Three days of back-to-back racing came to a predictably climactic finish with the Championship Girls Sculls title changing hands in the final few strokes as Meg Knight, indoor world champion and red-hot favourite, surrendered her lead in the closing stages to Ellie-Kate Hutchinson from Bann Rowing Club.
Such tight contests became so frequent as to be expected over the course of three fantastic days of racing; this review is made all the more challenging by the fact that so many competitors, contests and characters stood out across the weekend.
From my perch in the commentary cars that were whizzing up and down in a desperate – and in our eyes successful – attempt to bring life and colour to proceedings at Dorney Lake, I was granted front-row seats to some of the finest examples of junior rowing in living memory.
Championship Boys Eight
I was forced to eat my words in typically humbling fashion. Although I was probably right saying it was going to be a close race, and the top four crews would comprise of Teddies, KCS, Shiplake and Eton. I did not expect the latter to dominate in the way that they did.
The way in which Eton blasted off the start – taking a length within 500m – probably surprised the rest of the field; the horsepower on-board combined with a refined technical ability to lock on in the middle of the stroke put paid to any attempts from their opposition to claw back the deficit. The battle unfolding behind Eton was where the drama was at its most acute; Shiplake were in the silver medal position until just before the 1000m before being overhauled by first Teddies then a resurgent unit from KCS. The struggle to the line was symptomatic of a dynamic and fiercely competitive ecosystem within junior boys rowing and leaves us breathless in anticipation of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup.
We all know that Eton’s program is designed to peak at Henley Royal Regatta, which leaves those in their wake with much to ponder over the next four weeks.
Championship Girls Eight
In typically brusque fashion, Henley dispelled any sense that there were barbarians at the gate threatening to overthrow their stranglehold on junior women’s rowing. To win the category by nearly six seconds is an enormous achievement yet feels like par for the course for a program that seem to keep getting better and better.
Conspicuous in their absence, Headington chose to focus on the quad which left the door ajar for Surbiton to step in and take a well-deserved silver. Hinksey Sculling School, relishing their role as impatient insurgents, took a fantastic bronze, overhauling a stubborn St Edward’s School crew in the final 500m.
Championship Boys Quads
Where to start with the Windsor Boys School? In truth, they probably deserve their own bespoke section of this review – they claimed every championship gold available on the boy’s sculling side and their quad took the win by 2.5 seconds without their top athlete, Marcus Chute, on-board.
Such dominance was foreshadowed in this writer’s preview and the way in which they simply cast aside any aspersions that Marcus’ absence would be keenly felt were impressive. All eyes instead turn to the battle to be Windsor Boys’ probable bridesmaids in the Fawley Challenge Cup in a few weeks time; Leander have produced another highly competent crew who took silver and will almost certainly get quicker over the next month.
Claires Court, led by former athlete Alex Richardson, are threatening to re-emerge as a genuine heavyweight after a few years in the supporting cast; their last HRR win was in 2016.
Championship Girls Quads
The way in which Marlow simply blew the field apart in the opening exchanges of the Sherriff Cup final will go down in the annals of National Schools’ history. They were well beaten by a robust Headington School crew in the semi-final, only to then catch everyone napping a few hours later with a blistering first 500m that left them over two seconds clear of the field at the opening timing marker. Despite the best efforts of Shiplake, Claires Court and Wycliffe - who mounted a late charge to overcome Headington and sneak into fourth – Marlow ran out winners and will go into both Henley Women’s and Henley Royal Regatta as favourites.
The question remains as to whether the likes of Headington and Shiplake – who possess extraordinary depth in their program – will continue to focus on the quad or switch to the eight (and the slightly alarming prospect of a fully-fledged Henley unit).
Radley College had a stellar Saturday, walking away with wins in the Junior 16 Championship and Second Eights alongside the Second and Third Eight categories. Four golds, coupled with a silver and bronze, is not to be sniffed at; Sam Townsend is clearly building a program with an eye for the future.
The Windsor Boys School, who have already had a mention in this wrap-up, were in monstrous form, winning Second Quads by nearly 13 seconds, alongside dominant displays in both Championship Doubles and Singles. It leaves us all wondering how on Earth anyone is going to stop Mark Wilkinson’s juggernaut; they’d be well advised to consider an entry into the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup to supplement what is likely to be their top boat in the Fawley Challenge Cup.
Marlow Rowing Club’s J16 boys contingent deserve a special mention, after collecting trophies in both the quad and double categories. Across 16 crews, Marlow made 9 ‘A’ finals under the stewarship of Pete Chambers.
Henley Rowing Club firmly established themselves as the program to beat on the girl’s side, winning just about everything in sight but inclusive of: Junior 14 Girls Coxed Quads, Junior 16 Girls Quads (by an absolutely ridiculous 27 seconds), Junior 16 Girls Seconds Quads and Junior 16 Girls Eights. Good luck to anyone who tries to unseat their J16s in the next couple of years.
Aberdeen’s Zoe Beeson and Maisie Aspinall were in imperious form to bring their international credentials to bear at Eton Dorney; they won Championship Girls Pairs by some 13 seconds to firmly anoint themselves as two of the United Kingdom’s foremost female rowing talents.
I’m sure I’ll have missed athletes, performances, narratives and nuances in their review but I was limited by what I saw and what I felt was worthy of further discussion. What I can say without any fear of retribution is that it was a great relief to see the National Schools’ Regatta return without regulation or ramification, held in all its glory to enable junior rowers from up and down the land (and even lands over the sea) to compete against one another on the national stage. Congratulations to the committee for staging a fantastic event and to you, the athletes and coaches who might be reading this article, for performances of valour too numerous to mention.
Roll on the Henley series...
words by Junior Rowing News
photo by Ed Evans