Howard leads Canadians at Oxford-Cambridge

Howard, who rowed in last year's Oxford win, will be joined in the Dark Blues boat Sunday by fellow Canadians Tom Watson and Tom Swartz. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Canadian Olympian Malcolm Howard says he gets excited for the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race the same way NHLers are pumped for an outdoor game.

A normal regatta has multiple crews covering a 2,000-metre straight course. The Boat Race is a gruelling 6.8 kilometres on a horseshoe-shaped stretch of the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake in southwest London.

“There’s just something different, very primal to it,” Howard said. “You’ve got to deal with the conditions on the day. Like hockey players have to find a way to win the game if the ice isn’t perfect.”

As stroke — and president of the Oxford University Boat Club — Howard will lead the Dark Blues against the Light Blues of Cambridge on Sunday in the 160th edition of the historic race.

Cambridge leads the series 81-77 with one tie, although Oxford has won nine of the last 14 races.

Sunday’s race will cap a memorable week for Howard. On Wednesday, it was announced that his 2008 Olympic champion men’s eight crew will enter Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in June.

The 31-year-old from Victoria, now in his 16th year of rowing, also won Olympic silver with the Canadian men’s eight in 2012 and has captured gold and silver at the World Rowing Championship (silver in the 2004 men’s coxed fours and gold in the 2007 men’s eight).

Howard, who rowed in last year’s Oxford win, will be joined in the Dark Blues boat Sunday by fellow Canadians Tom Watson and Tom Swartz.

The 25-year-old Watson, whose parents attended Cambridge, grew up in Winnipeg before heading west to study biology at the University of Victoria. He stroked Oxford’s reserve Isis crew to three wins over the last three years.

The 24-year-old Swartz has dual American and Canadian citizenship. His mother is Canadian but he grew up in the U.S.

“He spent his summers in Canada, at camp and other stuff,” Howard said.

The Oxford crew also includes two New Zealanders, an American and three Brits.

The six-foot-seven, 238-pound Howard towers over British cox Lawrence Harvey, who stands five foot nine and weighs 120 pounds.

The Cambridge boat features four Americans, three Brits, a German and Australian.

More than seven million watched the BBC broadcast of last year’s race with millions more tuning in around the globe. The crowd on the banks of the Thames has been estimated at 250,000.

Howard says the rowers feel the energy and the noise of the crowd as the boats wait at the start line.

“But once you start, it just closes in on that patch in the water between you and Cambridge and the umpire’s boat,” he said. “And you don’t know anything else that’s going on around you.”

This year’s race is a different experience for Howard, given his role as president of the Oxford Boat Club as chosen by his teammates. He compares it to being a North American captain, but the role has a rich tradition.

At a recent function, Howard was sitting next to an Oxford alumnus who competed in the race in 1943, ’44 and ’45.

“He was president (of the Boat Club) one of those years and he was telling me his concern as president was actually to feed his crew because there was (wartime) rationing.”

The race has worldwide appeal, with many supporting one university or the other despite never having gone to either.

Howard relates the story of how his British uncle reacted to news he was going to Oxford.

“Do you think there’s any chance you might possibly compete in the Boat Race?” his uncle asked.

“I said, ‘Well Uncle, I won an Olympic gold and an Olympic silver medal, I think there’s probably a good chance I’ll make the Boat Race crew, don’t you think?”‘

“But Malcolm,” his uncle said. “This is the Boat Race.”

The race history is rich.

The course record time is 16 minutes 19 seconds, set in 1998 by Cambridge. The closest race was in 2003 when Oxford won by one foot.

The Cambridge boat sank in 1859 and 1978, while Oxford went under in 1925. In 1912, both boats sank and the race was rescheduled for the following day.

Last year, the BBC apologized for Oxford cox Oskar Zorrilla’s swearing during the race when his blunt, blue language was caught by microphones.

And in 2012, the race was stopped and then restarted when a protester, wearing a black wetsuit, swam in front of the boats.

Howard, who did his undergraduate studies at Harvard, is doing a Master’s in clinical medicine.

He has applied to medical schools at UBC, Queen’s and Western.

He says nothing has been decided yet on the future of his rowing career.

“The truth is I’m still really enjoying it,” he confessed.

As for med school, the Harvard and Oxford man said: “I don’t know that I’m going to get in right? I want to apply to those schools and see how that goes. And then we’ll have to kind of take it from there.”

He also pointed out that the Canadian team is going through a period of transition, having parted ways with renowned British coach Mike Spracklen, who has since been hired by the Russian Rowing Federation.

BNY Mellon, a global financial services company, is the title sponsor of the Boat Race.

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