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By John Harkness
“Yeah, after halfway it was good fun.” Oxford stroke Simon Hislop’s analysis of the 157th Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race coolly understates one of the most impressive Oxford performances in recent years.
Before the ‘fun’, the race was tight, albeit briefly. Oxford won the toss and opted for the Surrey station despite Middlesex having produced the last four winners. The heavier Light Blue boat took a small lead off the start, yet found themselves behind Oxford within forty-five seconds. Around the first, Cambridge-favouring bend, Oxford’s Sam Winter-Levy steered an aggressive line to negate any advantage. Twice umpire Rob Clegg warned him, but the tactic paid dividends.
As the river twisted back in Oxford’s favour, the Dark Blues attacked and found themselves a second ahead at the mile post. Now it was Cambridge’s turn to be warned by Clegg, although the statistic that 95% of crews leading at Hammersmith Bridge go on to win the race was warning enough. Oxford, by now, were ahead by a length. Somewhere between here and the Chiswick Steps, where Oxford were two lengths ahead, the fun started. Cambridge had a brief attempt to come back into it thwarted, and Oxford proceeded to the finishing line untroubled; cold-blooded killers inflicting serious pain on the Light Blues. Eventually crossing the line 12 seconds or four lengths ahead of the eternal rival, it was fun perhaps for the Oxford crew, but not the greatest spectacle for those watching. Some might argue that for more excitement, the BBC should screen the reserve race as well. (Un)fortunately, this year Isis won by six lengths, remarkably in a time that would have been good enough to win the main event by six seconds.
This year it is not so much the race that will stick in the public’s consciousness, rather the varied and fascinating stories in the Oxford boat. The enduring image could well be of former lightweight Moritz Hafner clambering all over his boat over the finish line and later wrestling Winter-Levy back into the water after his traditional cox dunking. The youngest cox in a century was the hero in the Spanish press. Endearingly, but by no means undeservedly, they heralded “El Niño” Winter-Levy as the hero of the race. Alec Dent’s compelling year with OUBC has been less publicised. Originally named president of this year’s Blue Boat, a back injury put his participation in doubt. Ben Myers took over the presidency while Dent concentrated on an incredible recovery that culminated in him bursting into tears over the finish line. The much-hyped Constantine Louloudis might yet steal the day, the young prodigy having since finished fourth in GB Senior Trials alongside Cambridge’s George Nash. The Olympics, once Summer Eights are done, might well replace Classics Mods as the big date in his diary next year.
But the real hero of the Oxford race is Head Coach Sean Bowden. He’s been involved in the Boat Race with one crew or another for nineteen years now, overseeing those thousands of strokes that build to victory. BBC coverage suggested Oxford spent the build-up training like machines while Cambridge were larking around. “Not quite fair”, Isis’ Ben Snodin commented, “but if they make us look like machines that win races, I don’t care”. Bowden’s iceman persona extends to not travelling with the crew on the minibus to training, and he’s clearly doing something right. Taking a less-fancied, less-experienced crew with fewer returning Blues to such a convincing victory is an impressive feat. One OUBC member, who may wish to remain anonymous, says that post-race was perhaps the only time he had ever seen his coach hug anyone. With him at the helm, Oxford must hope for more fun and hugs on 7th March, 2012.