Paul Bunyan at Putney Bridge Or High-Baller in a Boat?

Mixed Doubles Winners, Henley Town & Visitors Regatta, 2022.

18 October 2022

By John Drew

John Drew turned his attention to rowing earlier this summer when his grandson, Sam Strong, switched from cricket to rowing and acquired a print of some historical interest (“Kings of the Cam”, HTBS 18 April 2022; “Cameo of the Cam”, HTBS 27 June 2022). To his surprise, John discovered his god-daughter’s son, Rui, was also on the Thames – and making waves. 

The young couple to be seen pedalling hard along the cycleway from Battersea to Putney one day, the next pounding the Thames Path on foot on the same journey, look as if they could be working out as triathletes. The young man did once have his sights set on being a triathlete. These days, though, they are on their way to the London Rowing Club at Putney Bridge.

A month ago, the young man, Rui Xu, 28, left 451 fellow finishers in his wake on the Thames to win the Vesta (Men’s) Scullers Head (see Tim Koch’s, “All the Singles Ladies (and Gentlemen)”, HTBS 22 Sept. 2022). Next day, teaming up with fellow London Boat Club sculler Matthew Curtis, he did it again, winning the Pairs Head. Quite a one-two by way of hallo. 

Rui has not appeared entirely out of the blue. He placed 5th in the Scullers Head in 2021 but being adjudged 1st in the Novice Category earned him a ticket to compete in the elite (six scullers only) Wingfield (Men’s) Single Sculls that decides the amateur Championship of the Thames (Tim Koch, “The 2021 Wingfield Sculls: History Against the Stream”, HTBS 23 Oct. 2021). 

While Olympian Graeme Thomas won that one quite easily, Rui, cannily negotiating the inshore zone, came through the field to snatch second place – and that in spite of being snagged by two mischievous riverside trees. Who is this fellow with a Chinese name causing ripples on the mercurial Thames? 

Rui is a Canadian bio-medic who arrived in London last year to do post-doctoral work at University College. He quickly took to the club rowing he found at London Rowing Club, claiming his place in an Eight and then a Quad that competed well enough at successive Henley Royal Regattas.

“I enjoyed the seriousness of the whole process”, he says, “but did not have the mindset of winning, my time trials were O.K. but not great”.

So why is Rui winning this season? While he attributes any success so far to the support he has been receiving from the more experienced rowers at the club, that is available too to the club mates who are among his opposition in the sculls. Perhaps the biggest opponent he has to reckon with, as any sculler ploughing his proverbial lonely furrow knows, is the Tideway itself, as tricksy and imperious as Ahab’s whale. 

Rui, as his name suggests, has a Chinese heritage to draw on. That may include road running from his bio-physicist father but not rowing. Though he has encountered the newly-challenging Chinese national crews at Henley, in China itself Rui has rowed only in recreational boats.

“It’s unlike the Western way”, he says, “you are sitting facing the direction of travel, using the arms to push the oars away from the body while they are still buried in the water”. 

When taxed on there being no sign anywhere in his sporting career of a competitive streak, Rui confesses that perhaps he did acquire one the summer he worked as a tree-planter in British Columbia. In 2016, he was part of a crew of 16 “ballers” who planted trees at 9-14 cents apiece. It was highly competitive, and Rui can boast that by the end of a tough summer he was the highest-earning rookie in the company. Is that it, perhaps? A very Canadian answer: Paul Bunyan in a boat?

Xu (second from right, top row) and Baller Crew, British Columbia, 2016.

“If Paul Bunyan at all”, laughs Rui, “he’d have to be a millennial high-baller Bunyan, planting trees instead of cutting them down. As for the competitiveness, immediately after the forestry I returned to my favourite sport of cross country running and”, he adds ruefully, “I failed to make the cut”. That was six years ago: water under the bridge, whether at Putney or Barnes.

If Devin, perhaps his real mentor, and Rui have taken to London like a pair of transatlantic geese to water that may be no coincidence. As the couple ride the streets of the capital together, Rui recalls how his grandfather Barry told him of being hunkered down in an air-raid shelter during the War while his father was on active duty as a fire-fighter in the city. “Sometimes I feel like a tourist, in awe of Big Ben”, says Rui, “but more often now like a local”. 

As for Devin, also a post-doc biologist, she leaves me blindsided when she quietly reveals she took to rowing not in her home state of Maine or even Toronto, where she met Rui, but in my own city of Cambridge, the English one where two boats can’t race side by side together on the river.

Londoners these days, Rui and Devin’s back story is decidedly on the other side of the Pond, in precisely those backwoods along the world’s longest undefended border that bred the Paul Bunyan stories. 

Rui and Devin’s meeting in Toronto came about when, frustrated that construction works to his rowing club were prolonging the already overly long frozen winter season of being stuck on ergs, “ergs don’t float”, Rui joined hers (she an experienced Varsity rower, he a mere novice). 

The pair rowed together in the summer, ran together in the winter and then, when COVID struck, they repaired to the backwoods of Maine. Confined by the continuing pandemic, they once again found themselves stuck on ergs “looking at the lake enviously when the ice ran out”.  

Curiously enough, watching the ice run out, though in a very different context, is pretty much what Rui does in his Lab at UCL. His team are looking to use ultrasound to thaw the ice crystals of frozen tissues in a safe enough way that many more donated organs can be used in transplants. 

Back in the woods of Maine, the pair ceased to be bothered for long by the lake ice running out on them. They realised they enjoyed the down time together, got married before the end of the year and have ever since then raced on river, as on road, as a mixed double. This year they won the Mixed Double Sculls at Henley Town & Visitors Regatta. They are currently undefeated, possibly as auspicious a distinction as any of the more Olympian honours that may be in the offing?

Rui and Devin after the Ice Ran Out, 2020. Photo: Yinze Xu.

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