Rowing: Perkins the rower who fought back from brink

The Boat Race: Oxford's No 4 has found strength from his chosen discipline to recover twice from life-threatening brain tumours
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The Independent Online

Dan Perkins, the American rowing at four in the Oxford Boat Race crew this Saturday, is used to achieving the impossible. Twice he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and twice he has beaten the odds.

Hanging on to hope through painful radiotherapy treatment in 1996 and 1999, sport, especially rowing, became a reason to survive, following the example of the Tour de France cyclist, Lance Armstrong. "He talks about getting back on to the bike, keep moving, and I felt a similar thing," says Perkins. "I wanted to keep trying to do what I was best at. I saw rowing as my job, and one of the things that I was going to cling to."

As a young college oarsman in the States, Perkins was succeeding with his Dartmouth varsity crew in 1996, when he had the equivalent of a stroke. "I all of a sudden lost feeling in the right side of my body", he said. "I was unable to speak, just stuttering, so they did a CAT scan. We'd just come sixth at the Eastern Sprints Regatta, I was pretty well on top of my game, then the next day I was in hospital."

The brain tumour they found was thought too dangerous to operate on. Doctors gave him a year, maybe two at most, even with radiation treatment to slow the disease. "I thought I wasn't going to row again, which looking back is silly. It was a huge shock, but on the other hand I was just numb, because I was in disbelief. Here you are, 21 years old, and you think you're on top of the world. The 21-year-old male psyche is not built for mortality."

However, a second medical opinion from the neurosurgeon Richard Fraser suggested that the risk of surgery was one worth taking. Radiotherapy followed, to remove the last tumour traces, and Perkins fought to regain his fitness and return to the sport he loved. The commitment to regaining his strength began to pay off in an unexpected way.

"Before I was diagnosed, I probably had something in the back of my mind about doing the American national team", he said. "Then, afterwards, I used my training to measure my recovery. Every time I went faster on the erg, I'd feel that I was getting better. So I kept on trying to raise the power, and eventually my scores got the attention of the national team coaches."

By 1997, aged 22, Perkins was back, and reaching international standards by breaking six minutes for 2,000 metres on the ergometer. In 1999, climbing the national squad ladder from Under-23 to senior standard, he was in a fast doubles combination, when disaster struck.

"We won the trial, and a week later we were going to a race in Washington DC, when I had a seizure", said Perkins. "I'd just gotten into town, so I went to the Georgetown Medical Centre, and they saw the tumour had come back."

A second operation followed, and five weeks of radiotherapy, although he insisted on scheduling it to let him see his team-mates race at Henley Royal Regatta and then the World Championships. "The radiation wasn't pleasant: I felt miserable and drained of energy, and I was living in a flat in New York alone. For the mental part of it, I was better, because I knew how to get through it. But maybe it's like the guys who've done the Boat Race before, they know how to deal with it, but it's going to be tougher again physically."

Three years on, Perkins is theoretically clear, but has a precautionary scan every six months. "The thing can grow back in two weeks, it's pretty aggressive. The only way I'm going to tell is if I have a seizure."

That is a frightening thought: it takes a minute for him to lose consciousness, and he had his last episode a year ago. "It's one of those things. If you've had one, you never, ever want to have it again. But I'm a lot more confident now. I don't really think about it, but it creeps in, once in a while."

After meeting the famous Oxford ex-coach Dan Topolski in 1995, the idea of combining study and rowing in the UK was attractive. Entered for a masters in European Education at Brasenose, Perkins has juggled lectures, classes and training, and is enjoying himself. This year Oxford are described as being out for revenge after last year's controversial restart, but Perkins feels differently.

"We want it to be about us, not about last year. The new guys in the team, we don't have anything to put right. I just hope it doesn't happen again."

His contribution to the crew, in the middle four oarsmen who call themselves the "meat wagon", is physical strength. "I don't think the coaches have ever told me to pull harder. I try and focus on my technique, timing and rhythm, and don't think about pulling: I do that naturally."

Perkins knows that the Boat Race is a challenge. "I don't want to rely on a sprint, but this is a crew with a lot of endurance, and very determined. Obviously, I hope it's all over after the first 100 strokes, but we all know it's not going to be, because they're a good crew, and we're a good crew, and it's going to go the distance."