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OH Neil Chugani: Winning creates a bond shared forever

An Exclusive Interview by Josh Freer

“My proudest moment was winning the boat race for Oxford”, says Neil Chugani – a former UK rowing cox and Old Hamptonian who represented Oxford University and Great Britain, and who has juggled a successful life in sport with a time-consuming career. 

He coxed the Oxford crew to victory in the University Boat Race, and he has played the same role for Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell.  He then moved on to become a member of UK Sport and has coached many top-level rowing teams – for example, in 2015 he coached the Oxford women’s crew to victory on the Tideway.  

He went to Hampton School, and then went on to Oxford University. He is now a senior executive at Google, and has a family of 3 children. He was a cox for 15 years internationally but continued at club level until 2007. During his time as a cox, Chugani had to lead a disciplined existence, which “did not come easily to him,” and he “had to work very hard to stay light”. 

Until 1995 he had to weigh in below 50kg as that was the national minimum weight for a cox and “by virtue of the fact that no crew wants to carry a kilo more than they have to,” Neil had to maintain this weight for every race – the average weight in the UK being 75.8 kilograms.  

When Chugani won the World Championships he felt that his emotions were ones “primarily of relief rather than elation” as he knew that his team’s mission was as yet incomplete: they were trying to do “something unprecedented in rowing” and to win gold in both the coxed and the coxless pair. With the coxless pair coming first, Chugani could only wait and hope for victory – and do nothing but watch while his friends battled it out for the win. 

In the event, the coxless pairs was a close race, and for most of the race, a team from Yugoslavia were in front – but the British pair took gold by a mere 0.02 of a second. “So, in the instant that I won my gold medal,” he recalls, “it was not a moment of elation, but more one of relief.” 

In 1996, Chugani was told that he “wasn’t being given a shot at the Olympics”, despite him being well respected by other members of the squad. “The guys who went to the Olympics in my era all gave up their jobs and I wasn’t prepared to do that. It is different now – if you have a spot at the Olympic Games in a major sport you get funding,” but 20 years ago it was a very different story.

Despite Chugani having this setback in 1996, he is not disappointed as “there are friends of mine who went off to the Olympics and didn’t come back with a medal and I had the good fortune to have a crew who not only won a medal but won two gold medals in two hours”.

Chugani (bottom right) after Boat Race victory

Chugani has juggled two unique careers and yet his sporting one is “without a doubt” his favourite. “My professional career has been something that I am proud of but it’s very hard work”, he says.  Yet reflecting on his sporting career, he feels “how much of a joy it is to work on something with an objective so pure – winning, and doing it with people who end up becoming life long friends. I recently turned 50 and I had nine of my closest friends to celebrate.  Of those friends, the vast majority were friends I forged in my rowing career”. 

Chugani also feels that these friendships are forged as “you put yourself in a position that you’ve never been before” and with friends you can either strengthen your bond or weaken it, and in sport bonds are strong and good always –  “to come out the other side having won is a bond that you keep forever”.  

Neil has also been a coach “on and off through the years” and he “really enjoys being able to pass on the knowledge that I have to young athletes.” He coached the Oxford women’s team to win the Boat Race in 2015 and he thinks that when he “stops working quite as hard as he does at the moment”, coaching is something he would quite like to return to. Chugani has had many successes and yet he feels that “winning the Boat Race for Oxford was my proudest moment” –  the greatest test he had faced “mentally and physically.

Chugani poses with the trophy after coaching Oxford women to Boat Race victory

“When you’re performing in front of 3 – 400,000 people and millions more watching from home, you have a significant role to play and I feel that a cox can generally lose a race or even win a race for their crew and to come out the other side is something I am most proud of”.  

“A sportsperson’s career lasts a lifetime,” concludes this distinguished Old Hamptonian, “and so their years at the top are what they have to cherish and treasure for the rest of their life”.  

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