FROM A distance Toby Ayer appears as Hollywood's idea of the perfect physical being. Taller than most, and honed down to 16 stone of fat free elastic, enclosed in a taut, freckled skin and topped with a straight red beard and tiny ratstail. Central Casting could put him down for any Garth or Willy Garvin part to match Schwarzenegger or Stallone.
Close up, you think instead of his namesake "Freddy" A J Ayer, Oxford philosopher and television thinker. "I looked him up and found he had Belgian ancestors, so no relation sadly," he said. You can see the intelligence shine out of Ayer's eyes and forget the massive shoulders underneath. This guy has perseverance. At 3.30pm on Saturday he is going to row in the boat race for Oxford after two years in the reserves, Isis.
A loser in 97 but a stunning winner in 98. That is two years of knowing you have the physical material for the job, and the desire, but somehow not being able to translate that into the boat-moving skills that get you picked for the top boat. Each time he has seen younger, weaker men preferred because they had the knack of combining their effort with the other seven men more effectively. They got more boat speed for less effort. At times like that from behind your back and even to your face you hear the coaches saying: "If only we could harness that strength and get more out of him" when all the time you are pulling your guts out with every fibre devoted to proving them wrong. Ayer, the Rhodes Scholar and philosopher, takes his time to answer. "It is because I am more consistent in technique and it takes me time to change. It was frustratingly slow progress but I was feeling the improvement. I have not changed much physiologically in three years at Oxford but I fit in better now. …