Rowing / Boat Race: Gillard senses Light Blue at end of tunnel: Cambridge's youthful No 2 believes his crew are mentally prepared to climb out of the trough of defeat

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DAVID GILLARD'S claim to fame is that, in an age when every Boat Race oarsman is assumed to be a 27-year-old American reading for a postgraduate diploma in Social Studies, he is a 21-year-old Englishman reading Natural Sciences.

He has, alone, hauled Bedford Modern School, known in the educational supplements as the 'only fee-paying comprehensive in the country', into the top 10 of places where Boat Race oarsmen are educated by winning Blues in each of his three years at university. And, alone in this Boat Race, he reunites the words 'long-haired' and 'student'.

Each of the three Cambridge crews he has been in has been faster than the last. He echoes the coach, John Wilson, in saying that the club have raised their expectations, and will race whatever the Dark Blues put out, over the whole course. Last year they were locked together for 14 minutes and were only separated when Oxford got the better of the stream between the Bandstand and Barnes Bridge and forged ahead on the inside of the final bend.

If Cambridge are to climb out of the trough of 16 defeats in 17 years they need a change in the minds, as much as the bodies, of Gillard and the rest of the crew. Over the first 138 races there have been long stretches of domination by one or other university and only one period (from 1854 to 1860) when the teams won alternate races for more than four years in a row. It is safe to predict that when Cambridge start winning they will stay in charge for a long time.

It is unlikely that Oxford have had far superior personnel every year since 1975. But they have been able to win, even when weaker, because something had developed in the collective consciousness of the Boat Club to overcome almost any difficulty.

Gillard, the No 2, senses that something has happened at Cambridge to level the odds. It was evident last year. Standard expectations of a race of three or four minutes followed by a procession, as well rehearsed as the Trooping of the Colour, were confounded. In the end Cambridge lost because their eccentric steering took them too wide round the bend leading to Barnes Bridge. 'Each year we cover one more escape hatch and this is the best prepared eight I have rowed in,' he said.

Gillard has missed most of what other people call 'university life' to follow his grail. 'I was lucky that shortly after I arrived as a freshman I met a really good friend and I allowed him to go through the process of rejecting, in the second year, all the friends we made in the first year. He did all the sifting for me.

'Also I found a girlfriend early on which reduced the amount of time I had to spend sitting on the stairs drinking Chianti from paper cups.'

He admits to being politically apathetic in spite of having a mother who was an SDP mayor in North Bedfordshire. 'I let life push me in whatever direction but when I've clicked on to the rails, then I go, and I like to come out ahead.'

So he has risen at six every morning for an hour and a half in the gym before lectures, which end in time for lunch. This is taken in the van on the way to afternoon training on the water, before he returns to the gym for an evening session.

He has sacrificed any ambition for a good degree. 'I got a third in Part I and will probably get another in Part II this summer. But my capacity is greater than the degree indicates. You get so far behind in Natural Sciences with plain lack of knowledge that someone who has done nothing but slog away for three years will always do better.'

His solution is to take a teaching diploma at London University next year. Where, of course, he will be just another itinerant postgraduate oarsman keeping a tender undergrad out of the University Boat. Gillard is an Under-23 world champion and 'will give it a go for '96' but he must elevate Light Blue above Dark Blue before he worries about the colours of the Olympic rings.

(Photograph omitted)