Within the rivalries of the rowing world many tend to overlook the young McGill-Queen’s Challenge Boat Race. Although not as renowned as the Oxford-Cambridge and Harvard-Yale rivalries, the 14-year-old McGill-Queen’s Boat Race has turned into an annual clash of school pride. In 1997 the McGill captains thought it would be a good idea to challenge the Queen’s rowing team to a head-to-head race.
The event would provide each team with good competition and motivation through the long winter months, and act as a sign of goodwill following the 1995 Quebec independence referendum. Queen’s head coach, John Armitage, accepted the challenge and helped usher in an annual tradition in the model of other prestigious boat races.
Historically the competition has been even: the Gaels Men are now 7-7 over the fourteen years of the race while the Women hold an 8-6 advantage over McGill.
In this year’s race, held on May 2nd, the varsity men failed to capture an eighth straight win, but a commanding performance by the women’s varsity team and wins by the novice men proved just enough to reclaim the D. Lornes Trophy, awarded for most team points, back from McGill after losing it in 2009.
The race’s results provide something of a shift in the status quo. The men’s loss was the first in seven years, and the McGill women had won the Women’s challenge trophy three of the last four years.
“The first half of the race was really exciting,” men’s coach Stu Robinson said. “Bow ball to bow ball, one crew would take a seat then the other would take one, good intensity.
McGill hit a booie at the 2000 meter mark, they fell a boat length behind. Queen’s [was] up a boat length, we became complacent. McGill [eventually] won by about a little bit of open water.”
Despite the close race, the men’s loss could also be tied to a transition in the athlete core. Robinson feels the current group of athletes need a lot of work in order to reach the strength of the groups in past years.
“We have some big miles to put in this summer if we are going to be competitive,” he said. “2008 was a peak year. We are having a complete turnaround and the new guys have a lot of training to do to be at the same level as the guys in 2008. Next year will be competitive but not as in-depth.”
The story surrounding the women’s varsity team could not be more different. Women’s coach Zola Mehlomakulu’s thoughts on the race were brief and telling.
“They dominated,” he said.
His assessment was certainly reasonable given that the women finished a boat length and a half ahead of McGill in the 2.9 km race.
All signs point toward good things to come for the women. The team has often remained in Kingston during the summer to train. Sacrifices like these have brought about results.
Mehlomakulu has seen the improvements first hand and is optimistic for the upcoming fall season.
“[They’re] looking really good, people sticking around last summer and this summer. We were third this [past] year so hopefully first or second this year.”
The often overlooked novices were also crucial to the team cup win. With the men losing their race and the women’s novice team lacking enough rowers to race evenly with the McGill boat, the varsity women’s commanding win would have gone for naught without a victory from another racing category.
In response the men’s novice put one of the most convincing wins ever in the novice category; winning by multiple boat lengths of open water to guarantee the Gaels the D. Lornes Trophy.
Despite the intensity and excitement of the McGill-Queen’s Boat Race over the years, one problem still exists—the teams have struggled to attract much attention. While the Oxford and Cambridge race enjoys thousands of alumni flocking to the river banks, a 14 year period has not yet provided the Canadian counterpart with a crowd much larger than 100.
The competition alternates between Kingston and Montréal each year and the marshy waterways of Kingston provide little in the way of a viewing area. It seems the Montréal venue, the Lachine Canal, may hold more promise for the contest.
Men’s rower Colin Sutherland commented on the potential of spectator growth in both Kingston and Montreal.
“Maybe [alumni] will come back to watch it,” he said. “In Montreal a number of spectators have already begun to come.” There is still much hope for a rise in popularity of the Queen’s-McGill boat race. With the advantage of hindsight, Armitage sees potential in the growth of the event’s reputation.
“I bet even the Oxford-Cambridge boat race was fairly informal fifteen years into the event,” he said.
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