Protest swimmer surprises photographer at prestigious boat race

April 23, 2012 | By Richard Heathcote | News

The 158th running of one of England’s finest sporting traditions should have been another good old fashioned battle of strength, endurance and determination.  The 2012 Xchanging Oxford v. Cambridge University Boat Race will go down in history for none of those reasons.

I’ve been shooting the University Boat Race as an ongoing feature for a few years now, following the rowers from the selection process in September, through the training and into the buildup and the race itself, mainly trying to keep it as a Black & White photo story – looking for offbeat angles. The race dates back to 1829 and is a firm part of the sporting calendar with tens of thousands of spectators lining the riverbanks and the bridges to cheer the crews onto victory.

It may be between the two educational pinnacles of British society, but make no mistake: These students have to be amongst the fittest athletes in the world to be victorious on the River Thames. For example, Olympic rowers compete over 2km on a straight, flat water lake, whereas the boat race takes place on a fast-moving tidal river, bending and twisting over a 6.8km course, often with a wind that can cause rough conditions.

This, for me, is what makes it a good feature: long, hard training schedules and early mornings, and for nothing more than pride. No money is on offer for these rowers – just seven months of pure hard work and dedication for a single race that is over in less than 20 minutes.


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Earlier in the week I was offered the chance to shoot the race from the Umpire’s launch, which sits in the flotilla directly behind the two crews. Initially I was hesitant to say yes, as experience told me it’s a risky position where good pictures are not guaranteed. Normally the press launches sit out either side of the crews so you can see all 16 rowers –plus, if one crew pulls away to a massive victory, you get a much nicer celebration shot. It was only when the Umpire said, in his press conference, that he thought it would be close off the start, did I make the final decision to take a ride on his launch.

The boat is pretty loaded up with people and kit; not only does it have the officials, but it has two TV cameras and a crew onboard. I managed to find a small corner to crouch down in at the front, next to a remote TV camera and the Umpire, so my view of the race was unobstructed. The race was actually pretty good and was very tight and looking like a classic until we got to Chiswick Eyot. The assistant Umpire, Sir Matthew Pinsent spotted something in the water up ahead, it looked like a balloon or a buoy, as I looked at it through my lens we saw an arm come across and Pinsent said “There’s a swimmer in the water!”


Cover of The Observer showing Richard Heathcote's image of a protest swimmer attempting to disrupt the University Boat Race.

As the Umpire red flagged to stop the crews I could see that the person in the water was intent on getting in the way. The crews can’t just come to a full stop and Oxford were ploughing straight towards him fast. Instinct tends to kick in when situations like this arise. I grabbed my 70-200 and turned my attention to the protester as he dived down under the blades. I captured a sequence of images before and after, the first looking like he’s about to have his head chopped off then afterwards the crew looking down in disbelief as he pops back up.

A half-hour delay ensued as the boats were repositioned and all the wake settled. I used this time to tag up images in camera for our editor and let him know I had the key images from the incident. The crews realigned and we were off again, but within 300m further drama occurred as Oxford pushed towards Cambridge’s water. A massive clash of blades happened and something I’ve never seen before, an oar snapped clean in half. Being on the Umpire’s launch I was again in prime position to capture the crews coming together. This was pretty much the end of the contest because the big powerful German, Hanno Wienhausen, in the Oxford boat was out of action and Cambridge rowed off with the man advantage to take a controversial win.


Alexander Scharp and the Cambridge crew celebrate winning the Xchanging University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge University on the River Thames on April 7, 2012 in London, England. It is the 158th running of the race which takes place on the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)


I was now thinking of getting ready for the traditional celebration of the winning cox being thrown into the river when the medics were called over to the Oxford crew. Their bowman Alex Woods had collapsed after the finish, something not uncommon given the grueling nature of the race, but as Oxford had rowed with a man down he had given everything he physically had.  He was urgently removed from the boat and tended to by a team of medics. There was plenty of deflation and concern around the finish line and with no trophy presentation the mix of emotions around the boathouse was only settled by news from the hospital that Alex was stable.

I knew I’d got the protest swimmer and the oar clash pretty well from my position, and with Clive Rose and Paul Gilham the other Getty photographers on the day we had all the angles covered perfectly. It was pleasant to pick up the following day’s papers and see most of them had run with one of my images on the front cover.

You always approach an event hoping you’re going to capture the picture of the day, it’s not often you come away with defining images of an event that has nearly 160 years of history.

Editor’s note: Richard Heathcote is a sports photographer for Getty Images. Follow him on Twitter at @rheathcote. What became of the protest swimmer after the event? The Guardian offered this coverage… you might recognize the photo.

Images in slider (previously converted to black & white) include:

 1. The Oxford crew remove thier boat from the water after a training outing on the River Thames ahead of the 2012 Xchanging University Boat Race on April 5, 2012 in London, England. The 158th University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge will take place on the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake on 7th April.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

2. Mike Thorp of Cambridge in action during a training outing on the River Thames ahead of the 2012 Xchanging University Boat Race on April 3, 2012 in London, England. The 158th University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge will take place on the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake on 7th April.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

3. Alex Davidson (C) and Hanno Wienhausen (R) take part in the grueling OUBC 5k Ergo Test on February 7, 2012 in Oxford, United Kingdom. The 2012 Xchanging University Boat Race will take place on the River Thames on Saturday 7th April.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

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