Rowing: President who switched sides plans revenge

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The Independent Online

Ten days before the Oxford versus Cambridge Boat Race, 90 student oarsmen, oarswomen and coxs from the two universities are preparing for their own head-to-head challenge this Sunday. Started in 1974, the Henley Boat Races are the younger siblings of the Boat Race, but they generate just as much rivalry.

On 24 March, the women's and lightweight crews in dark and light blue will race two kilometres at Henley-on-Thames, on the water used for Henley Royal Regatta each summer. For Oxford's Jess Wilson, the women's Boat Race will have a bitter-sweet edge to it, as she becomes the first man or woman to row in turn for both Blue Boats as President.

Only a few have rowed for both camps, most as medical students. After an undergraduate degree at Cambridge, Wilson will sit her final clinical medical exams in Oxford in June. For the next five days, though, her only focus is on beating "The Tabs".

''I never meant to row at Oxford,'' she said. "I felt a bit saturated with rowing, having done nothing but train for two and a half years.''

Wilson's rowing career began at St John's College, Cambridge. Spotted in the bar, she learnt quickly, racing with reserve women's crew Blondie in 1998. In 1999 as Cambridge President, her squad demolished both Oxford and the course record, and Wilson had surpassed her dreams. The only way was down, so she changed universities, seeking new goals.

At first, Wilson's focus was Oxford women's rugby but a broken ankle and then cracked collar-bone put paid to training for a year. Meanwhile the Oxford Rowing Coaches had found her, and began to wheedle. She found switching sides difficult at first.

"I felt as if I was betraying the people who had taught me to row,'' she says. "It was terrifying. It took me some time to realise my loyalties were to the people I was training with. Since then, I haven't looked back.''

Tasting defeat in the Oxford Blue Boat last year, as they were hauled back by Cambridge in the final strokes of the race, Wilson could not face it being her last experience of university rowing. Standing for President again was "a drunken decision after the race'', but she says she has thoroughly enjoyed the experience. And what about Sunday's race, which could be the last of her rowing career?

"We've got reason to be confident, but no reason to be arrogant,'' she says. "But losing again isn't an option.''

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