Last year’s women’s Boat Race was literally rough for all involved, rowed as it was in extremely trying conditions and with Cambridge, on their way to a fourth successive defeat and their eighth in the past nine years, only just managing to remain afloat as their boat took in water. But for Ashton Brown, who returns for her third Boat Race this year as their president, it proved particularly trying: a few days later she developed pneumonia.
“Last year we got a little bit wet,” she said, “then I got ill partway through the following week and I was having trouble breathing, so I went to A&E and they did some chest x-rays and they told me I had pneumonia. They patched me up and I was sent home within the day, so I was quite lucky. I took some time off and it probably wasn’t until September that I was back in the swing of things.”
It is something that neither Brown herself nor her coach, Rob Baker, had ever encountered before, but illustrates the physical strain the athletes place themselves under. “They go through a really vigorous training programme, the race is very stressful on the body and the mind and going through those conditions as well you are susceptible to illness,” Baker said. “It was definitely a very odd and rare exception, but we had a very exceptional race.”
While Brown is one of three athletes returning to the Cambridge boat and looking for a first taste of victory, Oxford’s eight, their cox and their coach are all preparing for their first attempt and insist their recent dominance will have no effect on Sunday. “Although there have been good results in the last few years, every year’s a new year,” said Harriet Austin, their captain.
The coxes of the two women’s boats went to school together, but the way they speak of their relationship perhaps illustrates a slightly different approach to an unusually competitive situation. Matthew Holland, in the Cambridge boat, says of his Oxford counterpart, Eleanor Shearer: “I haven’t really thought about her. We have our race plan and that’s what I’m going to be thinking about. It doesn’t really matter what they do.”
Shearer strikes a markedly softer tone. “While the rivalry is there it’s perhaps tempered with a degree of respect,” she says. “While of course we will put everything into beating them, we don’t demonise them or dehumanise them. We know them in a personal capacity and I think that comes first.”
The crews of the men’s boats appear to have a greater animosity. The weigh-in was marked by the two strokes, Oxford’s Vassilis Ragoussis and Cambridge’s Henry Meek, engaging in a lengthy stare-down as if impersonating a pair of heavyweight boxers. “I think it was just a bit of fun, just enjoying the moment,” says the Oxford president, Mike Di Santo. “But you certainly want your stroke man to have confidence and to back himself so, you know, if [Ragoussis] did initiate it then good on him.” The presence of William Warr, who rowed for Cambridge in 2015, in Oxford’s bow seat adds fuel to the fire. In the 163rd Boat Race he becomes just the third person to represent both sides.
“I was his team-mate in 2015, and whenever we were down in London we actually roomed together,” says the Cambridge men’s cox, Hugo Ramambason, of Warr. “He’s a friend, I think he’s a nice guy. He’s made his decision, but we don’t really think about him much. Since he went over to Oxford, the guys he was friends with in the team here, we haven’t spoken much. I’m sure once it’s all over we’ll go back to being friends, but for now it’s about our processes, our rhythm, and nothing outside of that.”