This week saw the official President’s Challenge, when the Presidents of Oxford University Boat Club and Oxford University Women’s Boat Club formally challenged their counterparts from Cambridge University to race over the 4 ¼ mile Championship course from Putney to Mortlake. This year’s challenge was held in the Crypt at London’s Guildhall with Abigail Parker and Dara Alizadeh of Cambridge formally accepting the challenges presented to them by Oxford’s Eleanor Shearer and Felix Drinkall. The President’s Challenge also sees the formal announcement of the various squads aiming to win their Blues on April 7th. So, as per previous years I thought I caste my eye over the squads and see who I think will make the Blue Boats and who will win the Boat Race.
First off the men’s squads…
President: Dara Alizadeh
Coach: Rob Baker
Returning Blues: 3
Average age: 22.4 years
Nationalities: 6 (British, American, Australian, Irish, Polish, Belgian)
This year’s President, American Dara Alizadeh, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania where he rowed in the Varsity 8 and made the US U23 team in 2015 winning a silver medal in the M8 at the U23 World Championships. After graduating from Penn he spent some time coaching at Winchester College before going up to Cambridge in 2017. He rowed in the 3 seat of the Cambridge boat that won the 2018 race by 3 lengths.
The other returning Blue from the 2018 race is Freddie Davidson, stroke of the 2018 boat. Davidson is the grandson of Alistair Davidson who won a silver in the M8 at the Commonwealth Games in 1954. A former pupil of St Paul’s School Hammersmith, Davidson junior learnt his rowing on the Tideway. He followed-up his victory in the Boat Race with selection for the Great Britain U23 team, winning a silver medal in the M8 at the World Championships in Poznan. So far this season he guided Cambridge’s top 4- to victory at the British Championships in October and finished 6th in the M2- at the recent British Team Trials (partnering Callum Sullivan).
Alizadeh can call upon the services of a 3rd returning Blue, albeit from the Women’s Boat Race. Coxswain Matthew Holland steered the Women’s Light Blue boat to victory at the 2017 Boat Race. He’s another athlete with tremendous knowledge of the Tideway, not just from having coxed in the Boat Race, but having learnt to cox on the Championship course whilst a pupil at Westminster School. Holland is one of four coxes in the squad but will surely be favourite to take the helm in April. If he does win a Blue in April it will see him join a select band of coxes who have steered both the men’s and women’s Blue Boats – a group which includes the late Acer Nethercott, Alistair Potts and Sue Brown
One area where Cambridge seem to have the upper hand in the last few years, is their ability to attract highly experienced athletes to come up for one year courses and try out for the Blue Boat. There are none more experienced than James Cracknell. The 47 year old will set a number of records if he’s selected for the Blue Boat in April. The most obvious one will be the oldest man ever to compete in the, beating coxswain Andy Probert’s record who was 38 when he coxed Cambridge in 1992. The other record Cracknell will set is becoming the most decorated man to row in the race. Cracknell has two Olympic Gold medals (Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004) and no fewer than six World Championship titles to his credit. Cracknell missed both the British Championships and the Head of the River Fours, so his form has yet to be put to the test. Other “older” athletes have tried for the Boat Race (most notably rugby player Andy Ripley who narrowly missed selection for the 1998 race at the age of 50). Given the nature of the race, Cracknell stands an excellent chance of making the crew, not just because of his outstanding pedigree, but because he’s matured into an outstanding endurance athlete, ideally suited to the rigours of a 4 ¼ mile race. If the course was a traditional 2K I’m not sure he’s make it, but for a man who has run the Marathon Des Sables, rowed the Atlantic and competed for Great Britain in Duathlon, the Tideway should suit him down to the ground. The other thing that’s guaranteed with Cracknell trialing for the Boat race is publicity. Crackers isn’t shy about documenting his challenges in public, and indeed a BBC film crew were filming him whilst he watched the rest of his clubmates prepare and race at the Fours Head. If he succeeds in winning a Blue there will quite the media frenzy.
