Coach drives away the Blues

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WE WOULDN'T want you to think that we are the kind of people who hang around dressing-rooms trying to sneak glimpses of sports stars in their underwear. But when we called on the Cambridge Boat Race Squad to check on their preparations for the race on 1 April, we couldn't help noticing the sign pinned to the inside of their dressing-room door in the University boathouse. It read: "That which does not kill us makes us strong." Jolly old Nietzsche: just the fellow you want to cheer you up before a gruelling training session on a bleak afternoon with snow in the Fenland air. "At least it won't be dark before we finish," said Matthew Parish, who rows at two, recalling winter training. "That's grim."

It all seems pretty grim, this Boat Race training business. "On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday they are in the gym at 6.30 in the morning," Robin Williams, the Cambridge coach, told us. "They do an hour and a half's work then, with rowing ergometers or weights. Then they go off to their first lectures. At half past one they are back at the boathouse for the drive out to Ely, where they row on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Saturdays and Sundays, they row twice. Monday is what we call regeneration day: they can do what they want: swim, jog, cycle . . ." Get their breath back? Sleep? "And when they're not rowing or training they're in lectures or writing essays like crazy." All of which knocks on the head the notion that students are idle layabouts who only get out of bed at lunchtime in order to go to the pub.

Williams is rather a serious figure, for all his relaxed garb of jeans and sneakers. A graduate of London University and a former Great Britain international and world championship medallist, he took over as chief coach for Cambridge last July. His office, above the University boathouse on the River Cam, is modern and sparsely furnished. There are autographed light blue oar blades on the window sill. He explained the technique that he has been drumming in to his oarsmen.

"People always think that rowing is about pulling with your arms. But in fact it's not at all, it's about pushing with your legs. It's about putting the oar in the water, and moving the boat past the oar, rather than pulling the oar through the water. The oar actually stays in one place." It's a slightly tricky concept to get your head round, but most of the oarsmen are on their second or third degrees, so they should be able to puzzle it out.

Some people see the Boat Race as a parochial event blown out of all proportion by television. But Williams sets it in an international context, a kind of all-star match worthy of mention in the same breath as the Olympics and the world championships. "It's not something you can really quantify - it's a subjective thing - but I think a good Boat Race crew would make a world championship final," he says. "Last year's Cambridge crew, if they were allowed to race in a world championship final, could very possibly pick up a medal." What about this year's crew? "We reckon this year's crew has the potential to go as fast as last year's."

Converting the potential into reality involves frequent minibus trips to Ely, where the squad train on the River Ouse (the River Cam is too thin and wiggly). When the wind blows, East Anglia can be beastly cold and Ely Marina on Thursday afternoon had much in common with Siberia. The oarsmen, wrapped up in high-tech underwear and layers of smart light blue kit, "warmed up" as far as possible. Then, with great care, they brought the boat down to the river. It was beautiful - 50 feet of yellow plastic and carbon fibre; £15,000 of Beefeater Gin's money. Joshing and joking, they lifted their craft into the water and climbed aboard. The coach's launch burbled into life.

"It's pretty relentless," Robin Williams had admitted earlier. "The cold, the wind and the rain. You don't particularly feel it on a daily basis, but doing it for days and weeks and months on end . . . it is quite a gruelling experience to go through." A word from the cox, and the blades bit in unison, the oarsmen leaning back into the first stroke. Back on the rack again.

THE Greater Manchester police are adopting Belgian tactics: a Bolton Wanderers fan has been arrested for lobbing a turnip at Graham Taylor. Craig Allen raised a cheer from the Burnden Park crowd and a smile from his target when he bunged the vegetable during Bolton's match with Wolves. But the rozzers swooped, arrested him and charged him with throwing an offensive article. Nothing offensive about it, if you ask us, and there's nothing on the statute book about throwing a joke article.