Mijnders masterminds Oxford revival

Hugh Matheson meets the Dutch coach planning to win the Boat Race
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The Independent Online
The Dark Blue coach, Rene Mijnders, is a little baffled that, as coach of the Dutch crew which won the 1996 Olympic title, his fame rippled little beyond the banks of the Amstel canal, where his crew had lived and trained and that now he is feted throughout England and has two or three television units following each of his training sessions.

Mijnders, 40, had been on the scene in the Netherlands for some years before he struck gold with the eight and the gradual build up, while his crew twice came second in the World Championships, disguised his impact, but here it is apparent for all to see.

Challenged on whether any of his Oxford crew could have taken a place in the Dutch Olympic eight he says, "This crew would perhaps have not enough power really to threaten the Dutch eight of last year. Otherwise they are of the same standard." That is a notable compliment to the way his coaching has been accepted and understood in Oxford. In the Netherlands he was chief coach for 10 years and his eight were developed over nearly four years. In Oxford he had to telescope the whole thing in six months.

He has five British oarsmen in the crew, who are led from the stroke seat by the most experienced of them, Tim Foster. He has put the other four, two 19-year-olds, and two of 20, in the bows where they are rowing with a natural, easy flow that is the Mijnders trademark. But, being comparatively young and impressionable, that is perhaps not surprising.

It is further down with, the international Roberto Blanda at No 5 and the Croat born, but Imperial College trained, Luka Grubor at No 6, and the American Jordan Irving, at No 7, that his ability to lead the athlete to develop a skill that brings them all together into one smooth flowing unit is demonstrated.

"For me it was a new experience. But you know what it is you have to do and, as it goes along, you change how you do it. Perhaps next year we will adapt some things. But the main difference is that before it seemed as though Oxford worked on development of skills and physical development almost separately, and now the technical and strength development are integrated." To this end he has abandoned the hours spent on weights in the gym and devotes the time to quality training in the Boat.

The athletes lap it up. They have all done headbanging work in other crews and some could not believe that their results might improve when outings were sometimes cut short if the quality was not high enough. But when they are tested on the unforgiving ergometer, the rowing machine which measures their power in every possible calibration, they achieve personal bests beyond what they previously thought possible.

He pays the closest attention to detail that others rarely notice. When you watch the stern of the pale yellow Empacher boat that Oxford are using, it runs forward all the time, with the barest hint of a check when all eight of the oarsmen catch the water with the blades and apply their coiled- up power to lever the hull forward.

Mijnders has worked on them to place the blade almost delicately in the water and increase the power in sympathy for the way the boat is running, and he has adjusted the mechanics of the boat and its gearing to deceive even experienced watchers on how fast the boat is going.

He creates a happy atmosphere but keeps himself a little separate when tricky selection decisions have to be taken - as this year when he told the president, Ed Bellamy, that he would not make the crew.

When he is asked why someone would drop from winning in the Olympics to the parochial challenge of two foreign universities, he does not cite the usual glamour and traditions of the race but simply says: "They are comparable. You work with a team which starts as a group of athletes and you plan to work together to one goal. That one took four years, in this case we only have six months. That makes it interesting."