Rowing: First in history, masters in craft

The Boat Race: Highlight for the Lowlands as Eggenkamp keeps Macdonald's spirit alive
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The Independent Online

The Oxford mutiny of 1987 has already been enshrined in the folklore of the Boat Race, commemorated in a best-selling book and a gallant, if mediocre, film. That was the year of the Anglo-American split, the year Donald Macdonald stood up for his beliefs and a quaint and anachronistic four-mile row down the western reaches of London's Thames became a metaphor for a sporting and cultural divide. In the only fitting end to the saga, the Dark Blues' young and predominantly British crew beat Cambridge, at a stroke returning the race to its rightful place as a match between two undergraduate crews, no longer just an extension of the US Olympic trials.

Whether, at the time, the deeper themes of the debate meant much to a 13-year-old Dutch schoolboy, one of the younger members of the Haarlem Rowing Club, is still uncertain. But Mariek Eggenkamp, despairing at her son's sketchy grasp of English, bought a copy of True Blue, the official account of the mutiny, in a desperate attempt to trigger his interest in languages. The result of her purchase will be viewed by a television audience of millions next Saturday when Gerritjan Eggenkamp, a 26-year-old graduate of Delft University, becomes the first Dutchman to row in the Boat Race.

"I was not very interested in English, I was more mathematically minded," Eggenkamp recalls. "But when she bought the book, I was fascinated. I read it in just a few days. I could not believe this little race could produce such depth of emotion. It was the team spirit, the bonding and about standing up for what you think is right, which, I suppose, is very Dutch too. I liked the tradition of the race, so, from then on, I had it in the back of my mind that if I ever had the chance, I wanted to go to Oxford."

It is still a source of surprise to Eggenkamp that in fulfilling his own boyhood ambitions, he has written his own little line of history. His inclusion in the Oxford crew for the 148th race, sponsored by Aberdeen Asset Management, reached the front page of almost every newspaper in Holland and caused such a flurry of calls from his national press that his mobile telephone has been almost permanently silenced.

Given that the Dutch eight won Olympic gold just six years ago and can boast a decent tradition of oarsmanship, the statistic is a curiosity explained only by the different academic systems in Holland and England. "There is no selection in Dutch universities," Eggenkamp says. "You say 'I want to go to this university' and you go there. If too many people apply, there's a kind of lottery to decide on selection. It's the belief that everyone should have an equal chance, no matter where you come from. So I guess, in the past when our students thought they might go to Oxford or Cambridge, they found 'hey, we have to do this application thing, then interviews and we have to send essays'. I think a lot might have thought 'OK, I'll leave it then'."

Eggenkamp was more persistent than the rest. He took his distinction in computer science to Keble College, Oxford, conducted his interview in English, which would have made his mother proud, and handed over his essays. He omitted to mention the fact that he was a member of the Dutch Olympic eight in Sydney and found that his interview panel was less than enthralled by his sporting past anyway.

It is Mariek too who can claim to have introduced her son to the sport. She was a rower and coach at the Haarlem club where Gerritjan would join her after school. The sense of team appealed to him and the physical stress. "My father rowed a little too," he says. "But when we had the family fours race at Haarlem, my dad was the one who slowed the boat down." The son, though, progressed to the fringe of the Olympic squad in 1996 and into the eight, who finished eighth in Sydney. The Oxford programme, he says, is superior to the national system in Holland. "I have been very impressed by the professionalism of the whole structure," he says. "I've really enjoyed my year. They're good guys in the crew, we've got good coaches and we have a lot of fun together."

The respect is mutual. Eggenkamp is nicknamed "Hokay" for his easy-going attitude to instruction, yet his natural competitiveness will play a significant part in sharpening the Dark Blue commitment on Saturday afternoon. "You can put two crews of exactly the same technical standard out on the water and one crew will always beat the other," says Derek Clarke, Oxford's assistant coach. "Why? Because one of them has what we call a crewmaker, a guy who makes the boat tick. Gerrit is a crewmaker. When things happen you know guys like him will step up."

Eggenkamp says his memory of the day will be shaped by defeat or victory, not by his own personal contribution to boat race history. "So much time and effort just for one race," he laughs. "You cannot think of losing." A true Blue. And orange.