So famous that it is referred to simply as “the Boat Race,” the annual Oxford-Cambridge rowing competition on London’s River Thames is the world’s most elite event of its kind — as elite as the two participating universities themselves.

With just two boats and 16 rowers (plus a coxswain each) featured in the main event, the competition is as exclusive as it gets.

“If you win, it is a life ambition achieved,” says Cambridge University head coach Robin Williams. “If you lose, it is a nightmare you always have to carry with you.”

Set for 3:05 p.m. Sunday, the race between the University of Oxford (the “dark blues”) and the University of Cambridge (the “light blues”) will continue a tradition that began in 1829. The first race was the result of a challenge a Cambridge student made to his friend attending Oxford. The loser of the race challenged the winner to a rematch the following year.

The first race took place at Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire and newspapers reported a crowd of 20,000 turned out to watch. In following years, the crowds got so big that organizers moved the race to Putney, a southwest suburb of London. From 1856 on, except for the war years, the race has been an annual spectacle.

Today, the race — free to the public — draws tens of thousands of cheering observers to the 4.25-mile route along the Thames.

Among them will be the father and brother of Kyle Coveny, an American on the Cambridge reserve, or Goldie, boat. It will compete against Oxford’s Isis boat in a race 30 minutes before the two Blue, or lead, crews set off.

“I encourage people to watch it from the starting point,” says Coveny, of Warsaw, N.Y., who rowed for Northeastern University in the United States before enrolling at Cambridge. “The atmosphere there is incredible.”

It is Coveny’s second year at Cambridge, and his second year on the reserve team. Although he admits being disappointed that he is not rowing on the top team, he says that belonging to the Cambridge University Boat Club, the umbrella organization for the rowing teams, is highly rewarding.

“It’s an amazing feeling being part of such an event,” he says as he finishes a morning workout, one of 11 training sessions the Cambridge teams undergo each week.

“It’s something that motivates me every day. The way I approach things is, Cambridge is an army of guys who have to battle the enemy, Oxford. You picture your squad beating Oxford, whether you’re in the first boat or the second boat.”

That sense of togetherness, of one for all and all for one, and seamless synchronicity is the driving physical and mental force that Williams promotes to propel his teams to the finish line first.

“When you’re in a crew boat, and it’s going well, the sense of harmony is impossible to describe,” says the soft-spoken Williams. “When you manage to get eight people to think the same, feel the same, work physically the same — it’s just a great feeling. In rowing, it’s just total synchronicity.

“It’s one of the fundamentals you have to have. When you’re rowing, for the boat to feel alive, that synchronization has to be total. The hull weighs about the same as one crew member — 90 or 95 kilos [198 to 209 pounds]. So, if one person is out of time, then for the other guys, it feels like the weight of the boat has doubled.”

The 2005 race will be Williams’ last at Cambridge. Recruited to become a coach for British national rowing teams preparing for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Williams has seven victories in 10 Boat Race starts — not counting Sunday’s race. In parting, he says he’d like to win both races on Sunday, meaning the Blue Boats and Goldie-Isis matches.

“What you’re really after, as a coach, is some sort of utopia, which you can never achieve,” he says. “I mean, you’re never going to find a perfect crew, or a perfect rowing stroke, or a perfect race.

“But really, that’s what you’re after. You want the sense that on the day, they just put everything together, and the whole plan has been executed 100 percent. They’ve rowed technically brilliantly, and would be a role model crew that anybody could look at and say, ‘Well, that’s how to row, that’s how to race, that’s how to be tough, that’s how to do it together.’

“I think that’s really what I’m after: Have a race which they could be proud of in every sense, and I could be, too.”

DeeDee Doke is a freelance writer living in England.

About the race

The Boat Race starts near Putney Bridge on River Thames and finishes 4.25 miles away at Mortlake. There is no admission charge.

The course passes Bishop’s Park, the Fulham Football Club grounds, Hammersmith, Surrey Bend, the Chiswick Steps and Barnes Bridge. Crowds permitting, you can walk the route along the riverside. Cyclists are welcome, but should stick to bike paths.

Bus, rail and Underground service are easily accessible along the route. On the Underground, take the District Line to the Putney Bridge stop. For mid-race vantage points, go to the Hammersmith stop on the Underground’s Piccadilly, Hammersmith and City or District Lines. For the finish line, the closest Underground stop is Kew Gardens on the District Line.

The race will be broadcast live on British television channel ITV at 3:05 p.m. Sunday (March 27).

For more information, see

American invasion?

It may be the most British of athletic events. However, a few Yanks have infiltrated the ranks of both universities’ teams for the 2005 race.

Cambridge Blue Boat: two Americans;Cambridge Goldie Boat: four Americans;Oxford Blue Boat: three Americans;Oxford Isis Boat: four Americans.Other nations represented: Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa and the United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales).Gender mix: There is one woman, on the Cambridge Goldie boat.— DeeDee Doke

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