When Matt Smith stroked Oxford University to a narrow victory last year in what was dubbed the Boat Race of the century, Tim Wooge was watching in despair from the Cambridge supporters' launch. He saw the Light Blues lead by a gnat's nose to reach Barnes Bridge first with the last bend in their favour, only to be rowed down round the outside. Sebastian Mayer, in Cambridge's No 4 seat, was in trouble, and his seven companions could not quite hold out against the determined drive of Smith's crew.
This year Smith and Wooge are presidents of their respective clubs, and they will be head-to-head in the stroke seats again on Sunday. In 2001 they were the opposing strokes of the crews whom the umpire re-started in Putney Reach after a bad clash in which the Cambridge bow man, Colin Swainson, lost his oar. Cambridge went on to win, but muted rumblings over who was to blame for the clash left a bitter taste and led Wooge to opt out of his club's summer rowing programme.
"I think that was one of the most depressing wins you can have. We thought we were better and quicker, but it was a big anticlimax because the win was not recognised," he says.
Wooge, 30 and the only man in the Cambridge boat who has won a Boat Race, decided not to row again. But coupled with his frustration a year ago was the realisation that he had done no more work on his PhD in corporate finance when he was not putting in the punishing hours of training than when he had been. So he stood for president of the boat club, and here he is at Putney again, a towering 6ft 7in leader going for his third Blue and his third win. This time he wants to beat Smith fair and square without controversy, and go out on a high.
This year's Cambridge crew is tall, heavier than Oxford by more than a stone per man, and very international. The Canadian Wayne Pommen in the bow seat and the Americans, Hugo Mallinson at No 3 seat and the cox Jim Omartian, are all from Harvard. The No 2 man Matthias Kleinz is a former German international, and Kris Coventry in the No 3 seat is from Melbourne.
Wooge, a graduate of Northeastern University, Boston, won his first Boat Race in 1999, a year in which he rowed for Germany; took 2000 off to try for the German Olympic team without success; and rowed again for Cambridge in 2001. Alex McGarel-Groves at No 5 has moved up from the reserves, Goldie. James Livingston, the No 7, is a 2002 Blue and a former Great Britain junior international, and the 19-year-old freshman Tom James in the key No 6 seat rowed for Britain's juniors last year.
The challenge facing the president and the coach, Robin Williams, is to blend the mixture of rowing styles and experiences into one unit between October and Christmas, a process that an Olympic crew can take four years over.
The cox Omartian, a former rower who spent three years steering Harvard, explains the process thus: "At Harvard the emphasis is on pulling hard, and if things aren't going well then pull harder. In Cambridge we try to maximise the speed we can get for the effort we are pouring in, so there's no wasted portion. That generally involves doing more work in the early portion of the stroke than what the Americans are used to.
"We all bring some individual things to the crew. Tim brings a ton of confidence, he's a real good leader and strives for perfection. Everyone is really driven, and everybody has raced quite a bit, so it's helpful to have all those different types of races to come together."
The impression is that Wooge has done his part pretty well. "The 2001 was a crew of big egos, internationals and Olympic medallists," he says. "The 2003 was easy to integrate, well balanced people who enjoy each other's company. They are a good bunch of guys, and there is a good relationship with the coaches."
Meanwhile, Williams is still tweaking. On Wednesday he swapped over Kleinz and Coventry to achieve a more integrated pair in the bow and bring the rangy Coventry to the middle of the boat. He has had the crew working on starts: "They haven't been great but they are getting better. I'm quite patient about those, I mean there's no point in doing your best start on Monday. It's so easy to over-cook them."
The important thing, he says, is not to lose sight of the rhythm in the rowing. "The speed work stuff is just a bit of icing on top. And it's a state of mind thing as well. You do the sprint stuff well when you're relaxed and you feel confident about everything else. I think we are going fast – the trouble is you don't know how fast you have to be."
* Oxford beat Cambridge by two lengths in yesterday's old Blues race from Putney to Hammersmith.
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