Boat race: Washed up on desolation row

Andrew Longmore discovers there is no hiding place for the Boat Race losing crew
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LOSERS' dressing rooms are the cruellest places in sport, but the female changing rooms at the Quentin Boat Club hosted a community of particular desolation. Kit bags were strewn across the concrete floor, on which Paul Berger was laid, barely moving, his colleagues stared into space. No one spoke.

For the sixth year in a row, a bedraggled Dark Blue crew had slumped weary frames on wooden benches to reflect on six months of wasted labour. Only the fact that they had been beaten by a crack crew and had gone into the century-old ledgers as record-breakers sweetened the bitter taste of defeat. In near perfect conditions, Cambridge shattered the course record by 26 seconds, dragging Oxford in their wake, a mere nine seconds behind.

The last thing Nick Robinson, the Oxford stroke, really wanted to do was talk about it. "I don't know," he said absent- mindedly, "last year we could've won, this year was a bit of a mismatch really. Losing last year was hard; this year..." The sentence trailed into thin air. "It was going pretty well until the clash, but they came out better than we did. For us to win, we needed everything to go perfectly." The consolation of being good losers, good enough to have won most years, will break slowly through the dark clouds for the Great Britain Under- 23 international. Climbing Everest and flying fighter airplanes, his stated ambitions outside rowing, will seem child's play in comparison.

Berger, the graduate American, was distraught at the finish. In the Boat Race, there is no hiding place for the losers, who have to dock on a shore awash with Light Blue joy. The crews move, as they have for the best part of six months, in separate orbits, separated by the whole spectrum of sporting emotion. It is many minutes before eye contact is made and hands shaken in genuine appreciation of shared effort.

Berger sat on the shingle, his head sunk into his hands, consoled briefly by Dan Topolski, the Dark Blue guru. Finally, he rose, so exhausted that his progress across the car park back to the sanctity of the changing rooms was as agonising as a drunk in the park on a Saturday night. He collapsed later, suffering from hyperventilation and low blood sugar, but disappointment must have been as much a symptom. Sean Bowden, the Oxford coach, who had transformed Cambridge fortunes in the early Nineties in spectacular fashion, sat in the Oxford launch throughout the 16 and a half minutes of action, just once pumping his left arm towards his beleaguered crew in a desperate attempt to inspire a counter- attack.

But by then, Oxford had accepted the inevitability of a defeat, staved off for a frantic opening few minutes but assured once the crews had clashed predictably on the Fulham bend. The Cambridge cox, Alastair Potts, reacted swiftly to the disruption of rhythm, his cries of "Go, go, go" setting up a Cambridge push which in effect decided the outcome of the 144th Boat Race, the last under the sponsorship of Beefeater Gin. Cambridge's power did the rest.

The previous day, the Dark Blue crew had talked long and hard about the weaknesses of their rivals. An 1800cc engine versus a V8, Bowden had said. "We had to disrupt their rhythm over the first half of the race," Robinson said. "That's why we chose Middlesex. We knew from the pattern of their training runs that they would make a push around Harrods and we had to be ready to contain them." A final desperate 30-second push at St Paul's drained the last drops of energy from the Dark Blues, who were giving away nearly a stone a man to one of the biggest crews in the history of the race.

"You're a hero, Alex," Harry Mahon, the Cambridge finishing coach, had told Alex Story, the Cambridge number six, as he waited in the boathouse for the made-for-television walk down the shore before the start. They slouched into battle like gunfighters along a dusty street, but the air of confidence was unmistakeable. Cambridge take to the water not just with a mounting record of success and with a comforting catchphrase, a psychological technique introduced by Bowden. In 1993, when the tide turned for the Light Blues, their van displayed the "Just do it" symbol of Nike. So "Just do it" it was. The following year: "Make it happen." In the pre- race bonding, the message from the president this year was "total control" followed by a question: "Are we going to do it?" The echoes of the explosive Cambridge response could be felt all the way down the calm waters of the Thames and deep inside the spartan quarters of the defeated Oxford crew.

"We were never in doubt that we would win," Story said. "Even early on, you could feel they were having to put in a little more effort to keep up with us. It was strange. Sometimes, the boat felt bad and heavy, yet we broke the record. We can row a lot better than that." A terrifying thought for the Oxford camp to contemplate through a fallow summer.