Alumni Sparring

Alistair Potts (BB ’95) gives his account of the Alumni Sparring on the Thames which took place the weekend before Trial VIIIs. Full results below.

“If I had any doubts whether this would be a day of the utmost awesomeness, they were instantly dispelled when I saw Sarah Winckless (BB ’95, ’96, ’97) waiting outside Thames Rowing Club to greet the alumni crew. She was saying hello to literally everyone who meandered by, but in that special manner she has which immediately persuades you that you’re the most important person she’s seen all year. Which, for me, was something close to the truth. The last time I’d been in a boat with Sarah, some of the current squad hadn’t even been born. I didn’t tell her that. I think we’d have both felt a bit old.

No-one would have described it as a nice day: a steady drizzle seeped off the balcony while we tried to remember how to loosen shoes in a boat. Eighteen years is a long time, but only if you measure it in terms of time. The disorderly ordinariness of the boathouse, its arcane rites of washers and rig, return as surely and unavoidably as the tide washes up the hard. I’m back doing something I can, without any conscious effort; the unfamiliar rapidly turned inside out like an ill-behaved umbrella.

The strip of water, the Tideway, has changed just a little – more buoys scattered every half mile for purposes unfathomable. But really just the same, a dull streak of grey and brown, rowing’s romance-stripped Coliseum, its dullish tide now ebbing rapidly down towards Battersea and beyond. If it once, long ago, intimidated, it is now no more threatening than a fond friend whose wiles you long ago accepted, then grew accustomed, and finally stopped noticing.

We have a job beyond just looking pretty (although we do that rather well). We’re here as the Official Opposition, the Shadow Blue Boat, we’re here to go toe-to-toe with the real thing from the Mile Post back down to Thames, three minutes if you go the long way round. The CUWBC have pulled out all the stops – a real umpire with real flags, and a toss for stations (because, says the CUWBC coach, the coxes have to get used to calling heads or tails).

I have been blessed throughout my rowing career by an angelic guardian contriving to twist fate in my favour, and true to form we won the toss. Surrey was my choice, I’d like to say for convincing tactical reasons but really because you have to choose something, and Sarah was looking at me expectantly. I couldn’t remember what the other side was called. Lining up at the Mile, the wind was ensuring a swell large enough to pitch the boats in a long, lazy lift and plunge, an insistent sway of water alternately making a gap where there should be a catch or exploding off your rigger like an unseasonal water-bomb. It felt good to be back.

The boats were called to the start, the students bravely choosing the middle of the fairway where the water was roughest. I should really have been thinking how lucky I am to get the chance to mess around on the Tideway after all this time with such a top bunch of women. But instead I’m revelling in the injustice of being aligned by someone who’s clearly completely incompetent and channelling my utter disgust into a determination to kick the students as hard as possible, and after that hopefully the aligner too. For a precious few minutes, for one last time, when the umpire drops her flag these eight women become the most important thing in the world. By a mile.

I know that with the volume of Olympic and World Championship medals owned by our alumni crew there would have been a certain level of expectation. Yet when, three minutes later, we careered past the finish line ¾ length ahead of the students the satisfaction came from an unexpected source. Once it would have been an affirmation of self-belief, a twist of the neck for an opposition held at bay, the grinding, relentless, crushing hammer that holds you at the top of your game. Not now. The truth – the obvious truth – is that the ambition and determination and courage of those CUWBC girls is not yet close to finding its limit, and is immeasurably preferable to what is left of the skill and the fitness and the guile that seep imperceptibly but ruthlessly from all of us from the day we say ‘no more’, no matter what heights we’ve achieved. The satisfaction of the win came from facing that fear that one day, with a certainty, there will come a time when you won’t be able to do this anymore.

But not today. Not today.”

Race 1: Alumni A vs Nudge Nudge (Alumni A won by 3/4l)

Race 2: Alumni A vs Wink Wink (Wink Wink won by 1 1/2l)

Race 3: Alumni B vs Say No More (Say No More won by 3l)


Alistair Potts' view of the race between Nudge Nudge and the Alumni 'A' Crew
Alistair Potts’ view of the race between Nudge Nudge and the Alumni ‘A’ Crew