But, Cracknell probably isn’t the most outstanding member of the squad. That accolade probably sits with Natan Wegrzycki-Szymczyk. The 23 year old Pole already has three World Championship and one Olympic appearance to his credit, taking 7th in the M1X at the Rio Olympics and also at the 2017 World Championships and 8th at the Worlds this year. He’s also won a host of age group medals, winning Junior World gold in 2013 and U23 silver in 2014 and 2016 and bronze in 2015 and 2017. His undergraduate studies took him to the University of California, Berkeley where he was named 2017 Scholar Athlete of the Year. During his time at Cal he won the IRA Championships in 2016 and won the Head of Charles (breaking the course record in the process). He’s probably the first name on the team sheet for Coach Baker and President Alizadeh.
Another outstanding recruit for this season is Australian Sam Hookway. The University of Victoria graduate won bronze in the U23 M8 in 2012 and made his senior debut in 2014 rowing at the 1st World Cup in Sydney, finishing 4th in an Australian 2nd 8, before moving into the 1st 8 for the Lucerne World Cup and the Aigubelette World Championships where the Australians finished 9th. He looked set to win a place in the Rio Olympic team, but decided instead to continue his medical studies. Those studies now bring him to Cambridge where he is reading for an MPhil in Medical Science.
There are also six members of the successful 2018 Goldie crew back for another attempt to win a Blue, Dave Bell, Rob Harris, Gerard Kuenning, Reggie Mitchell, Tom Strudwick and Callum Sullivan. Of this group Sullivan looks to be in the best form. He was selected for the top 4- at the British Championships and also for the Fours Head. He also partnered Freddie Davidson at the GB Trials this weekend finishing as the top Cambridge pair in 6th (but 3 places behind the top Oxford pair). Strudwick and Mitchell were the 2nd fastest Cambridge pair at Trials coming 17th.
Among the other new recruits are American Grant Bitler and Australian Harry Baxter. 22 year old Bitler is a graduate of Brown University and won U23 gold at the CRASH-B indoor rowing championships in 2017. In his Senior year he raced in the Brown 2nd Varsity crew that finished 7th at the IRA Championships. Baxter, a graduate of the University Of Queensland with whom he won gold in the M2- at the Australian University Championships.
There are also a three of the Cambridge Lightweight Blue Boat looking to step up to the heavyweights, Zenas Veldhoven, Callum McRae and Theo Wimberger. Veldhoven, from Belgium, raced in the Lightweight Boat Race in both 2017 and 2018 and was President for the 2018 race. It’ll be interesting to see if they are unsuccessful in gaining a seat in either the Blue Boat or Goldie whether they go back to the Lightweights (who will be racing over the full Championship course for the first time). The other athlete to mention is Joe Nash from Abingdon School, if he gains a Blue he’ll become the youngest ever at 18 years and 78 days old.
So, in summary this looks a really strong squad. They stamped their authority by placing 1st and 4th in the 4- at the British Championships, although Oxford got revenge at the Fours Head taking the win in Academic 4+ by 1 second (although Cambridge, racing as Goldie, suffered a collision in the first half of the course losing them an estimated 6 seconds).
For what it’s worth I reckon the Blue Boat will be Alizadeh, Davidson, Cracknell, Wegrzycki-Szymczyk, Hookway, Sullivan, Bitler, Bell & Holland
Coach: Sean Bowden
President: Felix Drinkall
Returning Blues: 2
Average age: 21
Nationalities: 5 (British, American, German, French, Belgian)
At the age of 19 Oxford’s President, Felix Drinkall is 6 years younger than his Light Blue counterpart and is the first Undergraduate President at Oxford since Constantine Louloudis in 2015. The Old-Etonian made the Blue Boat at his first attempt as a Freshman in 2018 and now steps up to lead the Club as President. He’s one of the most exciting young oarsmen in Britain at the moment. He won gold in the JM4- at the Junior World Championships in 2017 and followed that up with a silver medal at the U23 World Championships earlier this year. At the recent GB Trials he produced the fastest U20 2K erg and placed 3rd overall in the 5K M2- Time Trial with partner Tobias Schroder making them the fastest U23 pair by 8 seconds ahead of the top Cambridge pair.
