Rowing: Light arrives after dark days for Oxford's sole Swede

Henrik Nilsson's progress to a place in Saturday's Boat Race has been dogged by ill luck and tragedy, he tells Hugh Matheson
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The Independent Online
HENRIK NILSSON will be the first, and only, Swedish oarsman to row in the Boat Race when he starts for Oxford on Saturday. There should have been two.

"I was rowing in the Swedish national team with Fredrik Hulten when we decided to apply together to do postgraduate work in Oxford," Nilsson said. "Then, last May, after we had won our places, he was killed in a car crash. I was really devastated byhis death. He was three years older and had taught me so much about rowing and sculling. We talked about it all the time."

Nilsson was left alone, with no partner to race with at the 1997 World Championships and without his friend to accompany him to the Dark Blue spires.

Hulten had been the best sculler in Sweden for a decade. He was honoured throughout the season with a minute's silence at international regattas. He left a vacuum behind for his team members and for many of them a sense that it would now be even harder to make a mark on the world scene. For Nilsson, the place waiting for him at Oxford was a relief and, almost as importantly, a chance to fulfil his promise.

"The group and the competition within it for places in the crew is sometimes higher than in the Swedish national team," he said.

Nilsson lives in the old Oxford University Boat House with two other oarsmen, including Jurgen Hecht, who sits behind him in the crew, and the cox, Alex Greaney.

At 29, the Swede finds himself in a group of much younger men led by a president, Andrew Lindsay, who will be 21 today. "He has a strong personality and consults with the coach, Sean Bowden, who sets the standards and then Andrew sees that we carry them out," Nilsson said.

Nilsson grew up in Sweden's deep south at Lund and after high school there went into the army for 15 months' military service. He was drafted into the Spanare, a unit that specialised in working in small groups behind enemy lines. He was an officer who first learned and then taught soldiers to "dig in and cover ourselves and to live for days if necessary without supplies in enemy territory. We were meant to reconnoitre their positions and to stay buried, or at least out of sight. Sometimes the tanks drove right over the holes we lay in."

Oxford may well need this ambush mentality on Saturday, when the Light Blues are likely to prove the more powerful off the start and, if they get a run at it, very hard to stop. One who has been trained to dig in and survive on scraps and then to stop the Soviet tanks in their tracks should be well equipped for a race which may well be a copy of 1997 and go all the way.

Nilsson's urge to win is more than simply a product of his military training. He has suffered ill luck throughout his rowing career. In his first international season he was chosen for the Under-23 World Championships in Linz, Austria, and ended upin intensive care with blood poisoning. At the next year's competition he got food poisoning at Naro in Sicily. In 1992 he missed Olympic selection in the Swedish coxless four by one- tenth of a second and spent the next two years in the wilderness training alone.

In 1995, however, Thor Nilsen, a Norwegian, took the Swedish team under his wing and convinced Nilsson he had the potential to race at the highest level, and took the Swedish quadruple scull to sixth place in the Olympic final in Atlanta.

The follow-up season went badly wrong. Nilsson broke his leg skiing and, just as he returned to training, Hulten died. Nilsson has much to prove on Saturday and wants a winner's medal, as much for his friend's memory, as for himself.