Rowing: Cambridge powered by revenge

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The Independent Online

Cambridge lost the 2002 Boat Race when Seb Mayer got into trouble before Barnes Bridge and Oxford rowed them down round the outside of the final bend. Last year, Cambridge were on the outside of that final bend and they tried to return the compliment, failing by a foot, the closest result since the start of the fixture in 1829, apart from the 1877 dead heat.

Cambridge lost the 2002 Boat Race when Seb Mayer got into trouble before Barnes Bridge and Oxford rowed them down round the outside of the final bend. Last year, Cambridge were on the outside of that final bend and they tried to return the compliment, failing by a foot, the closest result since the start of the fixture in 1829, apart from the 1877 dead heat.

Robin Williams, the Cambridge chief coach, was left almost speechless on the beach last year. "We will have to go home and figure out what we can do about it," he said. You do not have to be a brain surgeon to realise that this year's Cambridge are the most fired up crew in the history of the race.

This year's president, Wayne Pommen, should have been on board last year's boat, but he had to drop out when he fractured his wrist in a collision with the harbour master's launch 48 hours before the race, an incident which could have upset Cambridge's whole apple cart.

But what bugs Williams is that the superhuman effort which brought Cambridge to within one stroke of winning was delivered at the wrong time and place - at the end of the race and on the outside of a bend in Oxford's favour.

Since then, Williams says, "We have looked at the tapes and all the technical things, reviewed all the detail and the dynamics of the crew. In the 1990s the crew that ran out of fitness was the loser. This is no longer the case. Oxford showed last year that a crew can be greater than the sum of the parts."

He has been blessed with a president who, in the words of Nate Kirk, the stroke, "leads from day one with absolute purpose." Pommen was elected president last May, and despite reaching the final of the pairs at the World Championships, chose Cambridge and a PhD in North American international trade relations over trying out for the Canadian Olympic team.

Mayer, a German international medal winner before coming to Cambridge to do cancer research and the man who saw the angel of death at the Bandstand two years ago, is back after a year off rowing. Two of the men who lost by a foot, the Australian Kris Coventry and the American Hugo Mallinson, are back again, plus four men from the winning reserve boat in 2003: Chris Le Neve Foster, Andrew Shannon, Steffen Buschbacker and Kirk. The last two are Americans, making this probably the most international crew that Cambridge has ever boated.

What Williams wants is a cohesive and fit crew with a robust mentality and a good grasp of the river. "The more you understand the course, the better position you are in," he said.

Now his men are champing at the bit. "The second time it means 10 times as much," Pommen explained. "A positive advantage is the experience we have." Kirk, a Yale man who is sharing a boat with three Harvard men, said: "You couldn't hope to have a better bunch of guys when you have three who've lost by a foot, three who just missed out on the boat, and Seb Mayer, who lost the year before.

"Everything is done to so much purpose. If any office was run that way, it would be the most productive company in the world. Last year we did more mileage than when I was at Yale, but the intensity wasn't as high. This year the intensity is as high as it was at Yale and the mileage is as high as last year. I think that's a tribute to how Wayne decided to run the show."

The trick now for Cambridge is to hold back until 6pm on Sunday. Kirk says that for last year's oarsmen, one more breath would have made their lives different for another 30 years. "You'd be walking around happy. We've had six months to decide how to take that last breath. Some people have empty eyes, but if you stand eye to eye with every person in this crew they just look right back at you. They know what they want and how they are going to get it." Kirk, sees it as 20 strokes, and he knows that he will know, and they will all know, when the moment comes.

There is no doubt that Cambridge face strong opponents in this 150th Boat Race. The difference is that Oxford have a foot to defend, and somehow, it seems much more difficult to get your head round defending that foot than annihilating the memory of it.

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