Canadian rowers square off in latest edition of historic Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race

Rough water usually comes into play, as do tactics.

Canada’s Claire Brillon, who will be in the Cambridge boat for the women’s race, which takes place an hour before Sunday’s men’s race, said the course is taking its toll.

“I think about retirement every time and I wonder why on earth I made that decision,” laughs the 26-year-old from Montreal. “It’s the hardest thing I could try to describe… It’s just brutally long.”

While most regattas are held over 2,000 meters in a straight line, the Boat Race stretches 6.8 kilometers between Putney and Mortlake on the River Thames in South West London.

“It’s such a unique body of water to row,” Brillon said. “You see such different speeds and conditions and the way current and wind and current interact always creates a different combination.”

“It’s challenging. It surprises you. It teaches you things,” she added.

Brillon accidentally sent one of her boat’s telemetry screens to the bottom of the Thames during a recent “really rocky” training session.

Sunday marks the 168th edition of the men’s race and the 77th for the women. The Cambridge men have an 85-81 lead (there was a dead heat in 1877) and a 46-30 lead in the women.

Thomas Lynch, who was born in Ireland but grew up in Vancouver, will be in the Cambridge boat. He expects a close race on Sunday.

“We’ve had very similar results,” he said. “I think we’re going fast. I know Oxford goes fast too. So this year I think it’s going to be a thing.”

Lots of other Canadian content coming this year.

Accompanying Bebb in the Oxford boat is Swiss-Canadian Jean-Philippe Dufour, whose mother is Canadian and has family in Toronto and Kingston, Ontario. A graduate of the University of Zurich, Dufour competed in the 2020 and 21 races.

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The Cambridge crew also includes English-born brothers Jasper and Ollie Parish, whose mother Zoe is from Toronto.

Brillon will row in the Oxford boat alongside German Carina Graf, a graduate of the University of British Columbia. Winnipeg’s Kate Friesen takes part in the women’s reserve boat race, competing for Oxford.

Last year, the Oxford men broke Cambridge’s five-year winning streak, winning by 2¼ lengths in a time of 16 minutes and 42 seconds – matching Oxford’s winning time in 2005.

Cambridge has won the last five editions of the women’s race. Oxford had previously won four in a row and eight out of nine.

In the past, the race has attracted more than 250,000 spectators to the Thames, with millions more watching on television.

Bebb will have his own cheering area. His mother, stepfather, father, stepmother, brother and sister will be there as well as some family friends.

Bebb began rowing in 2011 at St. George’s School in his native Vancouver at the behest of his mother, who “aggressively talked me into it,” he said with a chuckle.

Bebb initially didn’t make the school’s junior team and eventually cracked the development squad. But he’s grown into the sport and now stands over six feet tall and weighs 210 pounds.

Bebb trains twice a day, six days a week.

“We have to be crazy organized,” says Bebb, who has a PhD in fluid mechanics.

“In a way, it’s about making sure your body doesn’t fall apart,” he added. “Because if you do the training program and your body doesn’t break down, you’ll get faster and ready to race.”

He made the Oxford reserve crew in 2020 only to see the race canceled by the pandemic.

Bebb became President of the Oxford University Boat Club in 2021, following in the footsteps of Canadian Malcolm Howard, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, who was President of Oxford in 2014. Bebb and Dufour were both contested in the lost Oxford boat on the River Great Ouse near Ely, Cambridgeshire in 2021 when the race took place.

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Bebb took a year off last year to focus on his studies.

In 2018 he finished fifth in the Canadian eight at the U23 World Rowing Championships in Poznan, Poland.

Brillon began rowing in 2015 in her freshman year at UBC, where she was a full Canadian academic five times.

“I fell in love with her the moment I started,” she said. “I was really looking for something to join and it came at the perfect time in my life. And I think I was really lucky to get into a program like UBC where we can row all year round and it’s just an absolutely beautiful place to train and live.”

It also helped that UBC rows on the Fraser River in nearby Richmond, which helped her understand navigating the Thames “although the Tideway (course) is definitely on a different scale than the Fraser”.

The six-footer represented Canada at the 2018 World University Championships in Shanghai and the four at the 2022 World Rowing Championships in Racice, Czech Republic, moving to Cambridge immediately thereafter.

“It was really a great privilege to represent Canada and make it to the senior league,” she said.

Her grandfather attended Oxford and rowed for Balliol College. The two have been talking about the Boat Race circuit, which her grandfather knows as a member of the London Rowing Club.

“It’s one of the things that we relate to at such a deep level now that I’ve started rowing,” she said.

Brillon’s parents and former UBC teammate Julia Lindsay, who rowed for Oxford in 2021 and 22, will be in attendance on Sunday.

Brillon is studying music cognition/psychology, specializing in how music is processed and perceived in the brain. She hopes to return to rowing internationally after completing her masters degree.

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“I think I’ll eventually go back to school and do my PhD, but for now I accept that the clock is ticking in terms of pursuing the (rowing) dream, so I’ll do that first,” she said.

Lynch, who rowed for the Cambridge reserve team in a lost cause last year, was born in Ireland and lived there until he was seven when his family then moved to Vancouver. His parents will make the trip to see a hom race.

In his freshman year at UBC, he was a walk-on for the rowing team but quit after a month to focus on his engineering degree. After his third year, he decided to give the sport another try.

After three years of rowing at UBC, he chose Cambridge.

At six foot six, Lynch is one of the tallest in the Cambridge boat. But also the one with the least experience.

“It’s a sport where you can be late,” said the 214-pounder. “I’m a big guy and I can muster some strength. But I always try to keep up with the other guys technically. That is, so to speak, my main focus.”

When he’s not training 12 days a week, Lynch is working on his PhD. Then the 25-year-old develops technology that makes it easier to see capillary blood flow to research, diagnose and treat a variety of diseases.

He is considering whether to keep rowing and try to make it to the national team.

“I definitely have to prove myself… The other question is, do I see myself as just a rower,” he said. “And I haven’t convinced myself of that yet.”

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This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 23, 2023.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press


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