It would be hard for the stakes to be higher in the 2013 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. An event older than the modern Olympics, it is watched by tens of millions of people worldwide every year. Competitors give six months of their lives to training for a single 17-minute sprint down the Thames, and this year, it came with the added pressure of 2012’s controversial, interrupted Cambridge victory.
Bookmakers were strongly tipping Oxford’s heavier crew, who had recently delivered a powerful win over a German crew which resembled the country’s epic Olympic eight. But with two Olympians apiece and four previous Blues rowers to Oxford’s three, Cambridge stood more than a fighting chance.
The thirteenth minute proved to be the turning point, and the Oxford eight (urged on by some judicious foul language from Zorrilla) upped their stroke rate and pushed fully clear of the Cambridge boat, securing their lead. Zorilla reflected on the crucial improvisation on the shore later: “I had to decide whether to ask the guys to push more and bring forward energy they were storing for later. I thought the tactical advantage of the final bend was worth pulling ahead now.” With a grin, he said “It could have gone either way, and I feel vindicated!”
By the time the crews reached the final bend at the three-mile mark, Cambridge still refused to give up, but Oxford’s decisive lead was holding. With only two crews in the history of the Race winning from behind at this point, it was a near certainty that Oxford would avenge last year’s painful loss. They carried their lead to the finish line in a time of 17:28, with Cambridge chasing hard all the way.
Umpire Pinsent said after the race that at the end of the Surrey bend, he thought to himself “actually Cambridge could win this… if they’re overlapping at Barnes they could do it.” As Oxford rising star and Olympic medalist Constantine Louloudis conceded, “they made it bloody difficult for us”.
An ecstatic Oxford captain Alex Davidson said: “they gave us a tough race, and hung on a long time, but in the end we just had that little bit extra speed.” Pinsent agreed and added that “the better crew won, but it was by a short distance”.
The Oxford celebrations on shore were jubilant, while Cambridge declined interviews initially, regrouping from a race many participants have described as tougher than the Olympics. At three times the distance of most rowing races, you can understand what they mean.
Cambridge President George Nash spoke afterwards of the defeat, in what was his final Boat Race. “It’s something that I’m probably going to replay in my head for the rest of my life.” But he added that “I’m pretty proud of the guys. We really excelled ourselves around the Surrey bend.”
The ethos of sportsmanship is essential to the Boat Race tradition, and this was on display in 2012 when the Cambridge crew refused a presentation ceremony out of concern for the injured Oxford rower Alex Wood. Wood’s is just one of the inspiring stories which surround this event. After his injuries, he returned this year and qualified for the Oxford reserve boat Isis, which also took victory, in a time of 17:51. This year, upon finishing, the Oxford crew turned and gave cheers to the Cambridge crew, and members of both crews embraced and congratulated each other at the boat house.
This race is much bigger than a rivalry. The rowers’ sacrifice and commitment are almost unimaginable for most university students, and for all that the atmosphere along the Thames resembles a fairground, their achievement is the heart of this event. There is a tendency to bandy about statistics about stroke rates and winning margins, and think that we understand what happened in a race.
Standing in the media gaggle which was pressing the exhausted rowers for comments minutes after they finished, there was a sense of intrusion – almost indecency – at that heartbreaking moment. The statistics that really describe these athletes are these: 1200 hours of training (around six hours a day) in six months, a single win-or-fail race, and the eight men relying upon you not to let them down. The crowds go home and the news moves on, but competing in this race is an honour that an incredible, select few will never forget.