Toby Bryant |

Henley 2020: What might have been

Students from Durham and Cardiff Universities tell Toby Bryant how their Henley goals have been dashed this season

For many rowers, racing at Henley is the pinnacle of the regatta season and a goal which drives them through the gruelling months of winter training. Missing the chance to compete at both Henley Royal Regatta (HRR) and Henley Women’s Regatta (HWR) in 2020 has prevented many season-long stories from reaching their denouement.

To celebrate both regattas and reminisce on what should have been gripping the rowing world this week at Henley Royal, we shine a light on the unfinished tales of two rowing clubs who had high hopes for this year’s competitions.

Benjamin Wright, Durham University Boat Club

Bowman of the Durham University Boat Club (DUBC) coxed four which blitzed their way to the Prince Albert final in 2019, Benjamin Wright and crew (pictured above) delivered one of the year’s most memorable finals in their clash with US rowing juggernauts Harvard University. A phenomenal push halfway down the course saw the DUBC crew give the Americans a fright – but it wasn’t quite enough to secure victory as Harvard triumphed by a three-quarters of a length.

“The lead-up to the event was far from easy, DUBC had a bit of a rocky season with a lot of illness and injuries,” Benjamin recalls .

“The first time we rowed together in the four was a BUCS Regatta pre-paddle and we really underperformed at the event.

“Once we had put our boat away, having missed out on a place in the final, we found a quiet place to have a chat. It was almost like a reset – we all knew we were capable of far more.”

Months of focused improvement followed, and the crew arrived at HRR with a real belief they could go all the way.

“I was quite nervous throughout the regatta, I’m not sure whether I showed it, but I was putting a lot of pressure on myself,” Benjamin admits.

“I remember on the morning of the final I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been for a race. I mentioned this to Wade [DUBC Head Coach] briefly and he just replied: ‘Look, this race is going to happen whatever; do you want to be in or out?’.

“That isn’t as savage as it sounds. He wasn’t telling me that I’d be dropped on finals day, it was a question about my mentality – you can either sit there and just let it happen, or you can get stuck in and make it happen. We didn’t manage to win, but I know I gave it my best shot.”

When asked about that memorable final, which nears 8,000 views on YouTube, he confesses his memory is a bit of a blur. “I remember reaching the enclosures and just wanting it to end because I was in so much pain.

Look, this race is going to happen whatever; do you want to be in or out?

Looking back, I’m really happy with our performance. We left everything out there and our base pace speed and finish were just as quick as Harvard’s.

“It’s great to have the race available on YouTube – it’s a little spark of motivation when needed!”

Returning to DUBC this year with the knowledge that 2018 and 2017 Prince Albert winners Imperial College and Newcastle University had both been runners-up the previous year, Benjamin feels that the elusive win could well have been on the cards.

“I think the Henley performance [in 2019] and record medal tally for Durham at the under-23s was a really big encouragement for the whole club,. Not only that this year was going to be special, but it also evidenced that the programme and culture were in a good place and heading further in the right direction.

“We had the biggest squad in years with a lot of promising guys making the step-up from college rowing who all kept challenging the more senior guys to keep pushing on. We weren’t just focusing on winning Henley, but also on getting as many crews qualified through rounds as possible.”

“It’s a real shame the season was cut short. The men’s squad really believed that this would be a special year for DUBC.”

Honor Bailey, Cardiff University Boat Club

Captain of a rapidly growing Cardiff University Boat Club (CURC), women’s squad, Honor Bailey also had high hopes for her club’s outings at Henley Women’s Regatta (HWR) this year.

Last year had seen one of the university’s best turnouts to date with an exciting early victory against Caius BC in the Aspirational Academic Eights (AA 8s) and the club was looking to go better again this time around.

“2019 was such a fabulous moment for the squad, both for those in the AA 8 and the wider squad,” Honor remembers.

The Cardiff university women’s squad

“The performance of the eight was so strong and it was a wonderful product of the senior women’s efforts; not just the girls who went down the course, but the wider squad who supported each other through early morning ergs, late-night weights and cold-water sessions.

“It also unlocked a new hunger within the squad starting this season, as advancing to HWR felt a more tangible goal for CURC to work towards.”

The club’s ever-expanding women’s squad had seen a big intake for this academic year with ambitions of sending at least 20 athletes onto the water at HWR.

“We wanted as many squad members as possible to have that unique Henley experience and perform strongly at the event,” adds Honor.

The added impetus of having coach Dai George, who joined mid-way through the 2018/19 year for the full season, has made a great difference too.

“Having a plan for training and racing from the get-go that we could continually refer back to has made all the difference,” Honor says.

“Our coach used a system of birdie, par and bogey goals to set out our ambitions for each race. For HWR, it would have been a birdie result to reach the final of the AA 8, and all other crews qualifying. To us that felt like an attainable result, albeit requiring some very focused training.”

We wanted as many squad members as possible to have that unique Henley experience

2020 was also set to see the inaugural student women’s eights competition at HRR, which Bailey relishes as a great step forward for the future of the competition. 

“It’s so exciting that the women’s AA’s has been included at HRR and the prospect of more and more women’s events being added is wonderful; something I’ve been hoping for throughout my rowing career.

“Obviously, current circumstances have changed the season, but HRR was what CURC senior women were really gearing up to. Following BUCS, our focus was for the eight to qualify for this new event. We were aware of how competitive it was going to be, but that kept our focus sharp.

“This season has been atypical for Cardiff to say the least; the weather thwarting early races with coronavirus impacting the rest.”

Looking ahead, Honor adds: “The frustration of races cancelled creates a number of ‘what ifs’, but that’s part of sport and will hopefully just add to our drive for next season.”

Photo: Ben Rodford