University Boat Race: A London tradition with a surprising American flair

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

The most-attended university sports event on the planet takes place this weekend, an extravaganza boasting 184 years of history, mingling ancient traditions with physical torture and described by even its contestants as "madness."

The University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, those two timeless bastions of British education, will be witnessed by up to 300,000 spectators on Saturday, but this year's edition comes with a distinctly American flavor.

Eight-man crews from each institution will square off over 4.2 miles (covered in the 17-minute range), and the tally of five oarsmen from the United States outstrips that of any other nation, the United Kingdom included. Throw in one of the coxes (the winning team always does … into the Thames) and the race sponsor (investment finance giant BNY Mellon) and you can see why race traditionalists have been discussing a "Stars 'n Stripes edge" to the 2013 edition.

Rowing experts believe there is no challenge in sport that matches the intense excruciation that comes with this event that carries a physical toll so steep that members of the crew have been known to suffer temporary loss of sight toward the end of the course.

"Compared to the more structured world of Olympic rowing it is essentially madness," said Oskar Zorrilla, Oxford’s 25-year-old American cox. "There are no buoys and the river bends and fluctuates so both crews are fighting for the best water, meaning the boats are often almost on top of each other.

"Then there is the distance, which is far longer than in the Olympics. It takes the guys into new territory. These are men who are used to pain, but they have never felt anything like this."

The "dark blues" of Oxford and "light blues" of Cambridge can forget about a nice consistent rhythm to cover the course, too. The need for the best water leads to tactical sprints for the lead, increasing the lactic build-up in heaving chests that this year will be further stricken with icy air, with an uncharacteristic late-March cold snap meaning this could be the first ever Boat Race to experience snowfall.

Hosted annually since 1856, the race has both moved on and remained entrenched in tradition. An 1829 sovereign coin – the year the race was first run – is still flipped to determine starting position and the losing team always demands a re-match. But in terms of professionalism, the competition has made leaps and bounds. Many of the crews are graduate students in their mid-20s; all are world class in ability.

Famous former competitors, or "Blues," include Prime Ministers of Australia and France and the Winklevoss twins, who suffered defeat in the 2010 Oxford boat a few years after having Facebook wrestled away by Mark Zuckerberg.

Perhaps most intriguingly, though, was the 1980 involvement of House actor Hugh Laurie, who gave a predictably amusing view on the race during a stint on The Craig Ferguson show in 2011.

"It is a miserable sport," said Laurie, whose Cambridge eight was narrowly defeated in his only race. "There is nothing like winning a rowing race. It is not like winning anything else. You are facing backwards looking at the people you are beating and there is something very intense about that."

Oxford is a solid favorite, and has one American, Patrick Close, as well as Zorrilla as cox. Cambridge has four U.S. oarsmen, and are well aware that the unpredictable nature of the race often means the odds count for little.

For Cambridge's Niles Garrett, a University of Washington alum competing in his second race, the chance to compete in the event is a dream come true, but sometimes creates difficulty in explaining its significance to friends and loves ones back home.

"There is nothing like it," Garrett told Yahoo! Sports. "There is an NFL-type atmosphere, helicopters are buzzing overhead, T.V. crews are everywhere. At the school, everyone knows who you are, the race is a huge tradition and it is everywhere. You just have to give it your all but only one crew can win."

Whatever the result however, both teams are hoping for a disruption-free race, following the chaotic scenes from last year when a protestor swam into the Thames and caused a 30-minute delay. The man was later sentenced to six months jail time, but that was of little consolation to the crews, who sat freezing in their boats during the delay, sweat-drenched gear clinging to their skin.

Both crews have trained seven days a week for several months and are estimated to have logged more than 12,000 miles in the boat, while also assembling themselves into the often-quirky habits of university life.

"It takes some getting used to," said Cambridge's Grant Wilson. "If you want you can walk around every night in a gown and have a four-course meal with silver cutlery and wine during every course. This is the most interesting place I have ever been to; you see ancient portraits and buildings and customs everywhere."

While Oxford and Cambridge are the most elite of universities and come with enormous cost, this is still very much an event for the British people. BNY Mellon has orchestrated a Twitter campaign urging fans to decide "WhichBlueRU" and even supporters with no educational allegiance to either school pick a favorite.

Rowing historian Chris Dodd says the number of Americans this year is especially high, which must in part be attributed to the strength of the NCAA collegiate system.

"The trend has been towards more foreigners, more rowers with dual nationalities and more graduate students," said Dodd, author of "Battle of the Blues and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race." "The growing internationality of first and further degree studies are reflected in student rowing generally."

However, there is no question that the international student-athletes, including the Americans, have come to enjoy and appreciate the significance of the Boat Race.

"You go into it knowing there is a huge historic precedent involved with this and the whole country seems to get into it," said Oxford's Patrick Close. "For that one day it is all about the dark blue and light blue."

And, this year, the red, white and blue.

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