University of Cambridge rower Steve Dudek is back for more after winning last year’s interrupted Boat Race on the Thames.
The American is among five oarsmen returning from the 158th version of the race between Cambridge and Oxford. The crews were forced to stop halfway through when a protester was almost struck by the Dark Blues’ blades. After a 30-minute delay, Oxford momentarily regained its lead before a clash of boats left one of its rowers with a broken oar, giving Cambridge an easy win.
“I can’t act like that wasn’t at least to a certain degree a hollow victory,” Dudek, 24, said in an interview at the weigh-in in London yesterday before the Easter Day race on March 31.
Cambridge has an 81-76 lead in the series, which started in 1829 after a Light Blues student wrote to an Oxford friend proposing a race. This is the first time the men’s race will have four U.S. athletes participating, with Cambridge only having one British oarsman.
The women’s event will be held a week earlier at Henley. The men and women will race on the same day and the same stretch of water for the first time from 2015.
Last year’s race was “completely bizarre,” said Dudek, who rowed four years at the University of Wisconsin. Before that, the six-foot-eight (2.03 meter) Dudek played high school football, earning all-conference honors twice, and was also a state qualifier for track and basketball.
After both boats finished, Oxford bow man Alex Wood was carried off the Dark Blue boat after the race and given medical treatment.
“Rowing is very painful and at that halfway point, you lose a lot of your senses in the way that I just don’t really remember a lot of it,” said Dudek, who is studying land economy at St. Edmund’s College at Cambridge. “Especially through the second half. To be taken out of that situation so abruptly -- it was unbelievable.”
Dudek said he was too tired to be angry with the swimmer, who said he was demonstrating against government budget cuts. The man was jailed in September for six months for causing a public nuisance.
The event, like the Wimbledon tennis championships, is one of the fixtures on the British sports calendar. The 4.25-mile (6.8-kilometer) race is watched by 250,000 spectators on the banks of the Thames and millions more on television. The second time around is easier, Dudek said.
“You no longer have the monkey on your back of not knowing,” said Dudek, who considered playing college football before realizing he probably wasn’t good enough. “Not knowing what exactly to expect -- more than anything that’s what freaks people out the most.”
Weighing in at 224 pounds (101.8 kilos), Dudek is the heaviest oarsman in the Cambridge boat. At yesterday’s weigh-in, the Oxford men topped the scales with an average weight of 94.7 kilos. That compares with 92.05 for Cambridge. The entire Oxford crew weighed 757.6 kilos, or 21.2 kilos more than the Light Blues. This is the first year since 2009 that Oxford has had a heavier crew.
The Cambridge women outweighed Oxford by 28.4 kilos.
Alex Fleming, an Ivy League rowing champion during his fourth year at Brown University, is confident the Light Blues will defend their title this year.
“Maybe in public opinion, we’re not favorites at the moment but I don’t really care that much about that,” said Australian-born Fleming, a 23-year-old who studied human biology and economics at Brown and is now studying management at Cambridge’s Pembroke College. “I know how fast we are. I know what we have to do, what we have to work on.”
Being an Ivy League rowing champion hasn’t given him any bragging rights in the U.K., Fleming said.
“On the East Coast, it definitely has more of an impact, that title,” he said. “Maybe not so much over here.”
Last year’s race was “a great disappointment,” for Oxford and the crew wants revenge, Dark Blues coach Sean Bowden said.
“We’ve settled now in terms of selection, but there is plenty left to do in terms of building speed,” said Bowden, who has been coaching Oxford since 1998 and guided the crew to eight victories. Two Dark Blues -- Alexander Davidson and Karl Hudspith -- will return from last year’s squad.
Whatever happens on the water in west London on Easter Day, it will be painful, according to Dudek.
“Rowing isn’t fun, it’s one of the least enjoyable activities I can think of,” he said. “It’s much more fun to stop rowing than it is to continue rowing. But winning a rowing race is special. Training for seven months and then winning in 17 minutes is pretty incredible.”
Being prepared is crucial, according to Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore.
“It’s 17 minutes of sheer hell,” said Trapmore, a gold medalist in the men’s eight at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “You never quite know what will happen, as last year showed. So we try to prepare for every eventuality.”