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Canadian Ashton Brown to help make history in women's Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race

04/09/2015 11:26 EDT | Updated 06/09/2015 05:59 EDT
Canadian Ashton Brown will help make rowing history Saturday when her Cambridge crew takes on Oxford in the 70th edition of the Oxford-Cambridge women's boat race.

For the first time, the women will tackle the same 6.8-kilometre horseshoe-shaped course as the men on the River Thames in west London.

"There's no comparable race in the rowing world," said Brown.

In the past, the women competed over a two-kilometre straight course at Henley-on-Thames a week before the men raced.

Brown, 26, says the men's Tideway course takes its toll.

"You're in a lot of pain when you finish ... Every muscle is telling you to stop," said Brown.

The Oxford men won in 18 minutes 35 seconds last year. Compare that to the 5:50 that the Oxford women posted in winning at Henley.

The women will race an hour before the men Saturday.

Born in Lethbridge, Alta., Brown grew up in Calgary. She did her undergraduate degree in economics at Princeton, where she started rowing seriously.

Brown had first tried the sport at a summer camp in Grade 10. Posters for rowing tryouts at Princeton, saying no experience needed, lured her back in.

"I figured I was a step ahead of no experience, but not very far," she said.

That was back in 2007. An assistant coach thought she had no potential, which drove Brown to prove her wrong.

"After a couple of months I fell in love with it," she said.

Brown, who has nothing but good things to say about Princeton's longtime head coach Lori Dauphiny, won the national championship in her final year as the Princeton boat won all 13 of its races.

After Princeton, she was invited to train with the Canadian national team ahead of the 2012 Olympics. But Rowing Canada thought the five-foot-seven Brown was better suited to sculling than sweep-rowing.

Rather than go back to the drawing board, she eventually left to take a job with an investment firm that managed Princeton's endowments. While she enjoyed the work, she found herself spending her spare time reading academic papers related to her undergraduate research.

"I thought if I'm doing it on the weekend, I should be doing it for a job," she said.

She earned a scholarship to do her master's in economics at the University of Ottawa, which had a rowing team. Brown went to University of British Columbia in the fall of 2013 to do her PhD before deciding her research interests fell in the area between economics and psychology.

Her specialty is looking at the role education can play in reducing the transmission of poverty across generations.

That led to Cambridge. She is currently working on a second Master's and has been admitted to do a PhD if she can sort out the funding.

Brown, a finalist to be a Rhodes Scholar in 2011, contacted the Cambridge rowing coach after getting admitted and was invited to show what she could do.

"I was a bit out of shape, because I didn't do any rowing last year at all. So the first couple of months were rough, boot-camp type thing. But I made it somehow."

The women, who started racing in 1927 although there have been some off years, compete in what is today called the Newton Women's Boat Race.

The Oxford women are favoured, having won the last two races and six of the last seven. But Cambridge leads the overall standing 40-29.

The Oxford men are also favoured after winning the last two and three of the last four races. The Cambridge men lead 81-78 in what is now the BNY Mellon Boat Race.

The race is shown live in Britain and many other countries, with thousands packing the banks of the Thames.

"Obviously we do this sport because we enjoy it and we love it," said Brown, who also has Australian citizenship through her mother. "But it is nice when someone else is watching and is excited about it too."

Brown, who is in the No. 2 spot in the boat, won't be the only Canadian racing on the Thames this weekend.

Oxford's Tom Swartz has dual American and Canadian citizenship. His mother is Canadian but he grew up in the U.S. And Toronto's Blake Parsons will race for Cambridge in the men's reserve boat race.

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