Rowing: Ellis driven on by a winner's desire

American is relishing being pushed to extremes as Cambridge press for victory.
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The Independent Online
DAVID ELLIS is one of six north Americans rowing in this year's Boat Race. Dai Ellis is qualified to play play rugby for Wales and at 6ft 5in and 14st 4lb when down to less than 10 per cent fat - most second row forwards are over 22 per cent - he might be just what Graham Henry, the Wales coach, is looking for. They are one and the same guy.

Clean cut and handsome, how much do you attribute to his East Coast prep school and Harvard background or to the Ellis antecedents who variously captained HMS Suffolk when chasing the Bismark through the Denmark Straits and a generation earlier judged in Imperial India after winning an Oxford rugby Blue ?

Ellis holds dual nationality but is probably keener to catch the eye of Mike Teti - coach to the US men's eight for Sydney 2000 who is over here to help Oxford in their final week - than Martin McElroy, coach to the British men's eight. Ellis admits: "The US team is a goal but I will not think about it until after Saturday."

Ellis is an interesting specimen because he is, in common with many of these Boat Race athletes, a ferocious achiever in all walks of life. They are not content to be ordinary in any dimension. The chance to row in the Boat Race is not just a nice blue adornment to the cv, which might otherwise look a bit thin, but something that comes naturally to men who win at everything in life.

He is at Cambridge not because of the rowing but because, after being offered a scholarship to each of the Boat Race participants, he went for the place with the more specific History and Philosophy of Science Department. He explains: "The great thing is that at Cambridge you have seminars with 10 or 20 people with tremendous feedback and constructive observation from your class-mates. There is more learning done there than perhaps in received work from your supervisors."

Ellis is attracted to rowing for many of the same reasons. "This, like the Harvard-Yale race, is over four and a half miles where you have to live with a group of rowers and understand how they react pretty intelligently to the difficulties the race presents," he said. "You are bound to have to respond to adverse situations and learn not to throw in the towel. In that way it is different from the usual 2000 metre Olympic distance, which is over before you have time to test some of the other extremes."

One of the key tasks for any coach or critic at this level is to make individual characters into crew members who will contribute to the maximum, define the character of the boat and identify those who will lead it into and out of trouble.

Occasionally there are crews who, on paper, look certain to win but fail because there is no individual willing to take the race by the scruff of the neck and drive the boat in front.

Ellis said: "I came in as an outsider and although I had experience, I first had to work for my position in the crew. Once the boat was set I became more vocal alongside Brad and Graham." These are Brad Crombie, the president, and the seasoned British international, Graham Smith. Ellis goes on: "We try to keep the atmosphere positive. But none sees himself as a crew member alone. Each one has stepped up at crucial times. It is a very impressive group."

The coaches have been clever because the leadership and talent has been spread evenly down the crew. And those less at ease under the media glare will have someone close by who has been there before and is unlikely to freeze. You do not think Ellis will freeze, because for him such challenges are the best things in life.