University Rowing: Who's Faster, Washington or Oxford Brookes?

An image of Washington Men's Rowing training on the Montlake Cut
Washington training on the Montlake Cut (Photo: RR)

The 2018 Windermere Cup showcased two of the world's top teams in men's university rowing, and the final did not disappoint. While the Huskies took a lead of roughly a length early on their home course, Brookes never let go. Coming into the last 250 meters, it looked as if Brookes might have the change of speed to just edge Washington, but the Huskies executed their plan and held on through the finish line.

In the end, 0.457 of a second separated the two crews.

The Case for Brookes

Oxford Brookes traveled about 6,000 miles to race Washington on the Huskies' home water. That's naturally going to have an effect on your performance, just as lineup changes might also alter your speed (for better or worse) in the last days before a race. The racecourse at the Montlake Cut is unlike anywhere else in the sport—yes, it's part of Washington's propaganda machine to hammer that point, but it's really true. You basically row into a canyon, and people in Seattle actually care about rowing—so it's loud! The Brookes athletes have experience with Henley Royal Regatta, of course, so the idea of considerable crowds, narrow race courses, and loud (if maybe not 'deafening') noise approaching the finish isn't anything new.

[Related: Video: Inside the Temple-winning Oxford Brookes Men's Eight on Henley Sunday]

But it's a striking place to race, and three or four days aren't enough to give you a real sense of comfort, no matter how hospitable Mike Callahan and the Washington Athletics Department are.

Given all of that, it sounds like a moral victory for Brookes, right?

Well, not so fast.

The Case for Washington

The Huskies were one week out from the Pac-12 Championships, having raced their arch rivals, California, two weeks earlier, with the national championships looming roughly four weeks away.

What does all of that mean? It means they were likely in the midst of a very difficult training cycle before slowly tapering for the main event.

Not that Windermere isn't a big deal to Washington—it's huge. But, at the end of the year, no one is going to care if they win or lose Windermere to a high-level foreign opponent if they go and win the IRA national championship title in June. And nobody knows that better than Mike Callahan.

Back home, Brookes is so far ahead of the rest of the pack at the university level that their second eight was able to win the BUCS Regatta. The main event for Brookes will be Henley, and no sooner had they crossed the line on Lake Union than we began to hear calls for a 'rematch' at Henley.

And that would be awesome. But it's not going to happen.

Why? Henley, much as it is amazing and maybe the best regatta in the world for traditions, spectators, and yes even competition, is not a top priority for U.S. university crews. Also, those U.S. crews are typically made up (in part) of international students, who will likely be home racing for their national federations during the summer months. So, even if Washington does bring an eight to race Brookes at Henley, it likely won't be the fastest eight that Washington could potentially field.

(The time that Washington decided to really take HRR seriously, they entered the Grand Challenge Cup, and beat the Polish Olympic Team en route to losing in the final to the eventual Olympic champions from Great Britain by roughly one length—in a race where both crews beat the previous course record.)

[Related: Video: Dawgs Take Down Polish National Crew En Route to Grand Challenge Final]

So, the point is, it's rare that the best U.S. university crew actually remains intact for the summer.

But What About The Banter?

Still, there's always room for boathouse banter. If I had to put money on one crew winning a six-lane race in early June, I would bet on Washington to defeat Oxford Brookes. Not by any great margin, but that is UW's bread and butter.

Fast forward to Henley, and it's much more difficult to say. If Brookes also loses top talent to the GB international squad for the summer, then I think it could be very interesting. But the eight that lost in Seattle would likely prevail in Henley-on-Thames if it remains together—the familiarity with the Regatta alone plays a huge role, just as getting to know the Montlake Cut takes time. (That's not to make light of the brilliant job coaching that Henry Bailhache-Webb and his staff do to make sure Brookes crews are fully prepared for the five grueling days of racing.)

What does that say about Brookes? It's certainly very impressive that a university can generate that much speed without (as much) international presence, and they are certainly the analog to Washington in the U.K. when it comes to program depth.

So, who's faster?

Hate to disappoint, but the only answer is 'that depends.' What's not in question is the level of excellence, top to bottom, that both programs boast.

And maybe even more fun: What if last year's ASR Nereus crew were added to the mix?

That's my take. What's yours?


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