Rowing: Ayer juggles with individual style to become a team man

The philosophical student with Hollywood looks has been given his chance at Oxford.
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The Independent Online
FROM A distance Toby Ayer appears as Hollywood's idea of the perfect physical being. Taller than most, and honed down to 16 stone of fat free elastic, enclosed in a taut, freckled skin and topped with a straight red beard and tiny ratstail. Central Casting could put him down for any Garth or Willy Garvin part to match Schwarzenegger or Stallone.

Close up, you think instead of his namesake "Freddy" A J Ayer, Oxford philosopher and television thinker. "I looked him up and found he had Belgian ancestors, so no relation sadly," he said. You can see the intelligence shine out of Ayer's eyes and forget the massive shoulders underneath. This guy has perseverance. At 3.30pm on Saturday he is going to row in the boat race for Oxford after two years in the reserves, Isis.

A loser in 97 but a stunning winner in 98. That is two years of knowing you have the physical material for the job, and the desire, but somehow not being able to translate that into the boat-moving skills that get you picked for the top boat.

Each time he has seen younger, weaker men preferred because they had the knack of combining their effort with the other seven men more effectively. They got more boat speed for less effort. At times like that from behind your back and even to your face you hear the coaches saying: "If only we could harness that strength and get more out of him" when all the time you are pulling your guts out with every fibre devoted to proving them wrong.

Ayer, the Rhodes Scholar and philosopher, takes his time to answer. "It is because I am more consistent in technique and it takes me time to change. It was frustratingly slow progress but I was feeling the improvement. I have not changed much physiologically in three years at Oxford but I fit in better now. Each year there is a high turnover in a university club and this time I was able, early on, to feel part of and be absorbed by the group.

"That is important for the feeling of confidence that you can succeed within it."

You wonder how someone who is obviously so self-contained in other ways feels when he has to become absorbed in a group.

"Except in rowing I tend to be, not a loner exactly, but separate from groups," he said. "I seem to form longer attachments to few people". So he chose Oxford to fulfil his academic ambition of a D.Phil. in linguistics. "I'm interested in semantics really, the meaning of words," he explained. "It is a little appendix to philosophy." The rowing suits him fine as well.

He is a relentless self improver. His antidote to rowing which neatly encompasses the aesthetic and the physical, while relying on no one else, is his search for excellence in acrobatics and juggling. Most oarsmen are very strong in their own discipline but clumsy and inept outside it. Ayer sets targets and meets them.

"I would like to be reliable with nine balls or seven pins. Rowing has stopped that for the moment because it would take at least an hour a day of practice which I don't have right now." He has won two Varsity matches as a juggler, not a common feature on the CVs of aspirant academics. "I will apply for academic jobs after 2000 but right now I have another year in Oxford to finish the thesis, and to row," he said. Ayer is not prepared yet to be drawn on whether he will stand as president of the dark blue club but it would certainly suit this serious and dedicated man to finish the job he began in the autumn of 1996.