High stakes on the lake

Crews clash for clothing in annual race between historic rivals

Queen’s novice women’s rowing crew celebrates with their opponents’ shirts after winning the 500-metre sprint race at the Queen’s-McGill Boat Race.
Queen’s novice women’s rowing crew celebrates with their opponents’ shirts after winning the 500-metre sprint race at the Queen’s-McGill Boat Race.
Credit: 
Supplied by Robyn Finley

The Queen’s-McGill rivalry is still strong — in one sport, at least.

When the Gaels prevailed in the 17th annual Queen’s-McGill Challenge Boat Race on April 28, there was more than just the Lorne Gales Challenge Cup on the line.

It’s common in collegiate rowing competitions for teams to “bet” their shirts, with the race’s losers having to give up their shirts to the winning side.

Queen’s was fortunate this year, winning three of four sprint races and claiming their opponents’ coveted gear.

“Being able to trade [shirts] is huge in rowing,” said Gaels rower Matt Christie. “For something where it’s not a willing trade, it’s something on the line. It makes you really not want to lose it.”

The competition is one of the few remaining links to the well-known historical athletic rivalry between Queen’s and McGill, which has waned in recent years.

With the annual football matchup gone due to conference splits, the rowing rivalry still unites and divides the two schools — something that drives the rowers.

“I think history in sports among schools like Queen’s and McGill is always important for giving yourself an extra bit of adrenaline to push for,” said Christie, who’s entering his third season with the Gaels.

“When it comes down to head-to-head, one school against another, it’s a huge endorphin high.”

The Gaels’ victory moves the team’s overall record in the race to 10-7. Each team has put up long winning streaks over the history of the competition, fuelling the rivalry.

McGill was the dominant crew during the early years of the race, winning the first three challenges and five of the first seven. Since then, Queen’s has taken over, coming out on top in eight of the last 10 races.

While the Challenge Cup is based on wins by both the men’s and women’s boats, the individual crews also have trophies they can win.

The off-season race provides Queen’s crews with more than just a way to carry on a rivalry — it’s also the team’s only competition until September.

The timing of the event often makes team training difficult, with many rowers focusing their attention on other regattas with national team development programs.

“You have to split your training regime between the Queen’s-McGill boat and your own pair or single to get ready for trials,” Christie said.

With the long layoff between races going into the Challenge Cup, rustiness can be a concern. Queen’s counters this by training during the off-season on indoor rowing machines.

Christie said many rowers feel back to normal on the water by the time the Queen’s-McGill competition rolls around, thanks to around a month of on-water practices beforehand.

Even with the extended break, the rowers remain aware of what’s on the line, and how they’re part of a legacy between the two schools.

“The alumni in the past have been doing this for years,” Christie said. “[I] think back to that and go, ‘wow, I get to be a part of this now.’”

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