April 17, 2012
SEATTLE -- Niles Garratt felt like it sunk in when he peered across the River Thames and heard a raucous throng of spectators chanting his name. Here was the former Washington oarsman on a pale April morning in London, set to lead Cambridge University in its annual race against Oxford, a sporting tradition known simply as The Boat Race.
It was an overwhelming scene. Upwards of 250,000 fans set upon the course to soak up the pageantry of an event that dates back to 1829. Media coverage of the four-and-a-half mile race, from print to digital, far outpaces anything seen for rowing in the United States. Reporters stake out practices weeks before the event. There's even a public weigh-in.
Yet, the Lake Forest Park, Wash., native was far from overwhelmed. Garratt thought back to the Windermere Cup races in Seattle, to the throaty cheers echoing across the Montlake Cut whenever boats approach the finish line.
"I felt relatively comfortable with it all," Garratt said over email from the UK. "It was similar to a number of things I experienced rowing at UW."
Garratt joins a small but select group of Husky oarsmen who have competed in The Boat Race, taking the baton from Ante Kusurin ('06), who rowed for Oxford in 2007. A four-time Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) gold medalist with UW, Garratt arrived to Cambridge with a goal of extending his rowing career and earning a Masters in history from a university that has educated world leaders and academic luminaries. Renowned biologist Charles Darwin was a graduate. So were three signers of the US Declaration of Independence.
The 23-year-old Garratt considers himself fortunate to be part of such a community, as well as the elite list of oarsmen who can say they've been on the winning side of the Oxford-Cambridge rivalry.
Though this year's race was not without controversy for the Light Blues.
The 158th running of The Boat Race was marred due to a swimmer -- protesting the event, and later arrested -- who came into the path of the boats. After a 31-minute delay and a restart, an Oxford rower snapped his oar after clashing with a Cambridge counterpart. The Light Blues now had an advantage rowing eight against seven, and used it to sprint to their 81st overall victory in the dual. Because of the incidents on the water, both teams abandoned the post-race ceremonies.
As the stroke seat of the Light Blue boat, Garratt was charged with restarting his crew after the protester halted the race. This was no easy feat, as the race adrenaline had worn off during the long wait.
"I think we handled the whole situation very well," Garratt said. "In the build up to the race, we discussed a wide range of scenarios and how to react to them. While we certainly didn't expect what happened, we knew how we should react to give us the best chance of winning."
While rowing is a major part of Garratt's experience at Cambridge, he also has to balance a rigorous academic course load. Garratt studies at Hughes Hall, writing essays and having them reviewed weekly by an advisor. The tight-knit connection between professors and students at the colleges are a unique part of the experience at Cambridge.
As for rowing, the Light Blues practice 12 times in a typical week, emphasizing volume over intensity in training. Preparing for The Boat Race is a markedly different experience for American collegiate rowers, who are used to powering through a 2,000-meter course during the spring sprint season. Garratt knew he'd have to adjust to the 7.8 kilometer course on the River Thames, where each stroke can be affected by the fast-moving current.
The team environment is far different than what Garratt was used to at Conibear Shellhouse. There's a wider range in ages between the oarsmen, with Garratt noting the oldest rower in the Light Blue boat was almost a decade older than the youngest. Garratt is one of three Americans in the boat, joining two Australians, two Britons, a German and a Kiwi. Considering the complexity of the graduate programs at Cambridge, the oarsmen never lack for conversation topics. For example, the two-seat in the Light Blue boat was working on a PhD in the behavioral neuroscience of drug addiction.
"There's always interesting things to talk about," Garratt said.
Going into the extremely selective application process, Garratt had a helpful sounding board in Husky assistant coach Luke McGee, who studied at Oxford and won The Boat Race after graduating from Brown. Husky men's coach Michael Callahan has also been a supportive figure for Garratt since he moved to England, often sending emails of encouragement.
Both coaches were also careful to let Garratt craft his own experience at Cambridge, particularly when it came down to competition and racing.
"The main thing is you tell guys to go over and enjoy it," McGee said. "It's a pretty magical event. At any given time, the small number of Blues around the world who have competed in this race makes for very select company."
Garratt is still unsure of where his career his headed after Cambridge. The degree will afford him the type of opportunities he's interested in back in the States, such as working with policy matters at a think tank. But there's also the tug of rowing, a career Garratt has seen flourish, remarkably, as his time at Washington ended. After graduating last summer, Garratt competed for the first time with the US National Team at the U-23 World Championships in Amsterdam. That experience has Garratt thinking of a possible future rowing internationally.
"I would like to see how far I could get with the sport," Garratt said. "I'm not sure if I could make the Olympic or national team, or if I would be willing to commit the amount of time necessary to get there ... I'll have to evaluate where I am and what my prospects are at the end of my time at Cambridge."