In May 2007 I was living in Canberra and finishing my BSc (Mathematics), wondering what the heck to do next. ‘Berra is a quiet town, but some wonderful people lived there, including Jim Macartney. Jim coached at Oxford Brookes University – the “other” university in Oxford – and by talking so enthusiastically about the Oxford vs. Cambridge Boat Race, the seed was planted in my mind. One month later I arrived in the UK with no plans except to travel and have as many adventures as possible. In April 2008 – one year later – I was accepted into Oxford studying MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management. People often call this a “rower’s course”, meaning an easy one-year masters, which has a lot of free time to do training. In reality there are no easy courses at Oxford and everyone is challenged beyond their limits.
Two weeks before classes began, I arrived at the Iffley Rd gym with all the other Boat Race hopefuls. At this sports centre Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile and it has been the home of Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC) for decades. Our squad included 5 Olympians, 3 more with Senior World Championships experience and another 4 World U23 representatives. Making the top eight was going to be a challenge!
The training began: twice a day, with Mondays off completely. Ergos in the morning and rowing in the afternoons. Weights only once per week. The Boat Race is a 6.5km race, so our training is different to traditional 2km “sprints”. We purposely detrain our anaerobic system so that we can survive 36 strokes per minute for 17 minutes of racing. Once one crew gets clear water, it is decisive. Therefore we cannot “settle into a ryhtm” like normal international racing and the bends make the race unfair in places. It is extremely tactical and requires us to have a fluid race plan. The coxwains have a huge job to find the fastest currents, push the opposition out of it, dictate the race plan and avoid clashing oars.
Living in Oxford is incredible. The university is over 800 years old and I participate in ceremonies and traditions, which are centuries old. The college I live in was built in the 1400s. Rowing allows us to enjoy even more of the UK – The Fours Head Regatta; training in London, Caversham, Eton-Dorney and Wallingford; Training camps in Spain and France and cross-country skiing camp in Switzwerland (cancelled this year sadly); and plenty of black-tie dinners at exclusive gentleman’s clubs in Pall Mall.
After much trialling crews were chosen in January. Both Oxford and Cambridge have two boats – the Blue boat and Reserve boat. Oxford’s reserve boat is known as Isis (after the river running through Oxford city) and Cambridge’s reserves are called Goldie. I was selected in Isis. I made no secret of aiming for the blue boat, but wasn’t strong enough this year. Five bouts of illness and 6 weeks on the bike due to a stress-fractured rib did not help either. In a seven month season, every session is vital. Nevertheless our crew was strong and by comparison would probably make the final at the U23 Worlds.
The Boat Race has become a nation-stopping event, like the Grand National horse race, Wimbeldon final or FA Cup final. The crowds are about five people deep for the entire course, numbering 250,000 people. Several million more watch the race on live television. All year we had photographers at our training sessions. Television crews filming our ergo tests. Special guests joining the coaches in their speed boats. Radio journalists interviewing us for news broadcasts and podcasts. It’s probably the only place that rowers get to be rockstars. It’s a lot different to the sleepy waters of Riverview.
Once attached to the starter’s boat, the cheering crowds and helicopters and cameras faded away. It was just one-on-one racing. We (Isis) blasted out of the start and had clear water at Harrods Depository, five minutes into the race. We were expecting a longer battle, grinding Goldie down for around 12 minutes, but they cracked early. Oxford won the blue boat race doing exactly that. Their race can be found at: http://www.theboatrace.org/ under “race videos” along with our squad profiles and other info. With both boats winning, it was a great day for OUBC and made for a fantastic after-party. Would have been a pretty miserable night for the Cambridge guys.
Everyone is truly grateful to study at this fantastic university and compete in one of the world’s biggest rowing events. Not many Australians make the journey, so if anyone is interested in following this path, feel free to contact me. It’s been great watching SUBC dominate back home in Aus and I hope to rejoin the “home of rowing” in 2010.
Mike Valli St Edmund Hall, Oxford