Boat Race 2021: History to be made as women take charge

By Chloë DellBBC Sport
Sarah Winckless studied natural sciences and land economy at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
Sarah Winckless studied natural sciences and land economy at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
The Boat Race 2021
Venue: Great Ouse, Ely, Cambridgeshire Date: 4 April Race times: 15:50 & 16:50 BST
Coverage: Watch live coverage on BBC One, iPlayer & the BBC Sport website and app from 15:00 BST.

The 2021 Boat Race will be a landmark day in the event's history - and not only because the event will be staged outside London.

The men's and women's races have been moved from the Thames to the Great Ouse at Ely in Cambridgeshire.

And for the first time in the event's 166-year history, the men's race will have a female umpire, Sarah Winckless.

"I believe you have to see it to want to be it," said Winckless of whether her appearance can inspire other women.

On the same day another woman - Judith Packer - will be in charge of the women's race.

Winckless, 47, was set to become the first female umpire of the men's race last year only for the event to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

She says the job comes with big responsibility.

"If you want to be involved in your sport, you don't necessarily have to have done a huge amount of rowing or be a top-level rower to be a great umpire," said Winckless.

"It's about being able to read the crews and see what's going on and react optimally in the moment. It's my responsibility to ensure that they can have a safe and fair crack of the whip.

"That is a real responsibility, I'm holding the dreams of the athletes in my hands.

"Hopefully I say go, the coxes do their job and we have an exciting but quiet race from my perspective. However, the truth is I don't expect that to happen."

Winckless competed in rowing at three Olympic Games and won a bronze medal in Athens in 2004 with doubles partner Elise Laverick.

She was awarded an MBE in 2015 for services to sport and young people.

"I think for everyone this year's been incredibly difficult in all sorts of ways," she said Winckless.

"For the rowers particularly if you think about what they've had to go through with the uncertainty, but for anyone organising events it is incredibly challenging."

The men's and women's races have been moved away from the usual tideway location due to Covid restrictions, as well as repair work being done on Hammersmith Bridge.

Judith Packer studied Engineering at St Peter's College, Oxford
Judith Packer studied engineering at St Peter's College, Oxford

Packer, a former Oxford student, is in charge for what is the 75th women's boat race.

Like Winckless, she was due to umpire last year when the race was cancelled due to the pandemic.

"We can be visible female sports officials for the world," Packer said. "This is a great opportunity for visible officials and can help inspire the next generation.

"It's great to finally let it happen, both for myself and the people that have been working hard.

"But also to say to our younger generation out there it's not just about being a core athlete, there's so many other roles in sport that could be your perfect pathway."

Packer has a wealth of umpiring experience including the women's boat race in 2014 - the last time it was held at Henley before moving to London - as well as the reserve boat races in 2016 and 2017.

"I think it can be a huge positive and it isn't just about gender, it's about attitudes of mind and the diversity of thought," she said.

This year's Boat Race will be a closed event, with organisers urging people to stay away to stay safe.

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