Oxbridge rivals blending brain with brawn

Two opposing Boat Race coaches will put scientific methods to the test
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The Independent Online

The Sydney Olympics start in five months and all those wandering rowers with ambitions to stick an Oxbridge degree on their CV have made their excuses and left.

The Boat Race, Saturday 4.10pm, has two good crews and will be on or very close to the pace of recent years but does not have any of the giants of the sport - unless you count the 6ft 9.5in Josh West, who at 22 has plenty of time to win some big races, but has not yet built up much of a medal chest. This puts even greater onus on the coaches to pull what talent they have into a cohesive and tough racing unit.

Robin Williams and Sean Bowden have been in opposition for three years and have plenty of common experience knocking about the higher reaches of British rowing. Williams,40, has had charge of Cambridge for six years and has not lost the Boat Race. He was heir to a revamped system which was two wins on the right side of the worst losing streak in Light Blue history but, according to Harry Mahon, the New Zealand coach who has worked in England for eight years and is the nearest thing the sport has to a single fount of wisdom, Williams has transformed the whole sport in Cambridge.

"He is much more than a Boat Race coach. The vision is much wider and rowing right through the University has risen in his time," Mahon said.

Williams has equal praise for Mahon: "He had been around for years when I first worked with him but his voice was as fresh and incisive as if he had been in a boat the day before. One of the best sessions we had was early on when, for some reason, I was rowing in the crew and Harry was coaching and I could hear exactly how perceptive he was about the feel of the boat. His style has changed as we have improved the approach of those coming up from the base of the pyramid. Now he is less of a hard nut and can be more persuasive."

Williams has moved with the times since his own career as an athlete, which included silver medals as an international lightweight. He has used psychologists from outside in the past. "It feels more normal if we get it from the coaching team and anyway, speed mostly comes from desire. We certainly made mistakes in mental preparation in my day, where with more guidance we might well have won races we actually lost."

Allan Inns, the coach who sustained Cambridge through the long years of struggle when they were on the wrong end, says: "He's got the physiological demands, the rowing technique, and the psychological programme right to the hour. They will not peak until the moment the race starts on Saturday."

Bowden, 36, was brought into Oxford three years ago with a long pedigree of national and international honours in eights, including being half of the team which first turned Cambridge round in 1993. Last year, after his crew, brimming with talent, had lost yet again when Cambridge upped the ante from the previous record-breaking boat, he was in despair.

"We were losing and not rowing the way we wanted to so we had to review everything and change the complete structure," Bowden says. He had the chance to choose a new assistant when his old No 2, Chris Nillsen, left to take over at Princeton in the United States. "I wanted someone who would push me to a higher level," Bowden says. "When they talk I want to be really interested in what they are going to say."

He once had this relationship with Mahon both at Cambridge and after, but Mahon is still on the Light Blue team and, as Bowden says: "There's only one Harry Mahon, so finding him again is not going to happen." When he began looking, Derek Clark had just returned from a stint with the National team in Switzerland and they felt the balance of skills would work.

"The programme and approach is much more objective. Last year, when we had problems with the water conditions; if it was really rough, we would miss the correct intensity on the water work and the physiology would suffer." What this means is that the whole team, athletes and managers were finding reasons not to pull hard, and needed a new structure.

"If you do less than the 90 minutes of hard work each session you are not going to get the improvement you seek, and for that you have to have a high standard of technique. Derek is particularly insistent on getting the rhythm right."

This time the raw material is not "ready made" as 12 months ago and the Dark Blue camp has used Clark to bring all the testing in-house. Another innovation has been to use a sports psychologist, Kirsten Barnes, particularly to get minds prepared properly for the race. "Having experts is better than using coaches, who tend to be jacks of all trades," Bowden says. "Kirsten has done between six and eight big sessions and it has been pretty popular. I am a real believer that the coaching team has to perform exactly as we expect the athletes to perform."

Come Saturday they will have as much at stake as the men on the water, as the whole of their careers are subject to this measure alone.

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