simon Schürch and New Zealand James Hunter are trialling for the CUBC men. As are Olympic bronze medallists Tom George and Ollie Wynne-Griffith who will likely race against their former GB men’s eight teammate Charlie Elwes – should all three make their respective blue boats. Elwes joins Tokyo 2020 US men’s eight stroke Liam Corrigan. Corrigan and David Ambler, both at Oxford, are former Harvard teammates, whereas Elwes and Wynne-Griffith are Yale alumni. Attempting to master one oar not two are Oxford Olympians Roman Röösli and Barnabé Delarze of the Swiss men’s double who came fifth at Tokyo 2020 and Angus Groom of the silver-medal-winning British men’s quad.
The President’s Challenge was five days after the Fours Head, which three of the four squads attended. The Oxford men were noticeably absent. The Fours Head is a race over the reverse of the Boat Race course, the event is popular and often oversubscribed but this year places filled up especially fast (less than three days) as the event organisers warned they would. Sean Bowden, the longstanding chief coach of OUBC said, “Cambridge looked good at the Fours Head as I’d expect them to be. It would have been nice to be racing but equally you have to keep energy focussed on training hard. The Boat Race is a short season so we try to play to our strengths as well as focussing on coming together”.
Chief coach of the Cambridge men Rob Baker – who led Dara Alizadeh to Tokyo 2020 – reflected on the tweaks he’s made to the Cambridge training program in the wake of the Covid-affected 2021 Ely Boat Race campaign. The changes are designed to allow his athletes to more effectively balance their academic and rowing workloads. Returning to the life of a student-rower Tokyo 2020 Olympic bronze medallist Ollie Wynne-Griffith, said:
“I’m very busy! The training hours are less hospitable than they would be down at Caversham (GB’s national training centre). Early mornings before the light – are not as kind on the body. I have to be quite smart in terms refuelling and recovery. But it is a nice challenge to be focussing on multiply fronts and trying to get a degree alongside doing the Boat Race and training at a high-level. It’s a nice change from the slightly monotonous (existence) that is national team rowing. Fours Head was very valuable. It is one of the few chances to run out the full track. Especially in the early season and with the turnover in the squad – for a lot of the guys it is their first year, myself included. I’m glad we took the opportunity and made the most of it.”
Fours Head provided the first taste of the tideway for several Oxford women. OUWBC’s chief coach Andy Nelder, described his athletes as a “very motivated group” and of the Fours Head he said, “…it introduced some to the course, while for others it was like coming home”. Very much in the later camp, is former president, four-time winning Oxford blue and GB international, Anastacia Posner. When asked why she’d returned for a fifth pop at Cambridge the medical student responded, “The Boat Race is a cool thing to be a part of – it is tough and it is a balancing act, but that’s why it is great”.
Australian Paddy Ryan is Nelder’s newly appointed counterpart on the Cambridge side. Ryan said, “I’m honoured to be sitting here representing CUBC as the head women’s coach, after eight years as an assistant coach. I will continue to use the lessons I’ve learnt during my time on the team and learnings from working with past coaches. At the moment I’m focussing on increasing the bespoke nature of physiological training for women – I think that’s an area that has traditionally been overlooked”.
It is an area of expertise within Rowing New Zealand who topped the Tokyo 2020 Olympic rowing medal table. Ryan will do well to utilise the experience of New Zealand’s Grace Prendergast and Ruby Tew. Two-time Olympian and world medallist Ruby Tew is studying for an MBA at the Judge Business School, Cambridge and will bring a wealth of international racing experience, as well as raw power and fitness to CUBC. As will Prendergast, the Olympic champion who doubled up at Tokyo in the silver-medal winning Kiwi eight and gold-medal-winning pair. Prendergast described the Boat Race as “a bucket list regatta, unlike anything else”. The Kiwi duo made an early exit from evening event as they rushed to catch the Eurostar from St. Pancreas in order to watch the All Blacks against France the next day. They’ll be hoping for a better performance from the light blues come spring, than their All Black rugby team this autumn.
The Boat Race 2022 will be held on Sunday 3rd April 2022, the Women’s Boat Race is at 14:23 and the Men’s Boat Race will start an hour later at 15:23. Cambridge currently lead the women’s event 45 to 30, and the men’s 85 to 80 (with one dead heat recorded in 1877). It will be the 76th Women’s Boat Race and the 167th Men’s Boat Race.