April 09, 2015

One of England's oldest sporting events gets a new twist on Saturday when the women's and men's Boat Races between Oxford and Cambridge are held on the same course and the same day for the first time.

For nearly 90 years, the top female rowers at England's two leading universities have competed in the shadow of their male counterparts.

Races between the men's crews have typically attracted 270,000 spectators along the 4.2-mile (6.8-kilometer) stretch of the River Thames in southwest London and worldwide television audiences in more than 200 countries.

Until now, the women have competed away from the limelight - on a different day and on a different, less challenging course.

Those days are over. The women will finally get a chance to test out just what it's like to compete on center stage. The waters will be choppier, the course will be 3 1/2 times longer and the scrutiny will be more intense.

''This is not just about a boat race,'' said Christine Wilson, the coach of Oxford's women's team. ''This is about changing society's perspectives.''

The first women's Boat Race was staged in 1927, and races have been held on a straight, calmer 1.2-mile strip of the Thames at nearby Henley. Traditionally, the women's races have taken place a week before the men's race and without any TV coverage or sponsorship.

Cambridge leads the women's series 40-29 and, although Oxford is the favorite this year after winning by four lengths in 2014, its preparation hasn't been ideal.

If Oxford's crew members needed a reminder of the challenge facing them on Saturday, it came last week when the team had to be rescued from the Thames by a lifeboat crew after three successive waves poured water into their boat.

''The Tideway can be tempestuous, fickle and a challenge for the most experienced navigators, which is why we regard the river as the other competitor in the Boat Race,'' Wilson said.

The Oxford crew, which is 15.9 pounds (7.2 kilograms) lighter, includes Caryn Davies - a two-time Olympic gold medalist for the United States in the women's eight. With an Olympic silver medal also in her collection, Davies is the most decorated Olympian ever to race in either the men's or women's event and the oldest rower in either race at 32.

Cambridge leads the men's series, 81-78, but has lost the last two races. Last year, an early clash of oars damaged Cambridge's hopes of victory and Oxford won by 11 lengths, the biggest winning margin since 1973.

Brothers Sam and James O'Connor of New Zealand are in Oxford's crew.

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