“There are no silver medals”: how it feels to row – and lose – the Boat Race

Olympic gold medallist Tom Ransley hasn’t always known victory – losing the Boat Race was the biggest disappointment of his life

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My mind blurred. Thoughts tangled with questions as I replayed the race in my head. Random snippets of our rowing looped inanely like a taunting showreel. Where had it gone wrong, and why does it hurt so much?

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We drifted to the bank and docked at Mortlake. As I walked up the scree away from the filthy tideway, dark thoughts continued to circle.

The Boat Race is a unique event. It pulls on the tribal instincts of human nature and the desire for belonging. Everyone picks a side. The millions who tune in worldwide will cheer on the Cambridge light blues or dark-blue Oxford. With an annual spot in the sporting calendar, it has wrapped itself into British culture despite an otherwise only four-yearly interest in this bizarre, backwards-moving sport.

From an early age I shouted for the light blues; for no good reason they were always my favourites. I could never understand why the losing crew didn’t row faster when the other boat took the lead. It all looked so blindingly obvious, especially when watching those wide-angled aerial shots. Serenity replaces severity, the further away your viewing point.

Like a coach in the making, my ten-year-old-self would berate the slower crew: “You’re losing! Row faster.” Little did I know that a decade later I’d be racing for Cambridge, stuck in that miserable second spot.

The hardest test I faced at Cambridge lay not in the tutorial room, the library or the exam hall, but presented itself at 5.20am every day. With a head-splitting squeal, the alarm always tested my resolve. It presented a choice between continuing my quest to win the 2008 Boat Race, or sleep.

I came agonisingly close to discarding my Boat Race dreams for a few more minutes in bed. Instead, I would drag my aching body out from under the covers into the morning darkness.

A typical day started with an early indoor rowing session, completed in time for a quick second breakfast and morning lectures. A swift lunch, often eaten in the team minibus, preceded the afternoon work on the water and then it was back to college for tutorials and dinner.

In my first year at university, the pressures of academic life sat awkwardly alongside this arduous rowing programme: I struggled to adapt to the near-professional level of training.

A chronic lack of sleep accompanied me throughout most of my Cambridge experience. Lectures were all too often the safety net that provided an hour to catch up on shut eye. Nights were reserved for quiet, distraction-free tussles with essay questions and deadlines.

A Boat Race campaign constitutes seven months of dedication. Juggling books and boats and avoiding injury, I somehow managed to secure myself a seat in the blue boat.

Our sole objective was to beat a heavily favoured Oxford crew. Our crew spent the morning of the race cooped up in the back of a boathouse. Two days before this, our strokeman was forced to withdraw on medical grounds, as he had suffered a serious health scare.

It was a brutal setback for our inexperienced crew. The hours dragged. Eventually, we made our way down to the boat bay and stood beside the boat in hushed anticipation, contrasting with the noise outside.

A final briefing, some words of encouragement, and then the time had come. The doors were flung open and we stepped out into the glare of the media and the cries of the crowd. Time seemed to be playing tricks as the warm-up flashed by.

We pulled up under Putney Bridge and then took the last few strokes to the start line. Helicopters whirred overheard. There was a dryness at the back of my throat.

The umpire raised his flag. Attention. Go! The boat crashed through rough tideway waves and into a cold, unrelenting headwind. The river conditions were bleak, but less bleak than those surfacing in the minds of my crew. I refused to accept the inevitable, but it was clear to the millions of people watching that Cambridge had lost.

Oxford delivered a fatal blow somewhere past halfway. We had thrown absolutely everything at the race. We had defended against their early advantage and then buried ourselves in order to create a winning opportunity. An opportunity that never quite stuck.

My memories of the race beyond Barnes Bridge are hazy. There was a definite point at which my legs failed. Despite asking for more, there was nothing left to give.

The finish line brought total exhaustion, dejection and teeth-chattering cold. A thought took hold while staring at the back of my crewmate. Twice before he had raced, and twice before he had lost. Now, on his last attempt, he’d lost again. Our dream of winning the Boat Race lay in tatters. I felt an unshakeable sense of disappointment. We had failed.

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Peter Marlsland (L) and Tom Ransley (R) react after finishing the 2008 Boat Race

What appeals to me, as it does to many, is the simple and brutal nature of the event. Head to head. Win or lose. Unlike at the Olympic Games, where I won gold in Rio last year and bronze at London 2012, there are no silver medals.

That is what drew me to the event. The athletes must commit fully in search of the win, with no regard for the potential downsides to this strategy.

That is why it matters. That is why the losing crew will hurt so much: there’s no preparation for losing.

Best of luck to all the men and women racing on Sunday, but especially to those in light blue.  

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The Boat Race is on Sunday 2nd April at 4:00pm on BBC1