The day Elvis was all shook up

Stephen Brenkley tells the heartbreak of a cox for whom the perfect stage was set
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The Independent Online
FOR THE first seven minutes along the Tideway yesterday much of the serious attention was on Todd Kristol. It was not so much that the diminutive American Oxford cox kept being warned by the umpire as rival oars overlapped but that he kept alive the wonderful prospect that the crowds at the finish of the 1996 Boat Race would be treated to an Elvis Presley impersonation.

Kristol specialises in bizarre pastimes - mud wrestling being another - and he saw winning as a wonderful opportunity to deliver to the whole world his rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel". The boats stayed close, the blades clashed, both were warned and, with Kristol calling the shots, the possibility of seeing the 5ft 1in frame on the towpath complete with frantically gyrating pelvis stayed alive.

Unfortunately for Kristol, who is the son of a hotshot lawyer and an actress and was at Harvard University before arriving in the place of dreaming spires, it receded swiftly. This was not least because he was matched length for length, clash for clash, by his counterpart in the Cambridge boat, Kevin Whyman, who is some seven inches taller and six pounds lighter.

Whyman's background (Chester), not to mention his name, is not so exotic as the American's, but his hobbies - scuba diving and sky diving - would be a match for anyone's. As the blades clashed, and they threatened to do so ferociously six minutes or so into the contest, Whyman faithfully maintained his line and his strategy.

"When we were coming away from Hammersmith, I thought for the first time that we had the race won," he said. "That was a crucial period."

At Hammersmith the gap was still only two seconds, but it rapidly grew thereafter to seven, which is where it stayed. "Going towards Hammersmith it was still very tight and they were moving up on us," Whyman said. "Afterwards it was just a case of keeping up the motivation and getting to the finish." He made it sound so easy.

But this still left the key question unanswered. Kristol had promised Elvis, what was Whyman prepared to offer? With a name such as his you might have thought something from the Rolling Stones canon, but he considered a while and said: "Well, you have to wait and see but I'd have thought I'll simply have to do a better Elvis. It'll have to be 'Heartbreak Hotel'."

Conditions, it had been reckoned, were not conducive to record-breaking, the wind having changed. This turned out to be correct, but only marginally so since Cambridge were a mere 13 seconds outside the 1984 best. They won with a solitary American in their eight, compared with Oxford's four plus one Canadian. Mind you, the one was Ethan Ayer, who was declared on the morning of the race to be the tallest man ever to row. Throughout the preparation he had been 6ft 81/4in, one quarter of an inch smaller than Gavin Stewart, but an extra half an inch was found from somewhere in the remeasuring .

The gap between Cambridge and Oxford was much greater yesterday, and Todd Kristol may even have thought of resorting to one of his other less arduous pastimes - tiddly-winks.