I should say straight up here – I love the boat race for many reasons. Firstly, from an aesthetic point of view (yes, call it perving if you like. Whatevs, boats full of tall, muscular men in sunglasses are happy things for my eyes.) Secondly, from a sporting point of view, it’s a kind of stripped-down essence of competition. You train six hours a day, six days a week for 9 months to get there, but it all comes down to who wins on the day. There’s a winning team, and a losing team. No silver medal, no prize for great rowing or brave sportsmanship, just a winner, and a boat full of grown men weeping. It’s harsh, and cruel and it’s a pure ‘victory is everything’ race.
I also like the fact that it seems like a throwback to another era. Even in the years of the sunglasses my mum insists on calling ‘re-entry shades’, there is something incredibly archaic about its very existence. Me and my sister have annual arguments about whether or not it is just showcases the worst elements of British elitism, but I like it nonetheless.
This year though, there was something else to the boat race. A sadness. A sense that, though to the competitors, it may feel like a matter of life or death, it is ultimately just sport. The Oxford boat was named in honour of Acer Nethercott, the cox of previous Oxford and GB boats. He had died, from a rare aggressive form of brain tumour in January. Aged just 36.
I didn’t know him, and to me he was no more than a recognisable name, which actually I thought was a stupid name. Who calls their child Acer, I snorted more than once. I remember him being reprimanded for swearing on the BBC footage as he was willing Oxford on to victory.
He wanted to row, apparently, but it became obvious that physically, he just wasn’t built for it. So instead of sloping off from the boat house in a sulk, he trained as a cox. He became one of the best coxes of his generation.
The name Acer actually means ‘fierce, determined, brave.’ What wonderful things to want for your child.
The University boat race is a rare glimpse into a world of the academic and sporting elite, a world that most of us will never know. But fierce, determined, brave, refusing to give up; all the things Acer stood for- that’s for all of us.
This is the year that the boat race got real. Rest in peace Acer. I’m sorry I used to laugh at your name. Awesome name. Awesome man.