The Boat Race: Light-hearted and light blue

Fun-loving freshman joins Cambridge dream boat to show he is no fish out of water; Andrew Longmore studies the delicate balancing acts of Tom Stallard
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The Independent Online
THERE IS AN impressive sense of calm about Cambridge University's preparations for the 145th Boat Race on the Tideway next Saturday afternoon. Oxford might be the enemy, but the real battle is with themselves, an elusive search for perfection fought each year on the regatta lake at the National Water Sports Centre near Nottingham. The last few days before the move to race headquarters in London and the inevitable quickening of the pulse requires a delicate touch.

Out of the window of the minibus, Harry Mahon, the finishing coach, gently irons out some technical hitches through the megaphone. His New Zealand tones drift down the lake. Minor details, he says. Harry can be blunt at times, but he laces his criticism with dollops of praise. Tom Stallard, the second freshman to make the Light Blue boat since Cambridge began their six-race winning sequence, is the subject of particular scrutiny.

Stallard has been taught to drive his left shoulder through the rowing stroke; Mahon wants his shoulders to be squarer. It is a matter of style, but it could become more than that. At the end of the 90-minute outing, Stallard stays behind to clarify the point with Robin Williams, the head coach. No big deal, says Williams. Coaching a crew from such diverse backgrounds is always a matter of compromise, at this stage anyway.

Stallard is not very Cambridge. He has a cockiness to him which is more Dark than Light Blue. For one regatta, he dyed his hair "Battenburg rollish". For the trial eights, it was leopard spottish. Stallard thought it looked brilliant, the boat club president, R E Brad Crombie (Crescent School, Toronto, and McGill University), was less pleased. Humility and quiet dedication have been qualities at the core of Cambridge's success through the Nineties and the young Oundle schoolboy had infringed the unwritten rules.

Stallard recalls the president's challenge a few weeks ago. "The Oxford president was asked whether Oxford would win and he said, `Yes, definitely'. Brad said, `It's going to be really close, but I believe we can win'. That attitude gets handed down, from the past Blues, from the coaches, and it's a good attitude to have." It just doesn't come naturally to someone who, by his own admission, is either asleep or making a nuisance of himself. "Tom is just... Tom," says Williams with a beatific smile.

Stallard's confidence has not always been so solid. "Putting a grain of sand into the bucket every day" was Brad's uncomfortable description of the training routine when the eager new faces had gathered for the first meeting of the Boat Race campaign in the cramped upstairs room at the Cambridge boat-house. Stallard had revised his career progress that night as he saw the size of the recruits and felt the force of the Light Blue lineage. Maybe the reserve boat this year, Blue boat next year, he thought. "I was six feet four and the smallest bloke there," he says. But early ergonometric tests proved that Stallard's compact frame contained surprising power and his willingness to adapt made him a near automatic choice for the No 2 seat on selection day. And his extrovert nature contrasted profitably with the posse of strong, silent, types around him. "It's just a question of timing," he says. "I could stand up here and do moonies to the rest of the crew if I wanted to and no one would bat an eyelid. I think it's important to keep the mood upbeat and light-hearted but when it's serious rowing stuff you have to be able to switch in to that."

Like many oarsmen, Stallard rowed at Oundle because he couldn't hit a cricket ball or kick a football. He had already set his sights on making an Olympic team; his father had been the surgeon to the British Olympic teams in 1984 and 1988. He just had to find the right sport. At first it was swimming. But rowing has proved the more appropriate vehicle for his Olympic ambitions. Saturday is another step on the way to Athens 2004.

"At least that's how it started. As you get more involved in the crew, you get totally focused on one race. I know Dan Snow in the Oxford crew very well, we're good mates, but if we were to have a conversation now it would be really stilted. They are the enemy and everything is geared up to beating them."

For most freshmen, balancing work and a blossoming social life with the demands of a rigid training routine has proved impossible. It is a tribute to Stallard's energy that he has been the exception. There are compensations. "Without being arrogant about it, being able to walk round Cambridge when you've made the Blue boat. I get a lot of respect from my friends and I feel proud to be representing all these people. You drag yourself out of bed at six in the morning, do the weight-training on auto-pilot. Everyone thinks you're mad, but once you've done it and you're in lectures, you feel really good."

Stallard has thought a lot about Saturday. As the second man into the boat, he will have to wait for another seven minutes while the BBC introductions - one minute for each member of the crew - are completed. "I've got to respond to that, either by staying calm or going up the wall." No time for moonies. If Oxford have the incentive to end a losing run, Cambridge can draw on the comforting rhythms of recent history. "If we are half a length up on them, they'll be thinking `we've lost again'. If we are half a length down, we know we can pull it out. This year will be the toughest yet, but none of us want to be the ones responsible for losing. Particularly not me, I've got four years of it."

A fear of failure as well as his role as a freshman has subdued his instincts for a touch of showmanship. "There have been moments when I've wanted to play up, but I can't impose my beliefs on the squad as a freshman. I certainly don't want to be the guy who dyed his hair and lost the Boat Race." But don't rule out some exhibitionism at the finish if Stallard and the Light Blues make it seven out of seven.