The swimming Varsity Match against Oxford traditionally was, and still remains, the high point of the competitive calendar towards which all training is ultimately geared. It now takes on an arguably even more important role with the infamous Varsity Games Dinner rivaling the Tadpoles Dinner as one of the social highlights of the year!

Up until 2004 the Match has taken place in Lent term (January to March) as part of the Varsity Games with venues alternately organized by Cambridge and by Oxford. It was, from 2005, an event in its own right, with the venue alternating between Cambridge Parkside Pools and the Rosenblatt Pool Oxford. It is one of very few galas still remaining in this country which is a competed by just two teams although this appears to have been the standard a century ago.

Two swimmers from Oxford and two from Cambridge compete in:

  • 200m Individual Medley
  • 100m Backstroke
  • 200m Freestyle
  • 100m Butterfly
  • 400m Freestyle (ladies’ 400m free introduced in 2009)
  • 100m Breaststroke
  • 100m Freestyle
  • Medley Relay
  • Freestyle Relay

with events alternating between ladies’ and men’s. Historically both teams have included many former internationals, both junior and senior.

The final team is decided by a ‘mock varsity’ a couple of weeks before the Match. Places are hotly contested, leading to the recent high standard amongst the Cambridge team. No place is guaranteed……

4 points are awarded for first through to 1 for fourth, double points are awarded for the relays (7 and 3) and the men’s and ladies’ points are totalled separately. The rules state that any one swimmer can swim in a maximum of two individuals and one relay or one individual and both relays.


1892 witnessed the inaugural men’s swimming Varsity Match held annually since then, bar breaks during the wars, between Oxford and Cambridge. The first event was held at the Kensington Pools in London and many subsequent matches were held in London, even as recently as 1999 in Ealing.

Originally the gala consisted of three individual freestyle events with two swimmers from Oxford and two from Cambridge competing in each event. The exact distances varied considerably from year to year but roughly equated to a sprint, an approximate 100m and a quarter mile; although the middle event varied from 100 yards to 174 to 240 during the 1890s. Each race could be won by either university on a points basis of 5 for first, 3 for second and 1 for third. The overall winner was the winner of the most events.

In 1897 a team event was introduced to the programme, with each university fielding seven swimmers. However the decision of who won the Varsity match still went purely on the individuals.

This format remained through until the 1920s. A points system was introduced in 1926. However it was not standardized as events were added and the scoring system changed so total points varied from year to year.

The 1920s also brought about another major change with the first ladies’ swimming Match in 1921, although it was held separately from the men’s. The format of the competition was noticeably different with distances half those of the men’s events and the relay consisted of five swimmers. The programme also contained a plunge, style swimming and diving.

By the 1930s the men’s competition had gained events and the programme consisted of:

  • 100 yards Free
  • 220 yards Free
  • 440 yards Free
  • 200 yards Breast
  • 100 to 150 yards Back
  • Medley Relay of Back, Breast and Free
  • Free Relay of four swimmers

This was extended to include butterfly and individual medley events and a full medley relay during the 1950s. In fact the Varsity Match already included a butterfly event in 1953, two years before it became an official competitive stroke.

The point scoring system also changed to the current system which was different from the standard at the time but did ensure a close battle for victory.