Monday, 17 June 2019

Whittaker helps Light Blues win women’s Boat Race

CAMBRIDGE dominated this year’s University Boat Races last Sunday with Henley’s Pippa Whittaker playing a crucial role in the Light Blues’ five length victory in the women’s race.

Whittaker, who is reading for a master’s degree in finance at Christ’s College, began her rowing career at Henley Rowing Club before going to university in Loughborough, where she was recruited into the high performance programme at Nottingham, going on to win the single sculls at BUCS and a World University Championship four with Loughborough University.

She then joined Leander, and won the women’s single sculls at the Commonwealth Regatta in 2014, as well as the double sculls where she partnered another Cambridge alumna, Fran Rawlins.

As work commitments took her away to London she raced briefly for Imperial College before moving to Thames, and finally to Cambridge, where her place in the Blue Boat was announced last month.

Until 2015 the women’s boat race was raced on her home water in Henley, but this year’s race was the fifth encounter over the full four-and-a-quarter mile championship course, where Whittaker, 27, was the senior member of the crew and odds-on favourites for the trophy.

Stroke Lily Lindsay took her crew away at 46 strokes a minute, against Oxford at 43, but it was the Dark Blues who took the early lead before Cambridge’s power and rhythm began to make its presence felt. Both crews settled at 37 past the Putney boathouses where Cambridge eked out a third-of-a-length lead, despite the early Middlesex bend favouring Oxford.

Passing the mile, Cambridge led by a full boat length and then began to settle into their stride, building their margin right down the course, with eight seconds separating the two crews at Hammersmith, and 13 seconds at Chiswick Steps.

For a time it looked as though Cambridge might break the course record, but Oxford began to flag, releasing the pressure on the leading crew. Cambridge’s winning time was 18 minutes, 47 seconds.

Despite her crew’s commanding lead Whittaker remained keenly focused on her race. Speaking afterwards she said: “I tried not to look around – it’s something I’ve been working on, but Hugh (Spaughton, their cox) is pretty good at letting us know what was happening but it was only when we got to Barn Elms that I could see them. We knew from the fixtures that our start wasn’t the strongest, but we trusted in our mid-pace.”

On the finish line to witness their daughter’s success were Sarah and Graham Whittaker, from Stoke Row, as well as sister Kelly and brother Robert.

A delighted Sarah Whittaker added: “It was absolutely fantastic to see the joy in her face after they crossed the line. If she didn’t fulfil this ambition I don’t know what might have happened.”

Cambridge also won the men’s race, where their multi-national crew included GB double Olympic champion James Cracknell in the two seat.

Cracknell’s return to elite rowing at the age of 46 — 14 years after winning gold in the GB four at Athens — meant that he was the oldest rower ever to compete in the Boat Race.

Cambridge rated 47 off the start against Oxford at 45, and already had half-a-length lead past the boathouses which line Putney embankment, where the crews had dropped their rates to 39 and 38.

Two minutes into the race there was high drama as the coxes — Matthew Holland for Cambridge, Toby de Mendonca for Oxford — steered perilously close, with Ben Landis, the Oxford two man, clashing his blade against the Cambridge opposition.

As umpire Rob Clegg warned Cambridge repeatedly that they moved back on station, but their lead had been reduced by the encounter and less than half a length separated the crews at the first timing point after one mile.

Cambridge now developed a strong rhythm which saw them increase their lead at Hammersmith, the road bridge which crosses the course approaching halfway. Oxford tucked in behind the opposition but could not reduce the margin, which remained the same at Barnes, the second bridge over the course.

On only two occasions since 1950 has the losing crew at this point gone on to win the race, and 2019 was no different, with Cambridge hanging on to win by one length in 16 minutes, 57 seconds.

Cambridge’s win was their first back-to-back victory for 20 years and they now lead Oxford by 84 races to 80 in the series which began in 1829.

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