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Henley Royal Regatta

Henley Royal Regatta: My Take

After a strange week in France and on the Wimbledon lawns, another exciting sporting event took place over the weekend! The eyes of the rowing world turned to the quiet town of Henley and Sport-Matters was there to watch the action unfold…

Now I know what you’re thinking: how on earth can rowing be dramatic?! We’ve seen the demise of English international football, the cracking of Djokovic’s wall and yet another internal battle at McLaren Mercedes in Austria in the last week. So I can understand the reasons for choosing other sporting events over Henley Royal Regatta.

However, I want you to hear me out. I’m going to explain why Henley has to be one of THE items on your bucket list.

To paint the picture, Henley Royal Regatta is the most famous club regatta in the world where all rowers, from the elites of professional rowing to schoolboy rowers, gather to race for glory. In contrast to World Cup and Olympic rowing where six crews race each other, only two crews race at one time in a knockout format over five days. On Henley Wednesday, the crews arrive for racing and hope to make it to Henley Sunday. Or, to be more precise, Henley Finals Day.

I raced at Henley twice for Canford School in 2011 and 2012. On both occasions I made it through racing on Wednesday but lost out to the better crew on both Thursdays. I’ll keep these stories for later.

Four years have passed since then. I’ve seen the Spanish national football team’s rise and fall, the majority of Russian athletes being banned and the unlikely lads of Leicester’s Premier League triumph. In this time, I had started to question what the great Henley Royal Regatta had to offer on this plateau of sporting drama. Until last weekend.

Having enjoyed the event on Friday, my friends and I were lucky enough to be in the Stewards Enclosure for Semi-Finals Saturday. This is an area near the finish line where only members of Henley Royal Regatta are allowed access, members being those who have been in the rowing profession and have waited ten years for the application to be processed. Having the rowing elite around us, we were dressed to the nines and watched the rowers race by. With every stroke, the memories started coming back of the racing, the crowds, the cheering…

And then Henley Finals day came along on Sunday. A different tone greeted me as I was on a boat with my parents and our affable host Henry Tapper. Having learnt the new sport of ‘rope-throwing’ between different locks, we meandered to Henley through luscious landscape and magnificent mansions. Another turn later, the historic course was upon us. After many trips along the 2112m straight course, a picnic lunch and two run-ins with the Environment Agency, I return with two souvenirs; a sun-burnt face and some unforgettable memories of racing.

First shock of the day came in the Ladies Challenge Cup, the Intermediate Mens Eight race. This race was lost by local club Leander to A.S.R. Nereus, one of Holland’s finest institutions for producing student rowers. And yet, the umpire brought out the red flag to denote a disqualification. After much deliberation in the boat, we learnt that A.S.R. Nereus were disqualified as the coach was advising the Dutch crew to stay on course despite the umpire forcing them to move over. A title lost by a coach’s persistence to break the rules: drama number one!

Second shock of the day involved the finest sculler (two blades instead of one!) in the modern rowing world. New Zealander Mahe Drysdale, Olympic champion at London 2012, lost out to Belgium’s Hannes Obreno in the Diamond Sculls Challenge Cup. A total shock to the rowing world and we had front row seats on the boat. As we cruised by, we roused a commiserative but admiring round of applause for the sculling legend.

The final shock of the day came in the Visitors Challenge Cup for Intermediate Mens Coxless Fours. University of California had dominated the race against Thames R.C. up to the point our boat was located at; twenty metre before the finish line. As glory approached, University of California’s boat took a sharp turn and their blades hit the barriers as Thames snatched victory. A rare event brought our day to an end.

Henley Royal Regatta is the focal point of all rowing careers, an integral part of the British sporting social calendar and, most importantly of all, the foundation of many memories for me.

So there we have it. A weekend of class, controversy and constant drama created such amazing memories amid the rowing equivalent of the Champions League. And yet, after all this, my best memory of racing at Henley Royal Regatta came back to me.

On my first Henley Thursday, we were racing the favourites Eton College. From the start of the race, Eton College sat two boat lengths in front of us hoping for an easy path to the next day. When we reached the beginning of the Stewards Enclosure, 300 metres from the finish, our plan sprang into action. We jumped from 34 strokes per minute to 41. We closed on Eton with every stroke, the crowd grew louder, more ‘Canford!’ cheers filled the air. We lost but only by half a length. Eton’s feathers had been seriously ruffled; they were knocked out of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup on the Semi-Finals Saturday.

Henley Royal Regatta may not have the wall-to-wall action some sports fans look for but it is the focal point of all rowing careers, an integral part of the British sporting social calendar and, most importantly of all, the foundation of many memories for me.

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