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Interview: Olympian and west Londoner Richard Phelps is this year's Boat Race umpire

Alix Culbertson speaks to this Sunday’s 160th Boat Race umpire and former Olympian Richard Phelps who learnt to row at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith and hails from a famous rowing dynasty.

Richard Phelps is this year's Boat Race umpire

His first outing was on the Thames in Putney with his grandfather at a very young age but it was not until the 48-year-old went to Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith - admittedly at just 13-years-old - that he got the rowing bug.

Now 6ft 5ins tall he didn’t grow for a few years so was a cox until he was 15-years-old when, like many boys, he had a big growth spurt.

“My whole family has been rowing on the Thames in London for 200 years so there was probably some inevitablity I was going to end up rowing,” he said.

As anybody who rows will tell you, it’s an all-consuming sport and for Richard it was no different. After leaving school in 1983 he worked for seven years but it was a means to an end to fund his rowing and he eventually gave up work to concentrate full-time on rowing.

It paid off as he got into the British team and competed at the age of 26 in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the men’s coxed eights. They came sixth and the next year he went to Cambridge University to study land economy where for obvious reasons he went straight into the Blues team and competed and won the Boat Race three times from 1993.

The Boat Race has always been umpired by an old blue, with an ex-Cambridge umpire alternating with an ex-Oxford umpire every year. Following the controversial 2001 Boat Race where the umpire restarted the race following a clash of blades, a six man umpires’ panel was established.

Thousands line the banks of the Thames and watch the Boat Race on TV each year

Richard, who lives in Chiswick with his Olympic rower wife, Annamarie and their three children, has umpired the reserve Oxford/Cambridge crews race, Isis/Goldie for the past two years but this is his first time umpiring one of the world’s most popular sporting rivalries.

“Umpiring the Boat Race is a serious commitment,” he said. “You don’t just turn up on the day, it starts in November, you have to meet both of the teams then go to a fair few days at both universities which wasn’t possible for me before as I was travelling a lot with work.

“I really am so honoured to do it because not only is it one of the best races in the world, you know it’s never going to be boring. Hopefully we won’t have any swimmers this year. We were worried there would be some Trenton Oldfield copy-cats last year but luckily there weren’t.

“I’ve umpired lots of races but they’re always just straight lane races where you never really have to do anything, but because the course from Putney to Mortlake is so unpredictable you have a lot of responsibility as an umpire. It’s up to me to tell the crews if they’re getting too close to each other or to the bank and bridges. It’s a split second decision because often they are close as they’re obviously both going for the same line. If you’re thinking about warning them it’s normally too late, you just have to have an instinct about it. The best type of Boat Race is when nobody mentions the umpire at the end, then you know you’ve done your job well.”

Richard is the only member of the umpires’ panel who grew up on the Thames and although he says he could probably row the course with his eyes closed he modestly points out that all the other umpires, such as last year’s Sir Matthew Pinsent, know the stretch of the Thames just as well as him because they’ve all rowed in the Boat Race and trained on it.

What the others can’t say is that one of their fore-fathers declared the only dead heat in the 159-year history of the race. ‘Honest John’ Phelps is a legendary figure in the history of the Boat Race as he decided the 1877 race was a dead heat, with Oxford students saying he fell asleep under a bush when the race finished but reports showed it was actually impossible to tell what the result was amid the scene of excitement said to not have been equalled before. “I hope to not make history in the same way as Honest John,” Richard added.

Richard Phelps learnt to row at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith

His children are now at Latymer and row but he insists, like many sportspeople, that he would never push them into the sport just because he loves it. “Although both my wife and I are rowers we would never force our children to row but they seem to be very keen. It is such a great sport, we’ve seen our kids gain such a good confidence from it and it teaches them to be part of a team. It also means we know they’re not up to no good because they’re training or tired from all the exercise!

“Latymer was a great school for rowing when I was there and it’s still just as good, or even better. It’s also great to see that boys and girls are focused on equally, in fact the girls are doing better than the boys at the moment. I coach here sometimes so am very much still involved with it.”

  • Richard will be umpiring the 160th Boat Race this Sunday which starts at 5:55pm in Putney and passes through Hammersmith then Chiswick.
 

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