Bowden the turncoat of the Tideway

Andrew Longmore talks to the man who will win the Boat Race whatever the result
Click to follow
THE one man immune to the charms of the Boat Race on the Tideway in two weeks' time will be wearing dark blue and on the verge of a place in the history of a unique race. Sean Bowden is not much interested in tradition; he has no idea how many Boat Races there have been nor how many victories either side claim. He has never read True Blue, the epic account of the 1987 crew mutiny, the pictures of his two victorious Cambridge crews of 1993 and 1994 remain unwrapped at the bottom of a drawer. His old light blue kit is stashed away in his mother's attic, he thinks. "Decent kit it was too," he said. "I made sure we had decent kit."

Bowden will be in the dark blue corner this year, coaching the Oxford crew to what would be their first victory in six years. The irony is twofold: first, Bowden is trying to knock down his own Cambridge hegemony; second, his position in Boat Race dispatches will be assured if Oxford win. Only a few coaches can boast victory for both colours, a symmetry which would appeal to Bowden's dispassionate nature. "A nice little scenario" he calls it.

Under Bowden, in 1993, Cambridge put behind them the ignominy of losing 16 of the previous 17 races in spectacular style. For too long, Cambridge had jogged along, glorious amateurs, permanent defenders of the moral high ground, perennial losers. Bowden, a bright, confident, young coach was employed to win and he did so, at the second attempt, though suspicion of his professional methods never quite left the banks of the Cam. Cambridge had grown fond of losing. Bowden spoiled all that with his structured training programmes, his reluctance to cede power to the usual bevy of blazered old blues and his insistence on proper discipline. Bowden made the crew wear shoes when they carried the boat, socks when they were inside it. He brought in a nutritionist and a physio, made his crew feel like real athletes for a change. Strong links were established with Harvard and decent oarsmen with American accents began to look east of Oxford.

"The difference between the Oxford crew today and the Cambridge crew then is that Oxford see themselves as winners just going through a bad patch, while Cambridge were losers. They didn't think winning was possible. It made it easier in a way because we came in from the outside and were able to ask the questions: I mean, how come you've lost 16 out of 17 races? There was also this feeling that the Boat Race was incredibly special and only people who have rowed in it could understand it. So the answers we got were along the lines of 'Well, this is how we've always done it.' They had this idea that Oxford kind of cheated their way to victory and that what was important was losing with style." Oxford may lose the Beefeater Gin Boat Race this time, but Bowden's intense philosophy of coaching does not embrace the notion of stylish defeat, not least because of the post- race formalities.

"I can safely say that the 1992 dinner after we lost was about the least enjoyable hour and a half of my life," he recalls. "I just didn't want to be this person. In fact, if you don't have confidence in your crew, the whole day is pretty miserable."

Facially, Bowden resembles Steve Ovett. Same gaunt expression, hiding the same intensity and quirky nature. His recreations betray the maverick: climbing, surfing, playing the guitar and sax. In 1994, his three-year stint with Cambridge at an end, he disappeared round the world to discover his priorities. To his surprise, he found he missed coaching and returned to guide the Olympic eight to Atlanta. The job at Oxford, initially for three years, came just as he was contemplating the need for a more settled way of life at the age of 34.

"I didn't plan to go across. I'm not an Oxford or a Cambridge man, I'm just a rowing coach and there just aren't that many opportunities to coach rowing. The beauty of the Boat Race is that you develop as a coach. With an Olympic crew, you will get three or four years to try things out, with a Boat Race crew, you have to be right on the day because there ain't another one. What you've got, you have to work with."

With four blues and three internationals, the Oxford crew have a strong nucleus of experience. The pundits are edging Cambridge's way, which will not worry Bowden much. His first Cambridge victors started at 5-1. "I can see no reason for Cambridge not to have a strong crew. We have to be prepared to give everything and gamble everything. We have done some pretty good work, but we have still got a lot to do." Not much of a clue there then. It will probably be of little comfort to Bowden in the final countdown that he can legitimately claim a hand in the victory, whichever colour blue holds sway.