Boat Race full report 1996

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*******************************************************************************The 142nd Boat Race:  April 6th 1996.Rachel Quarrell, UK. year's Boat Race was always going to be a desperate contest.  Boththe Oxford and Cambridge squads had a lot to play for, and they have beencreeping closer in skill and speed over the last two years, under the watchful eye of the world's press.  PREVIEW:   In the Dark Blue camp, "chief architect"Dan Topolski is back at the helm of the Oxford attack.  Topolski first hit the headlines in the late '70's and early '80's, when he struck a winning vein with Oxford, walking away with 10 victories from 11 races.  In1986 this successful streak was broken by a sharp Cambridge crew, and oneof the Oxford eight, an American, vowed to return and avenge the defeat the following year, bringing with him a clutch of American Olympians.  What happened next has been written about all over the world:  the Oxford Mutiny.Through disagreements about training and selection, the 1987 Oxford PresidentDonald MacDonald and coach Topolski found themselves racing Cambridge witha young and untried crew lacking all the high-pedigree stars - and winning.  The story Dan wrote about this:  "True Blue", has been filmed this winter andwill be released in October 1996 - perhaps the rejoinder, Ali Gill's "The Yanks At Oxford" will follow in due course.  In 1988, with mutineer Chris Penny returning to become the Oxford President, Topolski returned to his sideline role as a press journalist, and commented acutely on the races untilhe was invited to rejoin the Oxford camp in 1994-5 following two emphatic Light Blue victories.  Topolski now combines a hectic mixture of journalismand coaching, with former GB national coach Penny Chuter carrying out the executive coaching role.  These two strong personalities have brought a degreeof hope back into the Oxford camp, but their first efforts in 1995, although an improvement on the walkover 1994 defeat, were still marked by loss.Meanwhile in the Cambridge camp, a revival of Light Blue fortune started by Mark Lees and John Wilson has been ably continued by Robin Williams, formerLRC coach, and guru Harry Mahon, from New Zealand.  After a tight battle in 1992 which was won by a gutsy Oxford crew, Mahon and his team made some decisive changes to the Cambridge style, which is now recognisably fluent, skilful and efficient.  It was a clever move, countering years of Oxford strength and domination, and now that Cambridge have learnt how to win again, they are not receptive to the idea of relinquishing their pre-eminent position.In addition, this year the Light Blues are driven by a committed President who is going to have to sit in the launch and clench his fists impotently as his crew battle it out across the 4.25 mile course.  John Carver, the fifth generation of his family to be involved in the Boat Race, is a diabetic whosetenosynovitis operation failed to heal properly, and he bowed out of competition this year, while still steering the Cambridge squad's training.Carver, in common with many in this and last year's Cambridge squads, won the reserves race with Goldie (in 1994), and this less-noticed event, which has so often gone Cambridge's way, has recently become a training ground for winners of the senior race.  Balancing the weight of history and myth in Carver's favour is Rob Clegg, theequally determined and charismatic Oxford President.  Rob's father Duncan was a winning President thirty years ago exactly, and the whole (rowing) family is hoping for a history-making win in 1996 as in 1966.  The Oxford crew alsocontains two other members of Clegg's U23 gold medal eight, plus some Westerntalent in the shape of a Harvard cox and four other North American oarsmen.  Up Cambridge's sleeve is the joker Nick Burfitt, a 29-year-old double Olympian,plus last year's winning strokeman and the giant Ethan Ayer, a Harvard oarsman who has this week been measured at 6 foot 8 inches and is therefore the tallestoarsman so far in the 142 years of the Boat Race. RACE DAY:For the first time in several years, Boat Race day dawned cloudy and overcast.  A slight and shifting NW breeze had the coaches on both sides out in "tin fish" launches early on, snooping along the river as the tide turned to begin its flow back in from the Thames estuary, trying to identify patches of rough water and confirm their choice of station.  The looping Tideway course can combine a variety of water conditions, depending on the direction of wind and tide.  In the end the wind flattened a little before the toss was made, leaving thechoicemore to race strategy and tactics than to weather conditions.  There are threemain bends on the race course:  the first a slight to bow side (starboard),thena long curve of 180 degrees to stroke side (port), and finally a short butquitesharp turn to bow side and the finish.  However, the course is not buoyed, and due to the steeply shelving sides of the river, there is a line of fastest streamjust two boats wide, which wanders following the path of deepest water.  The coxesmust learn this until "the line" is instinctive, and then become used to steeringit under the pressure of side-by-side racing.  Traditionally the umpire is an OldBlue, in even years from Cambridge, and his view of where the stream is will prevail, whatever the coxes think.  This year's Mike Sweeney is one of the mosthighly-respected GB umpires, and chairman of Henley Royal Regatta, and over thelast week made it clear to both coxes that he was prepared to disqualify either(which has never happened before) if they crossed his view of the course and interfered with the other crew to its detriment.  