Dark Blues from Oxford highlight Windermere Cup

April 30, 2010

By Tim Booth
AP Sports Writer

SEATTLE -- From the time an oarsman first steps into a boat at Oxford the focus is on one event, one 4-mile race that defines rowing in London.

In some regards, it's the same at Washington. While the Huskies have their regular duels against rivals like California, the Pac-10 championships and the national title races, the annual Windermere Cup often helps define whether a season was a success along the shores of Lake Washington.

With a Boat Race loss to rival Cambridge earlier this month still fresh in mind, the Dark Blues made the trip across the Atlantic albeit not easily and will take on Washington and Syracuse Saturday in the annual celebration of boating in Seattle.

In the 24-year history of the Windermere Cup, Oxford may be the most storied collegiate rowing program to participate at the least on par with Cambridge in 1992 and the numerous national teams that have taken part.

'The teams we've been able to bring in here over the years and have a chance to race against, no other college team on a year in year out basis has this opportunity,' said Bob Ernst, Washington's head women's coach and director of rowing. 'This year it's a special opportunity to have Oxford here and certainly there are some kids on our team who aspire to go and row at Oxford.'

When asked to compare Oxford's place with that of other past competitors, Ernst, who's been at Washington for 33 years, mentioned the Croatian national team that competed in 2001, a year after the Sydney Olympics, and an Australian team that Washington beat in 1997 that featured five Olympians.

'There was no one in the world who would bet one dime, not even Rick Neuheisel, would have bet one dime on us having a chance of beating five Olympic champions from the Australian national team, and we beat them,' Ernst said.

The credit for getting Oxford to Seattle belongs partly to Washington freshman coach Luke McGee, a former U.S. national team rower and past oarsman at Oxford.

When McGee and Washington men's coach, Michael Callahan, were talking a few years ago about unique opportunities for rowers at Washington to experience, getting a chance to compete against the Dark Blues was near the top of the list.

Along with McGee's connection was that of former Washington captain Ante Kusurin. Now an investment banker in London, Kusurin rowed at Washington, then two years at Oxford, sandwiched around competing for Croatia at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

And now he'll be back on the Montlake Cut on Saturday morning with thousands of spectators lining both sides of the narrow channel, rowing for Oxford as an injury replacement. The Dark Blues welcome back any former rowers who still want to compete for the school.

'To beat these guys would mean a lot to everyone in the boat,' Kusurin said. 'If we win, I will brag.'

While the Windermere Cup falls in the middle of the rowing season for Washington and it's No. 1 men's team and No. 9 women's team, the race for Oxford is almost a month after the pinnacle of its season.

The annual Boat Race with Cambridge is a 4 1/4 mile race along the River Thames in London and is the entire season for the Dark Blues. Practices are 90-minute or two-hour grinds in all types of weather with the sole focus of beating Cambridge.

Oxford missed out on a chance at a third straight win over Cambridge when the Light Blues won the 156th competition on April 3 by 1 1/2 lengths.

'The raison d'etre of the Oxford University Boat Club is to beat Cambridge in the Boat Race,' Oxford men's coach Andrew Nelder said. 'It's a peculiar year to have one event and an entire year is judged on a single race. It has its pressures but it has its attractions as well. ... It's all weighted to the early part of the year. We're out of sync with the rest of the world.'

The Boat Race comes at the end of the second session of study at Oxford, followed by vacation for students. That meant many of Oxford's rowers were scrambling to get back to London last week while a volcano in southern Iceland spewed ash and wreaked travel havoc around the world.

On the men's side, a few of Oxford's regulars won't be in the boat on Saturday, but the women's team is intact.

'This is on one hand it's going to be a blood and guts race, and on the other hand, in soccer terms, it's a friendly,' Ernst said.

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