Summer VIIIs: Part I
It was not just another college boat race, it was an epic showdown between the Titans in the far off land of Oxford!
Summer VIIIs, the 4-day regatta in the 5th Week of Trinity, has always been the annual high point for college-level rowing. To add to the normal pressure, this year marked the 200th anniversary of Christ Church boat club. In fact, in the year of the boat club’s founding, 1817, Christ Church had won the coveted first position in Division I, also known as “Head of the River” or simply “Headship”.
In the 203 years of this competition, Christ Church’s first men’s boat, M1, had won a record 32 Summer VIIIs Headships, and if we were to win this year, that would make it 33 wins (more than any other college).
But, this year was different. In addition to our historical rivals, Oriel M1 and Pembroke M1, a new threat had emerged: Keble M1. Keble boat club really backed themselves this year, boasting 4 rowers from this year’s winning Blue Boat against Cambridge. They were so confident in their victory, they had an Instagram account called “Keble4Head”…with a Lord Sith picture. Why they wanted to couch themselves as agents of the dark side of the Force, I have no clue. But, I’d be happy to go along with their theme as Christ Church would obviously be the noble Jedis!
Even amidst Keble’s boasting, prospects seemed auspicious for Christ Church. We had an unprecedented number of our own “Blues”, rowers competing for a seat in the boats (the Blue Boat and the reserve boat named ‘Isis’) to race in the world-famous Boat Race against Cambridge.
Class Mertens, who represented Germany in five World Championships (and won it in 2015), was stroking the Reserve Boat, Isis.
Benedict Aldous, an engineering fresher, won The Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup with Eton at the Henley Royal Regatta last summer, was the 7th seat in Isis.
Oliver Cook, an imperial and global history student who won the coxed pairs in the World Championships for GB, sat at 3-seat in the Blue Boat.
William Cahill from South Africa, here to study PPE, was also in the Isis boat.
William Warr, one of only three men to have rowed for both Cambridge and Oxford (he wisely switched from the Dark Side over to the Dark Blues), had been accepted in the DPhil in Public Health Management. He was the bowman for the Blue Boat.
James White, a finalist in Geography, and who had been in the Blue Boat the previous year, was in the Isis boat this year.
Not only that, but flying below the radar, Christ Church had other notable Jedi rowers:
Lawrence Peirson, a Physics finalist, rowed in Christ Church M1’s boat for the last 2 years chasing the elusive Headship title.
John O’Mara, a Kellogg MBA, who had represented the United States at the World Championships 2012, rowed with Columbia University Lightweights.
Colin Ross, an art history MsT student, was captain of the Columbia University Lightweight boat which won the IRA just last year. In fact, there were more good rowers than there were seats in our boat!
But, then, unexpected disaster! James White was involved in a traffic accident that left his arm in a sling. That left exactly eight rowers for eight seats, but further injuries or illnesses could seriously jeopardize the boat. Oriel M1 had been training for a month before term started. Keble M1 was training twice a day since the beginning of term. If Christ Church was lucky, we would have about 10 outings before the actual races. Could we pull this off? We had to, the Force was rooting for us, willing us to win!
The stress was alleviated somewhat whenever I talked to our head coach, Mike Genchi (he likes to refer to himself as Genchi Khan). He had coached the GB Olympic rowing teams in the 1990s, and brought his wealth of experience, infectious smile and ruthless desire to win to the boat club. You see, although Mike is a very wise and professional coach, one who can tell when a rower needs a fire lit under the bum versus a hug, the one thing he cannot hide is his “I’m going to win” smile. You have to be on the look out for it, because it’s fleeting, but when he told me he had observed Keble M1 at the Nottingham regatta over one weekend, he mentioned how they did with THAT smile. And that is when I knew, we could probably win this! But, would we?