Cox who gets things clear

Hugh Matheson talks to Todd Kristol, who will steer Oxford in the Boat Race
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The Independent Online
He is a skeletal 5ft 1in - "when I frizz up my hair" - and yet still he is fasting. Yesterday morning he was down to 7st 71/2lb. As in 142 races since 1829, Oxford and Cambridge have agreed no rules about how light the cox can be, Todd Kristol, the American chosen a month ago to steer Oxford in Saturday's Boat Race, has to decide for himself when reducing the weight his crew has to pull along will leave him lightheaded and more of a hindrance than a help.

Pleased enough with 7-71/2, he aims only to hold it there until Saturday at 3.30pm, but he is looking forward with longing to gorging himself in the week after the race - before he has to turn in at 8st 13lb to race on 13 April on the Olympic course at Gainesville, outside Atlanta against Cambridge, Yale and his Alma Mater, Harvard.

Kristol would not be here if he did not think Oxford, and he, were likely to win. He finished Harvard "with highest honours", having arrived there from Scarsdale High School in New York "more rounded and not so concentrated" and told himself to "pick a few battles I can win and not spread myself too thin". He took up rugby and on the third day his "teeth were bashed in", so he tried out as a coxswain and beat Yale four years in a row, the last three while steering the Varsity crew.

When pursued on the point that he must be highly organised to achieve the top results at every turn, he denies it vehemently and says he is the "most disorganised person in the world and an incredible slob. I have to force myself to write things down so that I will remember to do them".

But why would anybody want to sit in the freezing stern of a boat for five months of the English winter, being lashed by the spray and unable to even move, let alone exercise to keep warm? The answer comes easily - as if this is what he wants the crew to read. "I get a certain sense of enjoying the pain they feel... of wanting them to sweat." He then mutters something about massive "egos being put in their place" but quickly corrects himself by saying that being a cox is "a weird kind of job. There is no control at all. At the Oxford University Boat Club there are four coaches and a boatman. So many various people all pulling strings. The cox has to fit into a wider web of control."

Thus he avoids any references to Napoleon; just as he is rare among modern sportsmen in avoiding the sports shrink's buzz word, "focus".

He is also unusual, as a driven and hugely ambitious man, in wishing to use his time first at Harvard, and now at Oxford, to educate himself rather than to acquire a vocational training. He is reading for an M.Litt in History, specialising in the relations between the immigrant races and native Americans, and chose Oxford for postgraduate study because the Rhodes Library is one of five places in the world with copies of the Jefferson papers on the subject.

He is now interviewing for a job as a management trainee with one of the powerhouse business consultancies in America. When challenged that it is difficult to advise a business client when you have never worked in business, he says he will be hired for his ability to absorb and analyse data, not for what he knows now.

Seated in his narrow cockpit in the stern of Oxford's German shell, boxed in by the connections to his loudspeaker system and stop watches, he has to peer round the angular frame of Adam Frost, 15 inches taller and almost twice as heavy, in the stroke seat. Frost, he says, stands out in the crew. "He has done so much in spite of being the youngest. He's the most level headed in the crew." Behind Frost is a tough racer, Paul Berger, a leader on the water.

Kristol knows that on Saturday these two will have to enact the race plan that will have been thoroughly discussed and laid down by Daniel Topolski, the coach. But, if things do not go to plan, then it will be for him to "assess and attack from a new perspective".

He has the ability and the aggression to make the difference if problems occur. He has studied the Putney to Mortlake course like a taxi driver acquiring "the knowledge". He listens to Topolski as well as to Abbie Chapman, last year's cox, and Liz Chick, a winner from 1992. The task is analysed and absorbed with the standard Kristol efficiency, and he will be aggressive and effective on the day.