Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Boat Race disaster almost made me quit

ZOE DE TOLEDO has had to cope with more adversity than most.

ZOE DE TOLEDO has had to cope with more adversity than most.

Last summer she was left homeless after a fire gutted her home in Hambleden. This came just months after she had separated from her husband of two years.

Now, one year on, she is in search of Olympic glory in Rio as cox of the Great Britain women’s eight.

What is even more remarkable about this change in fortune for the 28-year-old Leander athlete is that she almost quit the sport in 2012 after her mistake cost Oxford University victory in the Boat Race.

She says: “I’ve had lots of ups and downs but I think it has proved to me that I’m strong and can deal with pretty much anything life can throw at me.”

De Toledo was born in London and attended St Paul’s Girls’ School, an independent school in Hammersmith, where she excelled at drama and dance, particularly ballet.

She took up rowing with the school’s boat club in 2004 on the advice of a friend who thought she would make a good cox because she was “small, light and bossy”.

“I loved being by the water as well as sitting there doing nothing while other people worked,” she laughs.

She progressed faster than she might have done thanks to a stroke of good fortune.

De Toledo, who is 5ft 1in, recalls: “I was the bottom cox as we came to the last race of the season. The club decided we wanted to race at the national championships and all the other coxes had booked holidays. The coaches came down the list and landed on me.

“They taught me how to cox in a week and we won the junior women’s eights, turning over quite a few good crews. After that I was in the first boat for the rest of my time at school.”

The following year she coxed the GB eight that won a bronze medal at the world junior championships.

She finished school the same year and took a year out to retake her A-levels before going on to study psychology at Oxford Brookes University.

She coxed for a year at university before joining Leander in 2007 as she knew it would give her more of an opportunity to progress to the GB under-23 squad.

De Toledo says: “I had a feeling I could do well there and I really enjoyed working with people with more experience.”

The decision paid off as she won a medal in the Ladies’ Plate at Henley Royal Regatta in her first full season in 2008.

After graduating from Oxford Brookes in 2009, she coxed the GB women’s eight that won gold at the world under-23 championships.

She then returned to Oxford to study for a masters’ degree in psychological research at the city’s more famous university and became involved with the boat club. She coxed Isis, the reserve crew, to victory in that year’s Boat Race.

De Toledo says: “All year I thought I was going to get the top boat but I was beaten to the punch by a younger guy. He was very good but it was quite a shock for me.

“Nevertheless the crew I raced with were awesome fun. We had a great time and won our race very comfortably.”

Buoyed by the experience, she returned to take a second masters’ degree in criminology and criminal justice and targeted a place in the top boat.

However, her joy at being selected for the Dark Blues in the 2012 Boat Race was ruined by the experience itself.

The race was stopped soon after halfway, with Oxford in a strong position, after a protestor jumped in the river.

Once the race had been restarted, an Oxford rower broke an oar and the crew ended up losing the race.

Bow Alex Woods — now De Toledo’s partner — was then rushed to hospital after collapsing in the boat.

She says: “That Boat Race was not one you really wanted to be part of. It was incredibly hard to deal with and I nearly stopped after that.

“We had the swimmer and then a piece of equipment broke and that falls on me. I found it very difficult afterwards to trust myself to get back in the boat and enjoy rowing at all.”

De Toledo says the Oxford eight had believed they were going to win the race and they held a crucial advantage when Australian Trenton Oldfield, who claimed to be protesting against elitism and inequality in British society, jumped in the water near Chiswick Pier and was almost hit by the crews.

She recalls: “We were a much lighter crew and slight underdogs but we believed we were fast and were pretty confident.

“There are three major bends in the Boat Race, the first a small one in our favour and the second a big one in Cambridge’s favour. At the time we stopped for the swimmer we were level with their advantage gone and our next one coming up.

“The last thing I said to the crew was that they had used their bend and we were going to win the race. I was 100 per cent sure of that, it wasn’t just bravado.”

The race was stopped for almost 30 minutes as Oldfield, who was later jailed for six months for the stunt, was dragged from the water and the boats returned to the halfway mark.

Soon after the restart, the Oxford cox was warned by the umpires for steering too close to the Cambridge crew. Despite trying to move away, the boats clashed and Oxford number six Hanno Wienhausen lost his oar.

De Toledo says: “The situation was difficult. It’s hard to steer in rough water and we restarted too close together. I thought I was taking my line but the umpire warned me to move away because he thought I was encroaching.

“The umpire’s word is law so I moved away but the Cambridge crew were clever and moved towards me. I couldn’t get away fast enough and we clashed boats. Boats clash all the time but I’ve never seen a blade snap before. It’s very difficult to know how it happened.

“I was hoping they would restart the race again but the umpire shook his head and I knew the rest of the race would be very hard. At that point we still had a long way to go so we would have to be very fast to win.”

Despite their best efforts, the loss of an oar was too much for the Oxford crew and Cambridge ran out winners by four-and-a-quarter lengths.

De Toledo says: “I felt very angry about it for quite a long time afterwards because all you want is a chance to row your best race and we didn’t get that chance. In retrospect, we could have gone on and won but we didn’t and that was because of the blade breaking, not the swimmer.”

Worse was to come, though, as Woods collapsed at the finish line after pushing himself to the limit during the race.

