Light Blues thrive on Ayer's rock

Hugh Matheson on how adversity sends the Cambridge President into overdrive
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The Independent Online
When he calls heads or tails an hour or so before the 143rd Boat Race this afternoon Ethan Ayer, the Cambridge President, will be opening his defence of a trophy won for the last four years by the Light Blues. He may be shaken with doubts about his crew, which has faced traumatic changes in the final week of training with five shuffles of the seating order in a single outing. But he will not show it.

Since taking over the Boat Club last summer the goal posts have been moved for him. Most importantly, Oxford found a new coach, the Dutchman Rene Mijnders, who had steered his national eight to gold at the Atlanta Olympics. "We made no special response, just pushed at the limits of what we already do, ticked it up a notch," Ayer says. "We have a very harmonious and efficient system at Cambridge. It is easy to be President with this backing."

Now 26, Ayer has already had time to race and win three times for Harvard against Yale, and he spent two years with Merrill Lynch on Wall Street where his open credibility would have made his fortune if he had not returned to the sport with Cambridge, and victory, last year.

"I've had a revival here. At Harvard under Harry Parker, it was mostly about training your body and developing your mental powers. Here they spend more time developing technique, so that you can get more enjoyment out of it and move fast."

When he came to Cambridge it was to read for an undergraduate degree in English Literature but, "seven long books a week didn't really mix with the rowing", and borrowing from his time in finance at Merrill Lynch he has devoted himself to writing a thesis on the balance of power in European stock markets.

He is concerned with tradition and is pleased an understanding has been reached on the way the race is run. "This year the crews are more pure and the balance of ages and types is closely representative of the two Universities."

This is a big point for him as he is captured in the public imagination as a piece of Yankee beefcake who is stealing a great tradition from the Brits. He points out that his crew contains only two men who have arrived at the University, and one of them, Alex Story, is a British undergraduate this year, and that all the others have been nurtured in the Cambridge style for at least two seasons.

His steel was shown two months after he took over as President last summer when a mistake in the entry forms for Henley Royal Regatta meant he had the wrong coxswains in his two crews for the Ladies' Plate and the Temple Cup. When requests for a change were turned down he threatened the resignation of the coxes until the Henley Stewards backed down.

The row, far from distracting him, drove his determination to win the Ladies Plate. "He's a guy who won't take no for an answer," Donald Leggett, one of the Cambridge coaches, says.

Harry Mahon, the New Zealander who has coached the final two weeks for Cambridge since 1993, says of him: "He's not just some 6ft 9in hulk, but is very well co-ordinated and has learned to move well. He has led the boys through the training and has their respect."

Ayer's problems come not from within but from a rejuvenated Oxford. Under Mijnders, the Dark Blues have produced one of their most accomplished crews but one which is impossible to measure as they have had no side- by-side races in Britain.

More hangs now on Ayer's form than his leadership because, as the biggest man in the biggest Boat Race crew in history, his fluency is critical. At his worst he drops his outside shoulder at the start of the stroke. Then uses too much of his long back. You see it in practice, but in last year's Boat Race and in winning the Ladies' Plate, he turned it on for the day and raced with a beautiful fluency, which clinched his victories.