Socks and snakeskin
Chris Baillieu MBE (Jesus 1969)
When Chris Baillieu was a Cambridge undergraduate in the early 1970s, no British crew had won a medal internationally since 1964. “I come from a long line of boatmen, including a grandfather who won the Boat Race in the Oxford boat in 1913,” says Chris. “My father went to Oxford in 1938 but his rowing ambitions were thwarted by service in World War II – his frustrations in this respect were passed on to me!”
Chris rowed for the University and for his College, and although he never took part in a bumping race, he won all the other collegiate rowing and sculling races. Then, in an exceptional run of wins from 1970 to 1973, he became the only Cambridge oarsman in the 20th Century to win four Boat Races. “I was lucky to be at Cambridge with a very talented and competitive group,” he says. “Three of us from the Boat Race crew were invited to join the newly formed National Squad. Within three months of leaving Cambridge, Mike Hart and I were fortunate to be able to win both the Double Sculls Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta and Britain’s first international medal for 10 years.”
With the Squad’s sights set firmly on the Olympics, “we trained hard, much harder than was usual at the time, stepping up from twice to three times a day in 1976. We learned to close our minds to the many distractions that can undermine Olympic performance.” Chris describes the 1976 Montreal Olympic regatta as “a bit like your Finals: after preparing for three or four years, you’d better ignore the carnival atmosphere and not leave anything to chance.”
“A club patron presented each of the Cambridge crew with a piece of snakeskin that was to be hidden in our socks on Boat Race day. Everyone did it… I’ve still got mine.” This unwavering focus paid off once again when he won a silver medal in the double sculls with Mike Hart. Chris’s enduring drive led to many further successes in the double sculls, including a gold medal in the World Championships in 1977 and a silver in 1978. He later won the Wingfield Sculls – not just once, but for four years running.
How would he describe the feeling of winning? “Much better than losing! It’s a mix of relief, exhilaration and plain exhaustion,” he says.