De Toledo says: “It was desperate circumstances. Alex had been in my Isis crew and really pushed himself to breaking point. That’s all you can ask of a crew and I was very proud of how they responded.

“I was very grateful for the compassion they showed me afterwards. They never blamed me and really took it upon themselves. You win as a crew and lose as a crew even in dire circumstances and that was the truth.

“Losing crews can drift apart more than winning crews but we still communicate. We go out for dinner at the Boat Race each year and message each other as the experience bonded us.”

The days that followed were some of the darkest the cox has known as she was pilloried in the media for her mistake. She says: “It was a really hard time, there was a lot of press attention and I was getting a lot of flack from people who didn’t know me. That was really hard to deal with, especially as the Boat Race had banned us from talking to the media. It was to protect us but it meant I couldn’t say what I wanted to.

“I suffered from really low confidence in and out of the boat. It wasn’t until September that I could put my heart and soul back into it. You need to be exciting and interesting as a cox and I couldn’t do that again for a while.

“I had flashbacks to the blade breaking and Alex collapsing, which was really scary.”

De Toledo credits Woods with helping her get over the ordeal despite his own health scare after the race.

She says: “He was instrumental in getting me back in a boat — he was hugely supportive.

“That summer I went to the European championships and won a bronze medal. That made me realise it was the right decision to come back and after the London Olympics. I was asked to train with Team GB at Caversham Lakes.

“This strengthened my resolve that it was what I wanted to do. I was sure that I would only do one Olympic cycle because I’ll be 29 when Rio comes around and there are other things I want to do with my life.

“I decided to throw myself into it for four years and figure out what to do next afterwards.”

During the last three seasons she has coxed the GB women’s eight which has performed well in both the world cup regattas and world championships.

The cox says: “Over the four years we’ve had small changes in the boat. If the current crew stays the same until Rio there will be four of us who have been in it for the whole cycle — Zoe Lee, Jess Eddie, Katie Greves and me. A few others have been in it for three years and two are new this year.

“We all train together every day. It’s important to understand how everybody in the boat functions and how they behave under pressure. We are good at exploiting each other’s strengths and I do think we have got all the bases covered. We’ve got people who can ramp us up, people who remind us of the big picture and very good technical rowers.

“Everyone gets on really well and encourages each other and that’s what so special about eights. You could have two eights that are the same on paper but one might be faster because of the chemistry.”

The eight is in excellent form heading towards the Olympics, having won gold at the European championships in Germany two weeks ago.

De Toledo says: “Everyone is really excited. We are now into the racing part of the season, which is tough physically and mentally but also really exciting.

“Most of the athletes have been over to Rio already but I didn’t go, so I’m really looking forward to going.

“I’m sure the pressure will come on but one thing I pride myself on is being calm under pressure, keeping that sense of calm on the boat and not being overawed.

“Nothing will ever be as disastrous as the 2012 Boat Race so why worry about it? It’s about being confident in your ability and not letting anxiety take away from your performance.”

The self-confidence took a hit last summer after the house fire that left De Toledo without a home or belongings.

She had moved out of her Henley home earlier in the year after her marriage broke down and found a new house in Hambleden which she loved.

She was competing at the European championships in France when her mother rang her with news of the fire.

“She had her bad news voice, so I knew something was wrong,” recalls De Toledo. “She said there had been a fire at the weekend. A decorator had knocked the hob on by accident and left some clothes there which caught alight.The fire damage wasn’t bad but the smoke and the water from the fire brigade meant everything was covered in a sticky tar.

“It really hit me hard. I’m a home bird and I like my nest and suddenly all my belongings were destroyed or unsalvageable. I didn’t know what was okay or whether I could move back in. This was in August last year and the place still isn’t habitable now. It was difficult to get my head on the world championships and try to qualify the boat for the Olympics while knowing I might not have a home to go back to.

“Sometimes I would be laughing it off but at other times I thought ‘oh my god, I have nowhere to live’. It dragged on for a long time but I eventually decided to cut my losses and decided to find somewhere new to live.

“I got really lucky with a place in Wargrave and a great housemate who made me feel at home.”

There was a silver lining as she realised her true feelings for Woods.

She says: “It was really hard at that time and I felt like I was getting hit with stuff from every side. Alex had been one of my best friends since the 2012 Boat Race and he repeatedly picked me out of holes.

“We realised it was more than friendship. Now I can look back and it has all been for a good reason.”

Rio will be De Toledo’s last time in a boat as she plans to retire after the Games. She has applied to medical school but hopes to stay involved with the sport as a commentator — she commentated on the last two Boat Races.

She said: “After the 2012 Boat Race I got asked to do interviews and in 2015 the women’s race was being televised for the first time.

“I ticked all the boxes of being a woman from an Oxford crew who had done the Boat Race course — that was a limited number of people — and my name was known a little bit so they asked me to do the commentary.

“This year I was invited back to commentate on both races and it’s something I’m hoping to get into in the long run.

“I’m still learning and making mistakes but it’s all part of the learning process. I’m also going to medical school back at Oxford for four years and hopefully that will lead to a life of useful service as a doctor.

“Alex has encouraged me to be mindful and enjoy the experiences I’m having now because I won’t have them after August.

“Now if it’s raining and cold I tell myself I won’t get many more of these days. I try to remember how it feels because it’s different to how I will spend the rest of my life.”

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