Rowing: Women pull their weight but leave the fat on the land

The 'other' race still has to fight old prejudices, but Nick Townsend finds the tide has definitely turned
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The Independent Online

Prejudice does not die easily, even within the great seats of learning. The Boat Race has long been revered as a classic confrontation between two sets of men of muscle-rippling physique at peak fitness. The women's equivalent, which takes place this afternoon at Henley-on-Thames, still provokes a few dubious perceptions amongsome students.

"A lot of the men at the colleges have this picture of us," says Nicola Gardner, who rows at number two in the Cambridge crew. "They say, 'Oh, the women's boat club. They're a load of fat birds who can't row'.

"Maybe that was true a few years ago. There were a lot of really big girls, who possibly couldn't row that well. But there's no one carrying any extra fat this year. The standard these days is excellent. Two members of our squad, Sarah Cottell and Ruth De Las Casas, have been trialing for the Great Britain Under-23 pairs."

The women's event was first staged in 1927, and was held alternately on the Isis and Cam as a half-mile "time and style" contest. It moved to Henley in 1977, with the now 2,000m course starting at Henley Bridge and finishing at Temple Island. That means the women will go with the flow, unlike the men, who will row against it on the Tideway next Saturday. But that said, the swollen River Thames can still be a capricious host as it rushes between Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.

Like their male counterparts, the Light Blues saw off the "Dark Side", as they refer to their rivals, last year, reflecting the recent dominance of the Cambridge women. Weighing in this week at an average 12st, compared with the 5lb lighter Oxford, that trend should continue at 3pm today in front of an anticipated 5,000 spectators – in contrast to the many thousands who will throng the banks between Putney and Mortlake for the men's confrontation.

Television coverage and the history of the men's race accords them the benefits of sponsorship. The women have to pay their own costs, which can total £1,000 a year. Understandably, the variance between the sexes rankles. "It can be irritating," says Gardner, a 20-year-old natural science student at Magdalene College. "But you have to live with it. You've got to accept that 60 million will be watching the men worldwide, their event has been around for a lot longer and their standard of rowing is a lot higher. In the Blue boat this year there are six internationals."

She adds: "The men are supportive of us, in their own way. But there is a bit of tension because of the contrasting financial situations. Also, if we're out on the river training we have to keep out of their way, we are told, so that we don't upset them, which I've never quite understood. But off the river we are friends. We'll go to their Boat Race Ball and we all socialise."

Certainly, the women's training compares with the men's, adding up to 30 hours a week. It comprises rowing machine sessions, circuit training, sprinting, as well as regular river outings. Not everyone's concept of relaxation away from acadaemia. "I do work really hard at it," agrees Gardner. "My friends say I'm a bit mad. I'm always rowing, unless I'm eating, sleeping or working. But I want to continue and I'd love to represent Britain."

She adds: "Rowing for me is all about the adrenalin rush. It's a beautiful sport to take part in. When it all comes together, as it did for us yesterday, a smile just breaks over your face, even though your lungs are heaving and your legs are burning."

Gardner came up to Cambridge last summer intending to be a hockey Blue. "But somebody suggested rowing and, within my first term, I'd won an ergo [rowing machine] competition. Rowing just took over. It was daunting at first. I'd sit there thinking if something wasn't going right it was my fault. I was the newcomer. Fortunately, I am the sort to soak up criticism and learn from it. When I played hockey I had years of my mother standing on the touchline telling me how rubbish I was!"

Victory today means everything. "We just have a hatred for Oxford," she says, before adding hurriedly, "not the individuals, of course. Just the institution. The coaches are saying we're flying." And fat birds can't do that, can they?