The Boat Race experience is binary. Seven months of training alongside academic work, six days a week, several hours a day and in the end you’re a winner, or you’re a loser. All of those grueling morning starts, soul crushing sessions on the water and body shattering ergo tests distilled into 4¼ miles, every agony endured justified several times over for those who get to Mortlake first, and worth not a jot to the laggards behind them. How many strokes laid down in training for each and every one taken during the race? Andrew Cotter is sure to remind us come April th – just as sure as he is to rhapsodise on the unmitigated elation of victory, and the inconsolable desolation of failure. There are no prizes for second place. Such is Boat Race lore.
And yet those tropes entirely fail to capture my own experience of trialing with OUBC, which could be characterised as anything but ‘binary’. As an athlete –a term stretched to the limits of its meaning by my use of it in self-description –I fell well short. Forget the distinction between being in a winning or losing Blue Boat, I spent the season scrapping with heart and soul for the last spot in Isis. Finally, on a cold, dark evening of racing in February, I was not so much edged out of that coveted seat as flung unceremoniously over the sax-board by a fellow ‘college rower’. Going overboard that season wasn’t something I did exclusively metaphorically, either. Sent out to bat in the single scull one afternoon at Caversham (not a breath of wind, the lake as glass), I managed to capsize myself just as the Blue Boat and a top GB VIII thundered past in a racing piece. A low moment it was indeed as I stood soggy in the changing room, wringing out my unisuit, as the best rowers in the country, led by the club President –a future Olympic champion, poured in, exchanging war stories. So far, so easily characterised – if the world split evenly between the victors and the vanquished, I certainly knew which camp I was in. Things aren’t as simple as that though, even in our binary Boat Race world. Painted a loser by the black and white of performance and results, I feel I came away from my time at OUBC with many of the spoils of victory.
“As an athlete – a term stretched to the limits of its meaning by my use of it in self-description – I fell well short.”
I cherished the thrill of small wins that to me felt momentous; I’ll never forget racing in a Trial VIII. I retained a strong sense of pride in having persevered even as my sporting goals slipped away. I continue to row; Saturdays paddling down at Crabtree Boat Club are an enormous pleasure. Quality time spent amongst old Blues light and dark, ex-Presidents and fellow spares alike. Not to mention the annual Crabtree Festival of Rowing –a chance to resurrect that spirit of competition, if briefly, once again, before sharing old stories. More than anything, I made friends in those years who remain a big part of my life: my nemesis in the fight for a spot in the reserve crew and the stroke man of the VIII who washed me down as I bobbed in the water by my single are both to be groomsmen at my wedding this year.
So, in the end, could it be that winning doesn’t matter? Is it the taking part that counts? The making of friends and fun that follows the season – is that what we’re really in it for? Emphatically, no. Paradox though it may seem, to enjoy the myriad benefits that being part of the Boat Race can confer, whether on winner or loser, Blue Boat stroke seat or soggy single sculler, one must commit wholeheartedly and single-mindedly to the pursuit of success.
The primacy of the quest for the annihilation of the Light Blues was hammered home in emphatic fashion on my first day at OUBC during the start of season 5k ergo test. A returning Blue of some distinction, nothing short of a demi-god in the eyes of a mere rowing mortal like me, spent the final kilometer of his impressive effort grunting the names of the Cambridge crew who had defeated him the previous year at the finish of each stroke. Our collective purpose as a squad was clear. With the perspective that the passage of time provides, it can be easy to forget quite how all-consuming my own goal of being a part of a Dark Blue sweep on the big day was. 10pm ergos in my rented flat after long days on a summer internship between seasons, endlessly assessing my ranking in the squad, going down to the tank on rest day to try to ‘perfect’ my catch. (“The good news”, the iconic Sean Bowden told me after one session on the water, “is that what you’re doing at the front is entirely wrong, so you can just forget it completely and start over”). There’s not much I wouldn’t have given to have represented Isis that year. In looking back, I may now feel honestly and truly that I couldn’t have reaped greater reward from my rowing even if I’d managed to elevate myself from also-ran to victorious Blue, but that couldn’t be further from the mindset I carried at the time.
Bumping along at the bottom of the squad can be a conflicting experience. It’s one thing to talk about the time and effort committed to training when the uncertainty of the payoff is between a win or a loss; it can feel quite another when there is no guarantee of making it even to Putney’s University Stone. It can be uncomfortable to find how often one’s thoughts are of one’s own chances of making a certain boat, rather than of the squad’s collective prospects for success in the racing. In such unglamorous fires of uncertainty, great positives can be forged. So I discovered whilst in the ‘spare pair’. Having come so close to a racing seat on Boat Race day, one is cruelly consigned to the reserve bench, to be called to action only in the case of injury or illness. There was unquestionably a bittersweetness at the time in, for example, going for a coffee à deux between Tideway sessions and attempting to keep each other motivated, or sitting in an empty changing room as the rest of the squad debriefed in crews. We fought to keep sight of a sense of pride in having made it so far which could at times be clouded in a mist of perceived failure and lack of purpose. These, though, are memories that have matured into cherished ones. The friendship formed between my pairs partner and I is a genuinely unique and enduring one, whose nature is inextricably tied to the deeply imperfect circumstances of its origin.
Mine is but one perspective –I can’t speak for the rower for whom the Boat Race is a culmination of a 10-year career in the sport, nor for the Olympian who seeks to add a final glittering jewel to their crown. It is one, however, that can be forgotten in the lofty rhetoric that surrounds the event, in the imagery of victory: stood astride the deck, oar aloft, and defeat: hunched and broken, heads in hands. To the also-rans, the spares and the substitutes I say that, in my experience, these races have an enormous amount to give. Whilst you are training for them, yes, winning means everything. You must care above all about doing whatever you can to get yourself in that boat and to drag it over the line ahead of the enemy. Without that, there can be no meaning to the journey at all. But, in the back of your mind, remind yourself that there are much greater riches at stake.
Ollie Bristow rowed for St Peter’s College, Oxford for 4 years and raced in the Trial VIIIs in the 2012/13 Boat Race season.