At the start of the year, William Warr sent a message to Ben Ruble. Two years previously, the pair had been team-mates in the Cambridge crew that lost the Boat Race in 2015. This weekend, the pair will be sitting across from each other on the Thames: Ruble still in the light blue of Cambridge, Warr now in the dark blue of Oxford. And naturally, Warr felt a need to explain himself.
“I never heard back from him,” he says now.
Perhaps this was to be expected. The Boat Race is one of those sporting events when you are either one thing or the other. You pick a side, you stick to it, and you fight for it. And for those in one of the two warring camps, it is enmity that comes to define you. Some years ago, I spoke to a member of the Oxford crew who admitted that he stuck a picture of his Cambridge opposite number on the wall at the end of his rowing machine as a form of motivation: hatred as fuel.
At the official weigh-in for this year’s race, there was a surreal stand-off when the two strokes, Vasillis Ragoussis and Henry Meek, stood there for a good couple of minutes eyeballing each other, neither man prepared to let go the other’s hand or break eye contact. It seemed too absurd to be true, but the antipathy was entirely real. And so when Warr decided to switch sides and sign up for Oxford, he knew exactly what he was doing.
Bridges have been burned, friendships destroyed, relationships severed.
Ruble is not the only former Cambridge acolyte to put up the wall of silence. “There’s definitely some ill-feeling there,” Warr says. “Which is hard, because I was very close to these guys. And I don’t really speak to half of them at all now.
“It was probably the toughest decision I’ve ever made. I spoke to some of the guys that I rowed with at Cambridge, and most of them said: ‘I hope you lose’. People buy into the culture of their club so much that it becomes part of their family. So for anyone to be betraying their family, they don’t like that.”
For those of us affiliated to neither side, there is an element to all this that seems, if not ridiculous, then vaguely parochial. All the more so when you consider that Warr switched sides for academic as well as sporting reasons. “People on the outside forget that we’re real students,” he says.
“I wanted to do a particular PhD, I want to go to the 2020 Olympics, and the only way of doing them both was to row at Oxford.”
Yet as only the third man ever to row for both crews, Warr is uniquely placed to compare them. You may be unaware, for instance, that there is even a difference between the two rowing styles, even if they may be tough for the untrained eye to spot.
“Rowing’s a surprisingly technical sport,” he explains. “It’s like doing a golf swing over and over again, under immense physical duress. So there are lots of subtleties, and the technique is pretty distinctive on both sides.
“Oxford are very focused on a leg-driven stroke, and they’re relatively quick around the back end with their hands. Whereas Cambridge might be slightly slower around the back of the stroke. Rowers can tell the difference.”
But on the whole, the similarities outweigh the differences. “Both clubs build up this intense hatred,” Warr says. “You’re just brainwashed to hate Cambridge, or hate Oxford. There’s a reasoning behind it: it’s a very easy way to get a squad of guys to bond quickly. But actually, they’re very similar clubs. Very similar kinds of people, very academically motivated.
“The structures of the programmes are pretty similar. You train at similar times, you put similar hours in. And I think if people took a step back, they would realise that actually, the guys they’re racing could easily be very good friends.”
Indeed, the irony is that after the race, many former foes do become friends. Those who progress to international level even become colleagues.
And away from the water, the demands of student life offer constant perspective. Warr’s PhD is in public health policy, researching ways of preventing chronic diseases amongst the country’s poorest and most deprived communities. And so he understands the dichotomy - the contradiction, almost - between his academic and athletic lives.
“Sport is a selfish pursuit in some respects,” he explains. “But I enjoy finding my limits, and it’s always been my dream to go to the Olympics. I’m fortunate that in another half of my life, I can do important research that hopefully will benefit millions of people.”
Indeed, like many of the rowers in this race, Warr is a man with multiple strings to his bow. He spent a year as an advisor to the Conservative MP Jessica Lee, and now does some work for the political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby. He “would not rule out” going into politics in the future, but for the next couple of years his focus is on breaking into the British team for the Tokyo Olympics.
Does he see similarities between Varsity rowing and professional politics, with their staunch tribal factions and elevation of minor differences?
“Maybe,” he says. “I’ve worked on election campaigns, and in politics you’re part of a party, everyone buys into it, and everyone sticks to the message.”
And finally: having experienced the regimes of both Crosby and Sean Bowden, Oxford’s veteran coach, who makes the tougher taskmaster? “No comment,” Warr says, and you realise that perhaps a life in politics might suit him down to the ground.=
But for now, there is a race to be won. And although Warr’s experience of both sides of the bank have softened the traditional hatred many of his fellow rowers will feel towards their opposite number, this is still the Boat Race, and everything is still on the line.
“I don’t hate the opposition,” he says. “I know the guys pretty well, I raced with them. Their president [Lance Tredell], we raced together at Leander Club.
“I don’t hate them. But I definitely don’t want to lose to them. I didn’t put in all this training to lose.”