On Boat Race day, Isis, Oxford men’s reserve crew, stormed to victory in one of the most exciting races I have ever seen. Whilst the media focus was on the women taking to the Tideway for the first time, the best race of the day was not even televised, and went largely unnoticed by even the most ardent rowing fans.
Standing on Chiswick bridge as Isis crossed the line three lengths ahead of their Cambridge rivals, Goldie, I, like many others around me, assumed that the race was an open-shut case just like the women’s race had been. The truth could not have been more different. While the women were celebrating and collecting their medals, one of the fiercest boat races in living memory was taking place.
Oxford came into the race as favourites, having come close to Brookes’ top boat at Reading Head; a team which was allegedly pretty even with the Cambridge Blue Boat. There was, however, no complacency from the crew. Goldie had recorded a strong match racing performance on the Tideway against Thames Rowing Club and had been picking up speed ever since. The race had all the makings of a close contest.
Having recorded a strong result last year, with a victory of 11 lengths, Isis were keen to maintain their winning streak. James Mountain, sitting at four and returning from last year’s winning crew, spoke to Cherwell about the preparations on race day. “The warm up was a bit mixed, with some tricky water down below Putney Bridge, but when we came back onto the course to complete our warm up, our final bursts and starts were good.”
When the warm-up was finished, the crew heard that the Dark Blue women had emerged victorious in their race, leaving them to “keep the winning run for Oxford going,” although there was little time for contemplation as the showdown with Goldie drew nearer.
The umpire dropped the flag and the race had begun. Unlike the Blue boats, Isis struggled to get off to a good start and did not show the good, clean rowing that had served them well all season. Goldie drew away to a lead of three seconds – roughly one length – by the mile post, thanks to a cleaner start and higher stroke rate.
By comparison, in the women’s race, Oxford had a five second lead at the same stage, and by that point the race had become merely a question of by what margin the Dark Blues would win.
Flying through Hammersmith Bridge, Goldie had extended their lead to five seconds despite Isis’ best attempts to stay level, and had pulled so far clear of Oxford that they had steered in front of them.
At this stage very few would have predicted a Dark Blue victory, but Mountain told Cherwell the crew kept faith in their training. “We had been extremely well prepared by our coach Andy Nelder and, led by our cox Sam Collier, we moved to halt their advance.” There was a lot of work to do but they knew they had the endurance; they had done the training and were still in the race.
As the crews came to St Paul’s School and Goldie’s advantage from the Surrey bend drew to a close, the dark blues started to reel them in. Isis found the rhythm and speed they had lacked at the start and preceded to draw in Goldie, forcing the light blues to move back to their station.
By the time the crews passed Chiswick steps Isis had reduced the deficit to two seconds. Strong, aggressive coxing from Sam Collier and an inspirational call in the memory of OUBC legend Dan Topolski gave Isis the boost they needed as they continued their charge. One crew member reflected afterwards of this huge push, “I was in a pretty dark place… I don’t really remember much”. The herculean effort paid off and with four minutes of the race left they had drawn level and must have known they were in for the win.
Passing through Barnes bridge with less than a mile until the finish and the bend in their favour, Isis had drawn out to a length ahead of Goldie and, with the opposition paying the price for front loading, victory was almost certain.
The final verdict was a win for Isis by ten seconds or three lengths. The crew crossed the line filled both with the immense pain of their exertion and the sublime ecstasy of winning. In contrast, Goldie crossed the line and collapsed into a deep void of sadness and disappointment; such is the nature of a race where second place means nothing.
Such resilience from Isis bodes well for the future at OUBC. This was a young crew dominated by five undergraduates, three of whom were freshers. With many of the Blue Boat moving on at the end of the year, the victory augurs well for the reserve boat athletes. Last Friday, the Oxford spare pair of Rufus Stirling and Thomas Macgregor had succumbed to Cambridge by about two lengths, but Oxford’s domination in the reserve race reflected their vastly superior strength in depth.
Goldie paid the price for such a risky strategy of throwing everything they had at Isis so soon. After 2014’s crushing defeat, Goldie seemed determined not to be left behind off the start. But their front-loading tactics swung too far the other way, leaving them vulnerable to the surging rhythm of the Isis crew.