Both Cambridge and their reserves, Goldie, won the toss and chose Surrey, the southerly station.The Isis-Goldie race in recent years has been characterised by victories for Goldieand large margins as the dispirited Isis crews falter in their opponents' wake. This year was no exception, perhaps for different reasons.  Both crews werefastoff the stake boats, Isis at one stage leading by a canvas or so, and pushing Goldie away from the inside of the Fulham bend, until the Cambridge reserves moved steadily ahead and began to take advantage of their long Surrey corner.  This Isis crew did hold together, in rhythm and in length, but Goldie produced an extraordinary turn of speed over the second half, where flattening water and tailwindgave them the lift they needed to open up the gap.  At Hammersmith Bridge, justunder 1.75 miles through, Goldie were 18 seconds behind the course record to that point.  Over the next two and a half miles they lifted the pace, at a cruising 34, until they crossed the finish line in 17:02, breaking their record.  They finished 11 lengths (32 seconds) ahead of their rivals.Not surprisingly, the Boat Race proper was considerably tighter.  As the crews sat on the start, the tension in their faces was clear.Todd Kristol, the diminuitive Oxford cox from Harvard, and GB junior KevWhyman,both steering the race for the first time, were keenly aware of theirtask.  As they played the classic game, each trying to be the last to lowerhis hand with a ready crew, the two eights swung on their stakeboats in the strongTideway stream.  The crews sit with blades on the feather to counteract thedragthis produces, occasionally hooking a catch to straighten up for the racing line.  Finally both hands dropped, and "Set, GO!" came the call.  Sixteen bladesturnedover on the first syllable, and took up the slack on the second, the stream automatically drawing them out with no need for a squeeze.  The crews were offlevel, both striking high, and within a quarter minute the umpire was warningCambridge for steering as Whyman attempted to get the initial psychological edge.The tricks in steering Boat Races are a) don't look as if you are the one crowding, and b) don't overapply the rudder.  Both crews were warned regularly in the first six minutes, first Oxford on their corner, then Cambridge as the river straightened past the Milepost and Harrods Depository.  Both coxes did a good job, although Whyman looked slightly more skilful as the two crews headed out to the BarnElmscorner, minimising his steering and crowding Kristol a little as Cambridgeedgedslowly to a half-length lead.  Nailbiting stuff, and as Oxford hardened again, Whyman over-reached himself and was warned in turn, giving Kristol space to hug the start of the Surrey bend.  By this time the blades had overlapped forseveral strokes, but no contact was made.  At Harrods, just before Hammersmith Bridge, two crucial points occurred when Cambridge embarked on their classic20-stroke push, and Oxford started to feel the Cambridge bowside (starboard)puddles as Cambridge moved to just a length lead.  Both crews looked moreraggedhere than on the start, their combative first mile taking its toll, but Cambridge  started to relax, while Oxford pushed hard to hold their position and try to nibble the gap back.  Past Chiswick Eyot the clear water gap was just a third of a length, Cambridge clearly not feeling comfortable enough yet to cutahead and steal Oxford's water.Oxford faces were grim, their line tight to hold what they could of the bend, and it was clear great efforts were being made to get back on terms.  However, the Cambridge rhythm now took great effect, and the distance widened to two and a half lengths by Barnes Bridge.  Here Whyman, sensing the fatigue of his crew, moved inside Oxford to use the corner, and Cambridge held on strongly, despite having used much of their reserve strength early in the race.  Oxford yielded nothing easily, and took it up in the last half mile, white-lipped to the end.  The verdict was 2.75 lengths, and the time 16:58, a new second-fastest time in history.  As the on-boat cameras looked back to the launches, CUBC President John Carver's face was lit up, tears in his eyes as he saw the crew he couldn'trow in cross the line first.Times:  Mile Post       Hammersmith Br  Chiswick Stps   Barnes Br       FinishC 3:47          C 6:44          C 10:29         C 14:04         C 16:58O 3:47.5        O 6:47          O 10:33         O 14:11         O 17:05Cambridge were generous in victory, to a crew of "worthy opponents", and the potential animosity between the universities was buried in a round of gracioushandshaking between coaches and oarsmen.Next year will be very interesting, as both coaching teams are still in place, and Topolski clearly feels that he is getting nearer to a win by the month, whilethe Cambridge system is still working smoothly.  Meanwhile, the crews are offto Atlanta to join their women, masters and lightweight counterparts in aset of races on the Olympic course between Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard andYale.  For the men especially, it will be a rematch in earnest on a coursewherethere is no tactical stream advantage, and where the equivalent distance comparedto the Boat Race would put the Light Blues less than a length ahead at the finishline.  Harvard and Yale will be caught up in a very exciting challenge, and the lane draws could be an additional needle. Rachel QuarrellOxford.  Copyright RQ 1996.