It may be August, but Henley Royal Regatta starts on Wednesday 11 August and runs for six days, with the bonus of two new women’s events in club eights and junior eights. Wycliffe junior rower Rachel Egan shares thoughts on the junior racing as she also prepares to compete on the course for the first time
As the rowing season comes to an end, all is once again ramped up for one last hurrah at Henley Royal Regatta. Possibly the most anticipated event in the domestic rowing calendar now lies but a single week away. After over two years of waiting, I and thousands of other athletes will finally race down the famous Henley course. Not only does the event pose an opportunity for racing, but it also marks a significant period in British summertime; in fact, the Henley Stewards proudly recognise that ‘Henley Royal Regatta is undoubtedly the best-known regatta in the world’.
Considering this, I feel all the nerves are justified!
In a regular year, the town of Henley-on-Thames would be flush with athletes from all corners of the globe, different in ethnicity and tongue, but each with a common goal. As expected, there is a notable decrease in international entrants for this year’s competition – 41 compared with 159 in 2019. In total there will be 481 crews competing, so 179 crews down on the 2019 regatta. However, I doubt it will detract from the tension of racing nor the unusual traditions that make the Royal so memorable.
For the first time on the junior scene, schoolboys and girls will experience parity across events. The new Junior Women’s Eight category gives junior women space to race in a sweep crew at Henley Royal for the first time in its 182-year history.
Speaking to Phoebe Horan, Captain of Boats at Headington School in Oxford, her delight was crystal clear: “It’s really exciting to be rowing in the debut of the Junior Women’s Eight. It’s a great step forward towards more equal representation within the sport. I think it will create some really exciting racing.”
As the nominated ‘house chef’, I also carry the heavy burden of not poisoning the crew during our stay [at Henley]
Headington find themselves the favourites for the newest event on the Stewards’ roster after back-to-back wins at Henley Women’s Regatta and the British Rowing Junior Championships. Our event – the Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup – is set to be one of the most tightly contested categories as this year’s regatta, with Shiplake, Wycliffe and Marlow all boating exceptionally strong crews.
On the men’s side, Eton and St. Paul’s remain the top contenders for the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup, whilst in the Fawley, it looks to be a three-horse race between Tideway Scullers, Leander and Windsor Boys’ School.
Despite attending the regatta as a spectator in the past, 2021 marks the year I get the opportunity to compete. Racing in the Diamond Jubilee means our crew will find ourselves pitted against 23 fellow schoolgirl crews. But in all honesty, the whole experience is overwhelming, as I’m sure is the case for other crews.
Two years of training – made all the more challenging by the pandemic – essentially boil down to five days of racing in the heart of the Thames Valley. I can’t yet quite fathom that we’re nearing the end of this incredible journey.
Since at Wycliffe we have both a boys and girls crew prequalified, the pressure is twofold – perhaps even more so as our club has never raced at the Royal before; we certainly feel the expectations of the school and alumni. There is further pressure to make the training count too, the blisters and early morning wake-ups can only be justified by an impressive performance when all the miles will finally add up.
Of course, any nervousness is matched with excitement. Our team is based in a local house, so I’m delighted to share the camaraderie once again after training remotely for so long. As the nominated ‘house chef’, I also carry the heavy burden of not poisoning the crew during our stay.
“Crossing the finish line on Sunday as Fawley champions meant more than I could describe”
Aside from the squad, it’s hard to not also look forward to the social aspects of Henley Royal, which truly separates it from the regular competition: striped blazers, enclosures and lots and lots of Pimms. Whilst racing may prevent me from participating in such activities (and despite taking far too long to pick a suitable dress), even the small change of an actual crowd cheering beside me down the course will already prove a massive step towards normality.
Despite this hypnotic rhythm of Henley, it can be challenging to find the true nucleus of meaning behind the racing. So, we spoke to Miles Devereux, a member of the 2019 Leander crew that won the Fawley Challenge Cup.
It soon became apparent just what makes HRR so unique to our community. Reminiscing, Miles said: “Crossing the finish line on Sunday as Fawley champions meant more than I could describe; tears were shared, and I was utterly speechless. It’s a feeling that keeps on driving us as athletes to come back again and again.”
Having never enjoyed such an intoxicating mix of emotion at Henley, I’m instead driven by the thought of the girls and myself in the Stewards’ tent, shaking hands with Sir Steve as he passes over those little red boxes. That feeling – that sensation of pride and achievement – would make the hard work worthwhile. We are constantly reminded of ‘eternal glory’ by our coach, and as we approach the final stages of training, I can see why.
For full previews of the junior and student events, head over to the Junior Rowing News website here.
Photos: Roesie Percy (@a_blind_photographer)