The 150th Anniversary of the Athletics Varsity Match was always going to be a special day. Cambridge went in as 4-0 victors from 2013, but only the most partisan blue of either shade was predicting anything other than a series of very close contests.
Both the second team matches were hard fought affairs. Emma Perkins, winner of numerous matches and a former UK Indoor High Jump champion, was competing in her final match and dominated the jumps, setting second team records in the long, triple and high jumps. Wins on the track for Isabel Wray, Hannah Petho (in an 800m record) and Katie Hickson, along with Oxford’s strength in the heavy throws, kept them in the game, but the Cambridge sprinters and jumpers were too strong, and they ended up taking a 116-84 point victory in the Millipedes vs. Alligators. In the Centipedes vs. Alverstones, captain Ben Conibear led the Dark Blues from the front as he won the shot, discus and javelin, all in personal bests, for which he was awarded Oxford second team performance of the match and spent the rest of the evening sporting a natty striped blazer donated by a noted alumnus. The Centipedes actually matched the Alverstones for wins, sharing 10 apiece, with Aidan Smith and Ian Shevlin also putting in notable performances (along with CUAC’s Freddie Bunbury, who set a second team Pole Vault record with an excellent 4.15m clearance), but came up agonisingly short in the end, losing 109-103.
Oxford’s Women’s Blues team was sadly missing captain Katie Holder, due to ineligibility, and 10-time event winner Nadine Prill due to injury, but the team nevertheless stepped up to the mark. Incoming captain Montana Jackson and Christina Nick both picked up two events each, Jackson taking the 400m hurdles in her first ever race over the distance along with the triple jump, while OUAC discus record holder Nick unsurprisingly took that event, along with the shot. Supported by OUNC President Charlie Warwick, multi-eventer Emily Stone and ex- Light Blue Rose Penfold were all winners, as in the seconds Cambridge’s strength in the sprints proved too much. Captain Alice Kaye took the 200m and 400m, the latter in an excellent solo match record, and was second in the hundred to Emma Cullen while CUAC President Helen Broadbridge claimed the hammer record as CUAC ran out winners by 100 points to 89.
The Men’s Blues really was one for the ages, an epic encounter that ebbed and flowed until it was all over. The first field events set the standard. Michael Painter of Cambridge broke the hammer record with his first throw, while a humdinger of a long jump encounter saw ex-CUAC President Matthew Houlden take the lead with a 7.25m jump, only to have incoming Oxford Captain Sam Trigg equal that, before Houlden won the event with a staggering 7.48m leap, possibly the longest wind-legal jump in Varsity history. Trigg can count himself as unlucky, as in the triple jump his 15m leap saw him again behind an inspired Houlden, who broke the CUAC record. In fact, the field was nearly all Cambridge, with Welsh International javelin thrower Aidan Reynolds the only OUAC winner, in a 1-2 with American Arran Davies.
The track, though, was Oxford’s domain. Craig Morten took the 400m hurdles, ahead of Oxford captain Adam McBraida, but this was to be McBraida’s only loss of the day as he rampaged through a series of extraordinary wins in the 100m, 200m, 200m hurdles and 4x100m to inspire fear in the Cambridge ranks. Tom Frith repeated last year’s 800m victory in exactly the same style with a blazing last 100m, while Ismaila Ngum was victorious in the 110m hurdles and CUAC’s Matt Leach, a BUCS bronze medallist over the 5000m, took that and the Mile. The match came to a close with the winner of the 4x400m taking the spoils and the OUAC team of Gundle, Morten, McBraida and Club President Ralph Eliot, who had secured the silver medal at BUCS, romped home with ease.
The 400m saw Cambridge athlete Barney Walker in only his second race over the distance, take on George Gundle, OUAC’s fastest man in over a decade. Undeterred by this, Walker set off at a roaring pace, leading well at 200m, and then inexplicably kept on going. Gundle drew level on the home straight but Walker somehow found extra reserves of strength, the lead changing hands several times before the Cambridge man’s legs seemed to give way and he tragically stumbled and fell two metres short of the line in one of the bravest displays of quarter-miling seen in a while.
However, if this match is remembered for one thing alone, it will be for the steeplechase, and not what happened at the front (where OUCCC captain Alex Howard took a fine victory) but at the back. Tom Quirk had been leading with Howard for most of the race, but with two laps to go began to falter and it became clear that something was wrong. Approaching the bell, he broke down, clutching his leg, but then determined to finish got back up again and began to shuffle and limp onwards as the remaining runners passed him. CUAC second team runner Paul Hodgson then spontaneously decided to eschew any chance of a PB for himself to aid his fellow athlete, and the two proceeded to help each other round the track and over the barriers to the finish.