Skip to content

Canadian rowers square off in latest edition of historic Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race

Canadian Alexander Bebb knows what awaits Sunday when he lines up for Oxford against Cambridge in the 168th edition of the men's Boat Race. Pain. "It's almost a war of attrition," said the 25-year-old from Vancouver. "It's quite gruelling," he added.

Canadian Alexander Bebb knows what awaits Sunday when he lines up for Oxford against Cambridge in the 168th edition of the men's Boat Race.


"It's almost a war of attrition," said the 25-year-old from Vancouver.

"It's quite gruelling," he added. "From stroke (No.) 10 onward, it's as painful as you can imagine. You just sort of ride that out and hopefully you're in the lead by the end."

Rough water usually comes into play, as do tactics.

Fellow Canadian Claire Brillon, who will be in the Cambridge boat for the women's race that goes one hour before the men Sunday, said the course takes its toll.

"I consider retirement every single time and wonder why on earth I've chosen this," the 26-year-old from Montreal said with a laugh. "It's the hardest thing I could even try to describe … It's just brutally long." 

While most regattas are contested on a straight course over 2,000 metres, the Boat Race stretches 6.8 kilometres between Putney and Mortlake on the River Thames in southwest London.

"It's such a unique body of water to row on," said Brillon. "You see such a different variety of speeds and conditions and the way that the current and wind and stream interact always creates a different combination."

"It's challenging. It takes you by surprise. It teaches you things," she added.

Brillon accidentally sent one of her boat's telemetry screens to the bottom of the Thames during a recent "really rocky" practice session.

Sunday marks the 168th edition of the men's race and the 77th for the women. The Cambridge men hold an 85-81 edge (there was a dead heat in 1877) as well as a 46-30 edge in the women's race.

Thomas Lynch, who was born in Ireland but grew up in Vancouver, will be in the Cambridge boat. He's expecting a close contest Sunday.

"We've put down very similar results," he said. "I think we're going fast. I know Oxford is going fast too. So it's going to be a dinger this year, I think." 

There is plenty of other Canadian content this year.

Bebb is joined in the Oxford boat by Swiss-Canadian Jean-Philippe Dufour, whose mother is Canadian with family in Toronto and Kingston, Ont. A graduate of the University of Zurich, Dufour competed in the 2020 and '21 races. 

The Cambridge crew also features English-born brothers Jasper and Ollie Parish, whose mother Zoe is from Toronto.

Brillon will row alongside German Carina Graf, a fellow University of British Columbia alumnus, in the Oxford boat. Winnipeg's Kate Friesen is taking part in the women's reserve boat race, competing for Oxford.

Last year the Oxford men broke Cambridge’s five-year win streak, winning by 2¼ lengths in a time of 16 minutes 42 seconds — matching Oxford's winning time in 2005.

Cambridge has won the last five editions of the women's race. Oxford had won four straight and eight of nine before that.

In the past, the race has drawn more than 250,000 spectators along the Thames with millions more watching on TV.

Bebb will have his own cheering section. His mother, stepfather, father, stepmother, brother and sister will be on hand, as well as some family friends.

Bebb started rowing in 2011 at St George’s School in his native Vancouver at the behest of his mother who "aggressively persuaded me to do so," he said with a chuckle.

Bebb initially failed to make the school's junior team, eventually cracking the developmental squad. But he grew into the sport, and now stands a commanding six foot five and weighs 210 pounds. 

Bebb trains twice a day, six days a week. 

"We have to be crazy organized," said Bebb, who is doing his PhD in fluid mechanics.

"On some level it's sort of a matter of just making sure your body doesn't fall apart," he added. "Because if you do the training program and your body doesn't fall apart, you will get faster and you will be prepared to race."

He made the Oxford reserve crew in 2020, only to see the race cancelled by the pandemic.

Bebb became president of the Oxford University Boat Club in 2021, following in the footsteps of Canadian Malcolm Howard, a two-time Olympic medallist who was Oxford president in 2014. Bebb and Dufour were both in the losing Oxford boat in 2021 when the race was contested on the River Great Ouse near Ely, Cambridgeshire.

Bebb took last year off to focus on his studies.

In 2018, he placed fifth in the Canadian eight at the World Rowing U23 Championship in Poznan, Poland.

Brillon took up rowing in 2015 in her first year at UBC where she was a five-time academic all-Canadian.

"I definitely fell in love with it as soon as I started," she said. "I was really looking for something to join and it appeared in my life at the perfect time. And I think I was really lucky that I fell into a program like UBC where we can row year-round and it's just such an absolutely beautiful place to train and live."

It also helped that UBC rows on the Fraser River in nearby Richmond, which helped her understand negotiating the Thames "although definitely the Tideway (course) is a different scale than the Fraser."

The six-footer competed for Canada at the 2018 world university championships in Shanghai and the four at the 2022 world rowing championships in Racice, Czechia, moving to Cambridge immediately after.

"It was really such a privilege to represent Canada and make it to the senior stage," she said.

Her grandfather attended Oxford and rowed for Balliol College. The two have discussed the Boat Race course, which her grandfather is acquainted with having been a member of the London Rowing Club.

"It's one of the things that we now relate to each other on such a deep level, now that I've started rowing," she said.

Brillon's parents and former UBC teammate Julia Lindsay, who rowed for Oxford in 2021 and '22, will be on hand to watch Sunday.

Brillon is studying music cognition/psychology, specializing in how music is processed in the brain and perceived. She hopes to row internationally again once she finishes her master's degree.

"I think eventually I'll go back to school and do a PhD but for now I'm accepting that the clock is ticking in terms of pursuing the (rowing) dream so I'm going to do that first," she said.

Lynch, who rowed for Cambridge's reserve crew in a losing cause last year, was born in Ireland and lived there until he was seven, when his family then moved to Vancouver. His parents will make the trip to watch hom race.

He was a walk-on for the rowing team in his first year at UBC but quit after a month to focus on his engineering degree. After his third year, he decided to try the sport again.

After three years rowing at UBC, he opted for Cambridge.

At six foot six, Lynch is one of the tallest in the Cambridge boat. But also the one with the least experience.

"It's a sport where you are able to come in late," said the 214-pounder. "I'm a big guy and I'm able to put down some power. But I'm always trying to keep up with the other guys in terms of technique. That's sort of my big area of focus."

When not training 12 times a week, Lynch is working on his PhD. Then 25-year-old is developing a technology that makes it easier to see capillary blood flow to help research, diagnose and treat a variety of diseases.

He is mulling over whether to continue rowing and try to make the national team.

"I need to prove myself, for sure … The other question is do I see myself living a life of just rowing," he said. "And I haven't convinced myself of that yet." 


Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter


This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press