Rowing: A case of either oar for Boat Race

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THE kitchen of a rented house in Springfield Road, Cambridge, might be a place to avoid this week, if the Light Blues at long last nominate their cox for the Boat Race. Last Monday, Robin Williams, the Cambridge coach, took the unusual step of selecting both Suzie Brown and Alastair Potts for the cox's seat, postponing a decision which he admitted was "almost impossible" for a further week.

In the student digs which Potts and Brown share, the toaster has not been the only domestic appliance in danger of overheating. "It's been desperately wearing," Potts said. "It's been every single day for five months now. The personal thing is not an issue; the fact that Suzie is a bloody good cox, that's the problem. We both want to cox the blue boat badly and one of us is going to have their life turned upside down." Neither really wants to let on how badly.

When Potts moved into the same student digs as Brown two years ago, neither understood the strange little sporting dance they were entering. They talked briefly about the possibility last summer, but only slowly did the reality dawn on them. Outwardly, the pair have learned to co-exist peacefully under an unwritten set of rules. "A professional relationship," as Brown puts it. Both rise at 6am, exchange grunts; Brown sets off for the river in her red super-mini, Potts by bicycle. They cox the blue boat on alternate outings; Brown, a PGCE student, heads for her teaching practice, Potts back to his PhD in architectural history. A frosty truce is maintained, in between; talking shop is strictly forbidden. "You can't take rowing home," Brown said. "Once we're off the water, we have to get back to our own lives."

It is not easy. The Tideway test is the ultimate challenge for a cox, an unmatched examination of tactical awareness and nerve as intense as the physical experience of the eight men in front of them. "It's a bit like Damon Hill fine-tuning his Formula One car," says Williams. "You've got to find the best line and know exactly how hard you can push your crew. And they have to trust you 100 per cent so that when you ask for a final effort, they'll give it to you without question."

The relationship between cox and crew is strangely fragile. In 1993, the Oxford cox was removed six days before the big day; two years later, Cambridge took on Molesey in a preparation race, performed poorly and blamed the cox. An oarsman can have an off day, a cox never. Big backsides, short memories. That's what coxes say about oarsmen. Oarsmen want coxes to steer straight, find the best water and not ask too much too soon.

"What makes it worse is that it is the crew who pick the cox, it's their decision, so if you are rejected, you're being rejected by them. We've both tried and failed to make the blue boat which adds to the importance of all this. It's no use trying to pretend this is not a big deal, it is." Potts seemed to have the coxing seat to himself in 1996 but lost confidence in the new year and was not selected; Brown, who coxed the national women's eight in Atlanta and to bronze in the world championships last year, suffered the same experience in 1997. For both, this is the last chance. Potts says he will never cox again if he fails.

The process of selection has already proved tortuous. A week ago, a 90- minute crew meeting ended in a split vote and a trip to the pub. The crew asked Williams to decide, so he tried, summoning the two to his room, saying what a tough decision it had been and just as Potts' heart was about to burst through his chest, subjecting them both to another week of charades and a decisive head-to-head on the Tideway this weekend. Brown wanted to laugh. "I had a big smile over my face," she said, "because I was thinking, 'Here we go again.'" Forty hours a week and five months of tension crammed into two six-minute races, one coxed by Brown, the other by Potts. The stakes could not be much higher. "It's a question of confidence and who can hold it together best under pressure," Williams says. Either way, Potts admits, "the next three weeks could be tricky."