Let’s throw the doors wide open – summer can finally begin! Henley Women’s Regatta, a three-day festival of women's rowing that encompassed everything from Junior 16 to international interest, delivered another blockbuster weekend of racing in the seat of the Thames Valley.
Wall-to-wall racing, all delivered against the backdrop of God’s green countryside and with Henley Royal Regatta looming large in the foreground. Henley comes alive with an enigmatic, intangible energy over the next couple of weeks, coursing to the beat of the rowing drum and transforming from sleepy English village to a hotbed of sporting talent.
I had the pleasure of wracking up over 15 hours of commentary time on the web stream for Henley Women’s Regatta, working from inside a tent that doubled as an oven in temperatures which raced past 25 degrees Celsius on certain days. Unperturbed by my vantage point, I was delighted to be witness to some magical performances in the sparkling Henley sunshine….
All hail the undisputed queens of eights racing in the UK. Under the stewardship of Hugo Gulliver, Oxford Brookes have toppled the hierarchy in the big boats to seat themselves at the head of a long table of challengers. If you’re going to take a pop at the champ, you better not miss and the blows being divvied out at Henley Women’s Regatta barely landed as Brookes dominated the Championship Eights category. Their final against Thames was dubbed by yours truly as the summit of student and club rowing meeting in an epic finale to the weekend but the women from Putney stood no chance against a Brookes boat whose attention will now turn to the promise of red boxes at Henley Royal Regatta.
Leander Club swept up the Championship Quad and Coxless Four categories, never really looking like they were going to relinquish a dominance that spoke to their depth and pedigree. Several of the athletes littered across the two triumphant quartets are poised for senior international representation in the months and years to come and today rubber-stamped their status as up-and-comers. The pink palace even had a hand in the Championship Double category as a Twickenham/Leander composite timed their mid-race move to perfection to draw away from a Strathclyde Park/Twickenham combination.
In the other events, Radcliffe Crew were magnificent in their decimation of the Championship Lightweight Pair category, sweeping aside a Princeton combination whose East-Coast provenance mattered not in the heat of battle. Under Will Fletcher, Durham University are back to punching in the heavyweight ring and their Championship Lightweight Double never looked troubled in dispatching a Reading University crew who will go away to lick their wounds and plot revenge in 2024. Cara Grzeskowiak has traveled all the way from sunny Canberra in Australia and her three-week racing stint on English shores got off to the best possible start. Katherine Mole of Birmingham University ran her close in the opening 600m before the Australian turned on the afterburners and sculled away from her opposition. Attention will now turn to whether Cara can offer the same level of pedigree in a hotter field at Henley Royal Regatta.
Split between club and academic events, these categories provided some of the most tantalising racing of the regatta. Oxford Brookes were almost laughably good in the opening rounds of the Academic Eight, stretching out to a length before calculating the lowest-possible pace at which they could row whilst maintaining their margin. In the final, they certainly had to work harder but never looked like losing out to a Newcastle University boat who will hope to keep climbing the steep development curve. Thames reaffirmed their position as the premier institution for female rowing on the Putney Embankment, defeating a Vesta boat who threatened at one stage to spring a surprise on the hoards of supporters crowding the bank. Imperial College, whose-semi-final with Radcliffe Crew ended in controversy when the American boat were disqualified for clashing, stood tall as one of the only outfits to stand up to the might of Oxford Brookes. Their Academic Coxless Four defeated a group of athletes from Brookes who are in their first year and will surely be back for more. Worcester Boat Club, who are not usually known for punching out at the business end of proceedings, raced impressively all weekend and secured a well-deserved win in the Club Coxless Fours.
Beyond this point, there are races and crews too numerous to mention but a few other stand-outs from the Aspirational vertical of racing. Greenbank Falmouth laying the trap and rowing down D.S.R.V Laga in the Doubles and Keane of Imperial College securing her university’s second win of the day in consecutive races in the Single were particular highlights.
According to the form book, this weekend probably ran true. Headington School took the Peabody Cup for Eights whilst Wycliffe Junior Rowing Club returned to something like their best in claiming the Bea Langridge Trophy for Quads. To analyse proceedings in such a straightforward way would be to do the swirling narratives and undulating sub-plots a grave injustice. Headington were pushed all the way by a spirited Henley crew, who got one over on Surbiton after losing out to the latter at the National Schools’ Regatta. Tideway Scullers School showed us that they’re still the dark horse in quad sculling, taking out both Shiplake College and Henley Rowing Club on their way to the final. A word on Sydney Rowing Club, who showed up on Henley shores with two doubles. One made it to the quarter-finals and the other won the whole event in emphatic fashion, delivering a stark warning of what is to come in the Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup when those two pairings come together. Meanwhile, Jessica Weir of Shiplake College will be looking to spur her school’s quad onto greater heights in the next ten days after dominating the Single from stroke one. Briony Wood’s season just keeps getting better and better after she joined a Glasgow Academy boat who vanquished all-comers to win the Groton School Challenge Cup for Coxed Fours.
J16 racing is often the opening salvo for these young women on the straights of Henley and Wallingford Rowing Club brought their ‘A’ game to proceedings, switching from the eight which they won at the National Schools’ Regatta to the Coxed Four in impressive fashion. Henley Rowing Club, omnipresent at this level of competition, secured yet another victory in the Nina Padwick Trophy for J16 Quads.
Not a great deal to say beyond well done Edinburgh University. Two boats in the semi-finals – who were unfortunate enough to face each other – and their ‘A’ crew always looked favourites to take the overall win.
The greatest compliment I can pay to Henley Women’s Regatta is that it never feels like a warm-up to Henley Royal Regatta. Despite the ever-increasing sprawl of the latter, Henley Women’s Regatta has sidestepped the shadow and continued to broaden its own appeal to women across the world. I am a self-professed acolyte to Henley Royal Regatta and it’s a period I look forward to every year but that begins with the three-day stint at Henley Women’s.
Looking ahead to what the next few weeks have in store for us, I am enthused at the prospect of seeing so many of these crews pitting their wits against each other over the longer Royal course. We’re at the end-game now and champions who were crowned today will have the chance to ink their name into dual history books in just under two weeks time. The apex is here and the big sprint is on.
Words by Junior Rowing News
Photo by Lauren Hazel