If, when navigating the Kafue river in Zambia this summer, Zoe De Toledo spots a head emerging from the water she might be forgiven for experiencing unwelcome flashbacks to the 2012 Boar Race. This time, though, it might merely be a hungry hippo or crafty crocodile rather than Trent Oldfield, the Australian protester who not only wrecked the race but also De Toledo’s life for the next four years.
It was not until De Toledo coxed the GB eight to the silver medal in Rio last year, the first Olympic medal achieved by the British boat, that she was able to banish from her mind the havoc caused by Oldfield’s bobbing head in the murky Thames. Now retired from competitive rowing, the 29-year-old is planning a water-borne adventure through the Kafue National Park as part of her post-redemption life.
Redemption is a funny word. To many, it speaks of revenge; a bitter personal desire to set right the wrongs of old. With it comes blame, guilt and the delegation of responsibility for a mistake. In sport, the desperate need for redemption can eclipse a career. On April 7, 2012, De Toledo sat at the finish-line of the world’s most renowned collegiate race, knowing that her mistake arguably cost her crew victory.
De Toledo’s obsession with Oxford, and the legendary OUBC, began in her final year at school in 2005. Having watched one of the greatest Blue Boats of all time power home, she set her sights on the driving seat. After seven years of hard graft, she eventually found herself under the struts of Putney Bridge, rudder in hand, waiting to guide a much-fancied Oxford boat down the famous championship course.
That year will always be remembered for Oldfield’s protest that halted the race and caused a restart. “To be honest the swimmer isn’t my big memory,” De Toledo admitted, though his appearance in the water was the catalyst to what happened next. After a scrambled restart at around the halfway mark, Oxford surged into an early lead and looked to be gaining momentum. Coxing the Boat Race, with its intricate lines and constant tussle for fast water, is a delicate balancing act and De Toledo tipped the scale. She jerked the rudder towards Cambridge and the crews converged; in the ensuing clash, Oxford’s 6-man Hanno Wienhausen broke the shaft of his blade, rendering him useless for the remainder of the race. Cambridge moved away to win comfortably.
Although many would blame the interference of the unwanted swimmer, De Toledo acknowledges culpability for her decision. “I took all the responsibility on myself,” she remembered. “I was completely broken by the whole thing, but it was my crewmates who picked me up and turned things around for me. They could so easily have just blamed it on me, but they insisted that we were all responsible as a team.”
With the help of those around her, particularly bowman Alex Woods, De Toledo set her sights on trialling for the European Championships the following year. She was already lined up to replace Britain’s incumbent cox, Caroline O’Connor, and found herself steering a senior development crew. “I remember the first race we did I felt completely lifeless,” she said. “I had no passion in my coxing, no excitement about any of it at all, like the Boat Race had just sucked the energy out of me.”
The psychological damage of failing on the biggest stage ran deep and De Toledo realised she’d need something special to drag the crew out of its doldrums. Winding up on the start-line of the European final ranked fifth, the crew understood that it had to be a high-risk high-impact approach. After a disastrous start, De Toledo called for a sprint for the finish with only a quarter of the race gone. “We ended up rowing through Belarus basically on the line and taking the bronze medal,” she explained. “I knew that if we hadn’t I probably would have been bollocked for making this call to go so early. But since it worked I felt like I had had a tangible positive outcome on the race, and this started to restore my faith in my own abilities.”
Great Britain’s eight had never won a medal at an Olympic Games, and the dominance of the United States and Canada on the international stage made any chance of ending that sequence in Rio seem a distant dream. As the seasons rolled on, De Toledo established herself as the first-choice cox for the crew, meaning she could embed her own personal style on the project. From her days at Oxford, she’d learnt to adapt to the crew and become flexible enough to do whatever was needed. “At the elite level, coxing is more about tidying up around the edges,” she said. “I would always get pissed off with myself if something went wrong or I couldn’t get a change to happen, but in practice you can’t always control everything.”
De Toledo experienced a year of wildly varying fortunes in 2015. A promising campaign for the crew, which culminated in qualification for the Olympics, was marred on a personal level by divorce and a house-fire which rendered her homeless following the World Championships in France. “That was the year we all truly believed we could achieve something special in Rio,” she said. In the final race of the season, the one which would determine Olympic qualification, the eight went out to win and, in the process, topple the United States’ unbeaten run which stretched back ten years. “We led for 500 metres, and it was really frustrating not to finish on the podium, but it definitely fuelled the fire for the following year.”
For De Toledo the Games represented that shot at redemption she craved; that chance to finally exorcise demons that had been an ever-present in her coxing career since that fateful April afternoon. In the lead-up to the event, the crew honed their tenacious attitude and drive. It brought them safely through the various warm-up events, and the Olympic heat as winners. “The target was really to row our best race,” she said. “And this attitude was crucial in the end, because it would have been so easy to panic when you are last at halfway. But instead we just kept doing what we did well, and trusted in our pattern. We had the most amazing sense of unity in the crew. I loved the way the girls talked to each other in the boat; they knew how to exploit each other’s strengths and weaknesses, be it crew or individual. They made my job pretty easy, really.”
In the searing heat and swirling water of Rio, the eight’s silver medal was poetic justice for a cox who epitomised the belief and ability to learn which characterises all great athletes. “Crossing the line, I felt relief at fulfilling the potential we knew we had and pride in what we had achieved,” she recalled. “Sadness that it was the beginning of the end of such an amazing experience. Relief again that all the sacrifices that I and those closest to me had made were worthwhile. And a lot of love for my crewmates, because they were truly awesome.”
De Toledo is now looking for more amazing experiences. One of them is an 800-kilometre row up the Kafue. The expedition, which focuses on nature conservation and teaching the rudiments of rowing at local centres, will take place in the summer. De Toledo said: “I can’t wait to get out there and experience something different. I’m excited about the physical and mental challenges that a row like this presents – it’s certainly a big jump from the straights of Caversham! On that note, I’m a little apprehensive about the potential of bumping into a few hippos and crocs on the way.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom Morgan is a freelance journalist, covering rowing and a number of other sports for the Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Huffington Post. He is the publisher of RowGlobal and balances his work commitments alongside an undergraduate English degree course at the University of Southampton. Tom’s latest articles