Chuter performs her balancing act

Hugh Matheson on how Oxford have developed rowing harmony
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The Independent Online
After losing two Boat Races on the trot, for the first time since 1973, Oxford had to do something last summer and it chose to put its faith in the charioteers not the horses for the next clash between the Light and Dark Blues.

This is pragmatic. The college admissions tutors decide who is available to row in the University on almost any grounds as long as they exclude ability to row. So, it is down to the coaches to tease thoroughbred performances from stock that is sometimes bigger in the cranium than the quadricep.

The Oxford president, Jeremiah McLanahan, chose to bring back Daniel Topolski to recreate the magic and the motivation which helped Oxford to win 13 times before. But he needed someone to define and apply the highly sophisticated physiological processes that are now applied to training for any top-level sport.

McLanahan chose Penny Chuter, the national coach for 19 years and Britain's representative on the technical committee of the world governing body, for six of them.

Chuter had been marooned in a desk job at the Amateur Rowing Association for too long. She was longing to apply her knowledge to a real crew for a full cycle rather than take one over when it was too late for transformation.

When she arrived at Oxford in September she found Topolski in the middle of a training camp and already stirring up the sort of euphoria that makes cart-horses believe they are descended from the Darley Arabian. She said: "I had to be the boring one, to bring them down to earth and find out what each was truly capable of before I could give them the right work to show real improvement"

She found the "range of the raw material was very great". At the top, Laird Reed, who won a junior world gold in 1987, was performing at international level. At the bottom, "well it was a long way down. The main thing was a lack of training background". She had first to identify the weaknesses in each performance profile so that she could place the right emphasis in training. She gave them hours of work on the rowing ergometer, a machine which allows the oarsman to simulate the cycle of the stroke while spinning a fly wheel on an appropriately stiff gearing.

They would all do the same distance or time, but they used heart-rate monitors to ensure each was working at an intensity just below the point where exhaustion is immediate and sudden. This point, where a workload can be sustained for a long time, is known as the anaerobic threshold and her aim was to reduce the range of performance in the squad. She was pleased that, in spite of illness and injury, by the end the gap between top and bottom had narrowed significantly.

Next she had to identify where some people kept their strength. "One or two had done a lot of gymnasium work with weights and were strong in individual muscles groups but infexible in movement, or strong in upper body with weak legs and so on." To produce the perfectly balanced athlete she will need more equipment at Oxford so that she can lay out the weights room to give a perfect task for each body.

Her other great contribution so far has been to make the calendar fit the training needs of the crew rather than do things at particular times of year because they have always been done like that. This year the calendar has been reset by nine weeks of flooding on the Thames which, she says, held up the stylistic merging of the crew. But it has meant that "we have had a big change in the past three weeks and that sense of improvement has been great for morale at the time when it is most useful".

She has been stretching to provide the crews with the logistical back- up so that they waste no time waiting to do things. Jorn Throndsen, the Norwegian who will stroke Oxford on Saturday, said: "I keep a journal of training and in one week we did exactly 24 hours of work, excluding even the loosening and warm-down periods, that was actually sweating."

Chuter uses whatever hi-tech equipment she can to improve the unity of the crew and the ergometer work is checked on a strain gauge which shows how the power is applied through the stroke. "Ideally, the graph would be square, with full power instantly available at the catch of the stroke and evenly applied through the full arc until the blade is extracted. But of course if someone applies all his strength very quickly, when others are not yet fully committed, he will carry the crew for the first part of the stroke, exhaust himself in a short time and they will have to carry him for the rest of the race. It is more important to get the curves the same than to worry too much about attaining perfection in one." Not a bad lesson for life.