Rowing: German heavyweight with a light touch

Stefan Forster is a typical modern student rower. Hugh Matheson assesses the import's likely impact on the Boat Race tomorrow
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IN NOVEMBER last year, when the Boat Race crews tested their raw strength on the rowing ergometer at the British Indoor Championships, Stefan Forster won the thing outright and into the bargain the Cambridge man finished a clear seven seconds ahead of all the other contenders for this Saturday's race. He had covered the simulated 2,000 metres course in 5min 52sec. He was not surprised. "I think I am probably the No 1 in Germany also," he said, as a statement of fact and not as a boast.

Forster is one of three German former world champions in this year's race. One of the others, Jurgen Hecht, in the No 3 seat for Oxford, got his medal in 1991 and is now 28. Forster is two years younger and won his in 1995. With him in that crew was Marc Weber, now stroke for Cambridge. Last year, still in the German national squad, he was picked for the coxless four which was unfortunate to repeatedly come up against the British four with last year's Oxford stroke, Tim Foster, alongside Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell. Eventually he finished sixth in the World Championships.

After that experience, he wanted a break from five years of continuous training in the German squad and chose Cambridge as the place to return to study. He had completed his undergraduate work at Dortmund where the major part of the German men's squad is based. Forster is one of a new generation of world-class athletes who spend their twenties in the sport and fit a continuing education into the Olympic cycle.

In most of the western nations that dominate international rowing, there is now a generous level of funding and the ancient universities are happy to take some of it as fees for postgraduate work. Forster is typical of the wandering scholars as he is funded by the German academic exchange service because of his academic achievements there.

The beneficial by-product is that modern Boat Race crews can have the pick of the World Championship elite and splice in home-grown undergraduates and produce superb boats which, if they did not break up after the Boat Race, would be seriously competitive at the top level.

Once again, the 1998 Oxford crew, which looks superb but is nevertheless the weaker of the two, is spoken of as one "which would win in a normal year", but no normal year ever comes as the standard rises in each succeeding season. Forster, however, will not stay with the Cambridge crew this summer as he is to return in June, with Weber, to join the Olympic squad for Sydney 2000.

At Cambridge, Forster finds the work expected of the rowing squad very similar to Germany's training but is full of admiration for the concentration on style, or "technik" as he calls it. The coaches, especially Harry Mahon, the New Zealander who has guided Cambridge since they started winning in 1993, have been working to control Forster's natural aggression on the catch at the start of the stroke. He is sensitive on the issue and sees no difference between the type of stroke the German team has espoused and the Light Blue style.

However, as the strongest man in the crew, positioned in the No 7 seat immediately behind his compatriot Weber, he is in the most important place to influence the rhythm of the boat. Whatever happens, this Cambridge crew owes much to the 6ft 6in champion. Mahon said: "He may be the strongest man in the boat, but he sits in the seven seat so he's obviously able to row fairly smoothly and efficiently."

He puts himself across as well verbally as with his oar and served from 1995 to 1997 as the athletes' spokesman for the German rowing team. "I attended all the training and coaching meetings and spoke on all general matters like the fitting-in of military duties and the training camps. I did not have a vote but was still able to get my way on most things, so it did not matter." Tomorrow he has a "vote" and it is unlikely that he will miss the chance to get his way.