Sarah Winckless, Boat Race umpire: ‘With my Huntington’s it is about seizing every opportunity’

For a pioneer, Sarah Winckless is keen to remain in the shadows. This weekend she will become the first woman in the event’s 166-year history to umpire the men’s University Boat Race. But she hopes no one will even notice she is there.

“I’ll start the race by waving a red flag and finish it by waving a white one,” she says. “And if I do nothing else in between it will have been a successful race for me. I’ve briefed both crews and if they do as I have asked I will have absolutely nothing to do.”

Nothing to do: as ambitions go it is, well, ambitious. The Boat Race may only have 10 rules, but almost every year several of them are infringed.

In the past umpires have been obliged to deal with everything from sinking boats to swimming protesters. Not to mention bellowing warnings into their megaphone while semaphoring their flags like overexcited boy scouts in the attempt to keep the two boats apart.

“I remember as a student loving it when the umpire started flagging because it meant there was going to be a collision,” she says. 

“But I think as in football – when a really good referee will facilitate the game to allow the players to play – I hope if I intervene it will only be to allow them to row.”

Winckless has had more time than most to think about how she will approach her history-informing debut. She was chosen to umpire last year, before lockdown rules were implemented just ahead of the race.

“It was so quick the way it unravelled,” she recalls. “I remember having a meeting a couple of weeks before it was due to happen and I said: ‘This Covid, do we need to worry?’ The answer was: ‘No, of course not’. Two weeks later the world had changed.”

It changed so substantially the race was never rowed. For the students involved it was a devastating blow: several of them had missed the chance of a lifetime. And it was not just them concerned the possibility had disappeared with the tide.

“It was really tough for those athletes, to be so close and my first thought was for them,” she says. “But I have to admit there was a selfish moment for me. It was an amazing honour to be named as the first woman to do that race and of course the thought did cross my mind: is that my opportunity gone?”

And for Winckless, seizing opportunity has been the driving instinct of her life. Because this is a woman who lives to a time scale. Back in her own days at Cambridge – when she won blues in rowing, basketball, netball and athletics – her mother was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease.

It had been creeping up on her for years – the pair had briefly fallen out when her temper frayed due to the condition. And when it became clear that her mother was in the grip of a terminal, degenerative condition, Winckless took the decision to be tested to see if she had the faulty gene that made her vulnerable to contracting it. She did.

“I truly believe knowledge is power,” she says of her decision to find out if she had a genetic disposition. “There’s no doubt I struggled in the first few months after getting the news. I remember I was with Ian Dryden, a Cambridge coach, and I was doing an ergo test which got a bit painful and I stopped, blurting out dramatically: ‘there’s no point I’ve got Huntington’s’. And Ian just looked at me and said: ‘Not today you haven’t, now get on with it.’ It is something I thank him for every day.”

The fear of what lay ahead never for a moment applied a brake to her ambition. She went on to a magnificent international rowing career, gaining a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics and twice being a member of the world championship winning four.

Sarah Winckless (L) and Elise Laverick of Great Britain stand on the podium after claiming bronze in the women's double sculls at Athens 2004


Sarah Winckless (L) and Elise Laverick of Great Britain stand on the podium after claiming bronze in the women’s double sculls at Athens 2004


Credit: GETTY IMAGES

If anything the very fact that she had the sentence hanging over her delivered the opposite result: it made her more determined to seize every moment. Though she knows one day it is coming, as yet, at the age of 47, she has experienced none of the symptoms. 

“I never know when my horizons might shorten,” she says. “It makes me believe in taking opportunities, because I may not be well enough if I wait. I can never allow myself to think: oh well there could be another chance.”

And when she took up umpiring after her competitive career had come to an end, her approach was typical of her governing attitude to life: for her there can be no half measures.

“I went for it,” she says. “My goal was to be the best Boat Race umpire I could be. I had to do a lot of river umpiring to make sure I was developing. The men already on the umpiring panel were amazingly generous with their time. I did a lot of shadowing.

“I’d never raced the Tideway because in my day the women’s boat race was at Henley. So I became a student of the race, out on the Thames as often as I could be.” Her homework paid off, allowing her three times to umpire the women’s and the reserve Boat Races. Though, as things turned out, her intense knowledge of the stretch of the Thames between Putney and Mortlake will not be of much use on Sunday now she has been called up for the men’s event.

Because of the need to keep crowds away and the deteriorating condition of Hammersmith Bridge, the race will take place on a stretch of the Great Ouse, at Ely.

“I know it reasonably well. I was a student there, I’ve done some umpiring for the trial eights for Cambridge. And it’s a simple course, straight with a very small bend and a much more uniform stream. It’s not a case like on the Tideway of fighting for the best water.”

It will be, too, the first ever Boat Race conducted without the crowds thronging the tow path, getting their feet soaked by the wash spurted by the flotilla of boats following the race crews.

“I’m disappointed for the rowers,” she says of the lack of spectators. “But we are in the time we are. I guess as an umpire it simplifies things: no crowds there means less chance of intrusion.”

And, she suggests, less chance of her becoming the story.  

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