Thoughts on the 2014 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, Following the OUBC Trial VIIIs

The 2013/2014 Trial VIIIs races are now in the books, and the anticipation is already beginning to mount for the main events, scheduled for Sunday, 30 March at 3:00pm GMT (women) and 6 April at 6:00pm GMT (men). For many on the outside, however, the Oxbridge men's and women's Boat Races appear to be something of a foregone conclusion. Oxford are, to put it bluntly, comparatively stacked on both counts. And, judging from the lineups that the men raced over the weekend, they know it—they appear to have raced two mixed eights (splitting up their Olympians) against one another for more of a sparring session than a true selection piece. Let's take a closer look at the Oxford lineups, shall we?

This crew contained two Olympians, in James Fraser-Mackenzie (who represented Zimbabwe in the men's single sculls at the London Games) and double Olympic medalist Malcolm Howard of Canada, as well as U.S. standout Mike DiSanto, formerly of Harvard, and former Yale lightweight (and 2011 IRA champion—in an absolute barnburner of a race, winning by one foot over Harvard) Thomas Swartz.

Stroked by GB Olympic bronze medalist Constantine Louloudis, this crew also featured former OUBC president Karl Hudspith, as well as another Harvard alum in Kiwi Sam O'Connor, and former Cornell lightweight John Redos (a two-time U.S. U23 national teamer).

As detailed by Chris Dodd on HTBS, as well as the official website of the Boat Race, it was a closely fought match race, that had a lead change, and that resulted in a new record time for the section of the Tideway over which they raced (from Wandsworth Pier to Chiswick Steps in 16:10, unofficially). The video below, shot by Martin Cross, shows that not only does Sean Bowden have two crack crews from which to build his first eight, he also has two very talented and fearless coxswains in Laurence Harvey and Sophie Shawdon—both battled well for position and showed great nerve.

From the man himself:

In other words, a lot of talent to chose from, to go alongside Olympic-class power and experience. Not a bad problem to have. Cambridge, on the other hand, have some experience, with a number of returners and former Goldie oarsmen likely moving up the ranks this year, led by club president and two-time CUBC Blue Stephen Dudek, but it appears that Steve Trapmore will have his work cut out for him this year if Cambridge are going to come away winners in April. (You can read Tim Koch's account of the CUBC Trial VIIIs on HTBS here.)

Switching gears, let's take a look at the women's side: While the pedigree might not be quite the same in terms of Olympians, still, the experience advantage looks to be with Oxford: Anastasia Chitty (stroke of the Trial VIIIs-winning crew, Boudicca) has international experience racing for Great Britain at the junior level, and rowed on the winning Blue Boat last year along with seven seat (and 2014 OUWBC club president) Maxie Scheske—the same stern pair as that of the 2013 race. There are also several internationals in the mix for Oxford, including Liz Fenje—a four-time IRA champion with the Stanford Lightweight Women, with Canadian U23 team-experience under her belt—and Harvard alum Laura Savarese. Cambridge will have the veteran leadership of double Blue Caroline Reid and CUWBC president Esther Momcilovic—herself a two-time Boat Race contender, though her first experience came in the lightweight women's race in 2011. (You can read a detailed account of the OUWBC and CUWBC 2013 Trial VIIIs by Tim Koch on HTBS.)

So, what does all this mean? Well, very little. If races were won on paper, then there'd be no need for mucking about in boats. Still, it looks to this armchair quarterback like a clear advantage for Dark Blue once again this year, following a 2013 series completely dominated by Oxford. Light Blue still tops the all-time leaderboard in both races, but is Dark Blue on the rise?

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  1. Daniel B PerkinsJanuary 23, 2014

    BK, I appreciate the work on the article, and agree about the meaning for fans. I think you could point out that to the oarsmen, Trial Eights means a whole lot more: Selection, Experience and the fact that it's the single most important test on one's way to winning the Boat Race. In terms of selection, it's not only an indicator of one's ability to make the Blue Boat, it's also a sign that you're tapped for at least the reserve boat. The coaches are very stingy with their pats on the back, so getting named to a boat in December is huge and can keep you motivated through the tougher days to come. Experience can be very powerful and closely contested racing is incredibly important. You learn to keep your head, clash you blades, respond to calls under duress, etc... it's the closest thing to 'the day' and you can't replace it in practice or fixture. Finally, Trial Eights is as an important step towards The Race as any other... very few oarsmen make the Blue Boat(s) who have not been through Trial Eights - making it through is the biggest step one can take besides receiving your (one of nine) racing suits on the morning of The Race. It's the Hillary Step of rowing. Maybe it doesn't mean much to the pundits and fans, but you can bet that the oarsmen and coxswains have refocused themselves on the prize.

  2. rowingrelatedJanuary 27, 2014

    Appreciate the insight Dan—as someone who has been involved in the Boat Race, what are you expecting this year? Seems from the outside like the media frenzy has settled from 2012 and that the crews are training more in isolation than before—plus the Trial VIIIs were spaced so far apart (and on different stretches of the river) that any comparison of times (though usually meaningless anyway) is completely impossible.

  3. Daniel B PerkinsJanuary 27, 2014

    The idea that something may be ruin a fair result in the BR will always be there, but it can be tempered. 2012 notwithstanding, I believe the judges have improved the fairness and safety; they've learned from their mistakes just as the teams have. Comparing Trial VIII races on the Tideway is not scientific or useful... racing speeds of the two teams are likely within :15 over 17 minutes. When you look at the way the teams are rowing, 'style' can be very deceiving, so I would never trust someone who says one team rows better than another. Perfect rowing does not win the Boat Race. If I had to guess, I'd look more closely at the results of the Fours Head, where I give Oxford an edge based on raw results which can be compared to one another and to a control group of other teams. The problem I have with this is that the Fours Head measures base speed and durability of the pace, not top end or 'emergency power'. In the Boat Race, the ability to have efficient base speed is very important, but the ability to deal a knockout blow or hold off a huge burst of power is critical.

    "It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!" - Rocky Balboa


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