The other returning Blue is fellow old-Etonian, Benedict Aldous. Aldous was a (very) late addition to the Oxford boat for the 2018 race, after Josh Bugajski left the squad following alleged disagreements with coach Bowden. He’ll be looking to be named as a Blue with a bit more notice for the 2019 race and be talked about as a “genuine” member of the crew rather than as a last minute sub.
Another exciting young rower is Tobias Schroder. As mentioned above, he partnered Drinkall at the recent GB Trials. He will be well known to the Cambridge President as Alizadeh spent some time coaching Schroder at Winchester College. Schroder made his international debut in 2017 winning a bronze medal in the JM8 at the World Championships and then made his U23 debut this year, finishing 5th in the BM4+. He raced in the top Oxford 4- at the British Championships and also at the Head of the River Fours. After the President he is probably the favourite to be selected for the Blue Boat.
Oxford this year is full of outstanding young oarsmen, none more so than Leo Von Malaise. The 19 year old was a member of the exceptional St Paul’s School first 8 that dominated the junior rowing world in 2017-18. His coach at St Paul’s, Bobby Thatcher had this to say of him when he spoke about the crew to Junior Rowing News:
“An impressive racer with explosive power, Leo is fiercely competitive. Once you’re up with Leo, you aren’t getting caught – his incredible mentality feeds into every aspect of his performance. He’s committed to rowing at Oxford next year, and OUBC will be lucky to have him.”
Bowden also has six returners from the 2018 losing Isis crew, Charlie Buchanan, Nick Elkington, Luke Robinson, Charlie Thurston, Alex Wythe and cox Anna Carbery. Robinson was another member of the GB JM8 that won bronze in 2017 and Thurston is another Junior World medallist having won silver in 2014. Alex Wythe is another with experience of racing at the Junior World Championships, finishing 10th in the JM2- in 2016.
Another very talented new arrival at Oxford is Patrick Sullivan. The 23 year old University of London graduate, rowed for Great Britain at the U23 World Championships in 2017 winning a silver medal in the BM4+.
There are two Germans in the squad, this first is Achim Harzheim. He’s a graduate of Harvard, with whom he raced in the 2nd Varsity 8 in 2016 helping them to an undefeated season culminating in a win at the IRA Championships. The 2nd German in the Oxford squad is another US educated athlete, Benjamin Landis. He rowed for the outstanding Columbia University Lightweights and whilst at school won bronze at the German National championships in 2010 and 2012. Bowden has a history of selecting light athletes for his crews, so being from a Lightweight programme is no real disadvantage at Oxford.
Another US educated athlete is Belgian Augustin Wambersie. He raced at the Junior World Championships in 2014 before going up to Princeton University. As a Senior he was co-captain and raced in the Varsity 4 that finished 5th at the IRA Championships. This term he raced in the top Oxford crew at the British Championships and Head of the River Fours.
Joining Drinkall, Schroder and Wambersie in the top Isis crew at the Head of the River Fours was Charlie Pearson. Another junior medallist, he’s one of three members of the 2016 bronze medal JM8 that are in the Oxford squad.
Daniel Holod from St Paul Minnesota, is a graduate of Cornell University in New York State. Whilst at Cornell he raced in the 2nd Varsity crew, helping to their best ever finish at the IRA Championships (5th). As a junior he raced for the USA at the 2014 Junior World Championships, finishing 17th in the JM2X.
My Blue Boat would be something like; Drinkall, Schroder, Wambersie, Harzheim, Von Malaise, Sullivan, Pearson, Thurston, Carbery
Overall Oxford are a very exciting, young squad with some outstanding athletes, some of whom (like Drinkall and Schroder) could become stars of the Great Britain squad in years to come. However, on paper the Light Blues look much the stronger. They were frustrated by their loss at the Head of the River Fours, especially after their solid win at the British Championships. It’s Cambridge who will head into winter training as the favourites to take the win in the Spring.