Henley Royal Regatta 2017 went out in a blaze of July sunshine, broken course records, rising gender equality and an air of having the time of its life. Sir Steve Redgrave is now firmly established in his chairmanship, and the regatta has embraced the 21st century with nonstop video coverage, gender-balanced umpiring and an equal number of men's and women's open events.
These would have been considered major upheavals in past decades, but the current Stewards have cracked on fearlessly with the revolution, and rumour has it even fresher ideas are in the pipeline, that will keep HRR at the forefront of rowing as both a competitive and spectator event.
Whatever lies in the future, this was a pumped-up regatta, with near-perfect racing conditions on Sunday contributing to faster crews than the Thames course had ever seen. While the host country took eleven trophies, the rest were fairly evenly spread, with France, Holland, Germany, Australia and New Zealand all represented at the prizegiving and the powerful New Zealand team winning five times.
Before going too far we'd better dispatch the inquest, even though the corpse is still warm and this dissection is bound to last for months. It is a desperately sad fact that 2017 will go down as the first year since 1992 in which there were no US or Canadian winning crews at Henley Royal Regatta. At all. In fact this has only happened three times in the last half-century, reflecting both the impressive speed and resources of North American crews and the popularity of the Royal regatta for its rowers. And it wasn't for lack of effort, since this year saw a record 60 US entries.
The two best theories — that US student rowing was having a bad year and that the exact opposite is happening in British universities and schools — are probably both partly right, combined with a downturn in national squad attendees and a strong dash of coincidence about which programs and athletes chose to attend. Whatever happens, 2018 (when the regatta starts on the Fourth of July) will be watched with great interest.
A week ago everyone expected the fastest man in a single, Kiwi Robbie Manson, to end up with the pineapple goblet of the prestigious Diamond Challenge Sculls. Then he pulled out of the competition with a rib injury and everyone in the top half of the draw started dreaming. On Sunday the dream came to an end for John Graves, at the hands of Matthew Dunham, like Manson a New Zealander, whom we will have to start calling a giant-killer after he rowed two heavyweights nearly to a standstill on his way to the trophy.
Forget Rio 2016 and Drysdale versus Martin: this was red-hot sculling from the blistering start for both athletes to the sprint in the Enclosures which reminded onlookers of the famous race between Redgrave and Eltang in 1986. Dunham's total inability to yield to the pressure of being a length down left to him in the perfect position to attack as the two reached the Enclosures, and without sparing a single glance for Graves he blasted into the lead as Craftsbury's best could find no response. It was the first Diamonds win for a lightweight since 1991.
Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser gave it one hell of a go, but racing mano a mano against the young Kiwi pair who barely know how good they are was always going to be a big ask. Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler's fluidly effortless speed was never in doubt, and it was apt that the New Zealanders were the ones to collect their winner's medals from VIP prizegivers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, two weeks after taking over the Britons' world best time.
Some Stewards attract trouble, but given how well the coxless fours have been behaving this week it was probably hoped that we'd get through finals day without any controversy. No such chance. Cambridge University, up against Leander in the Visitors', took careful note of umpire Richard Phelps warning Leander repeatedly against careless steering, and appealed the result of their race, which Leander had won by three quarters of a length but with Cambridge steering towards them at the end of the race.
This was all about the new version of Rule 41(e), the one which talks about a crew's 'proper course'. That used to be undefined, which permitted crews to slide over and wash their rivals down if they had enough of a lead for it to avoid risking collision. However, eight months ago the Stewards changed this so that the rule refers specifically to "a line halfway between the buoys or booms on either side."
A TV review followed, Phelps missed his son stroking Thames A to victory to consult other umpires, and after a considerable wait the crews were told that the result would stand.
"Leander were out of their water frequently and persistently down the course, and I warned them," said Phelps. "We have a new rule which requires crews to stay on their station but, on reviewing and discussing the video with other umpires, my conclusion was that until Cambridge came off their station there was no impediment to them so the result stands, Leander won."
"We appreciate Sir Steve and Richard reviewing the race and taking time to explain," said Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore. "It's disappointing but we know the umpire's word is final."
The big problem on finals day was river-weed rearing its ugly head yet again. The Ladies' Plate final between Oxford Brookes and what will become the GB under-23 eight was postponed for over 15 minutes while bunches of vegetation were cleared from around the stake-boats. Brookes then captured their second trophy of the day, their Temple Cup crew having already beaten University of London, although the future GB under-23 M8+ were feisty enough to push them all the way.
"We've built a monster," said Brookes Director of Rowing Richard Spratley afterwards, watching his athletes celebrate.
Whether it was plant life or not, something upset European singles champion Vicky Thornley, who was beaten to the Princess Royal Challenge Cup by Germany's Annekatrin Thiele when unable to mount any serious challenge due to constantly needing to pull round to bow side. At Fawley a head-on view from the high camera on the video feed shows her lurching every stroke and looking extremely uncomfortable.
"Something was not quite right, I don't know if it was wash, weed or what," said Thornley afterwards. "I was having to steer hard left to stay straight. But that's racing, things happen. Annekatrin won the race, well done to her. It's not easy but I'll try to take it as a learning experience."
(See the video here starting from the point Thornley's boat starts to swirl.)
Thornley decided not to protest the outcome, and the two scullers will meet again in less than a week's time at the Lucerne world cup.
A bundle of other full-course records were set, including Leander cutting a second off their own Prince of Wales quads time, the Dutch women's quad lowering the Princess Grace mark by two seconds, and Newcastle University chopping a whopping six seconds off the Prince Albert coxed fours in the very first race of the day.
That was a very unusual race since the crew Newcastle defeated, Imperial, equalled the Barrier and broke the Fawley marker record before Newcastle blasted through them, so both will end up in the history books.
One record which did not fall was the Grand Challenge Cup, the blue-riband event once again being contested between the German and British eights. Fresh into the new Olympiad Germany is already making a reputation for being frighteningly fast, having beaten the world best time in Poznan and beaten Britain twice. The GB crew, lacking several due to illness and injury, is slowly recovering, but although they held Germany to a length it was impossible to make any bigger dent on the favourites. The disappointment for spectators was that although Germany's row was impeccable, the wind had dropped by the time they raced, so that times were several seconds outside the historical bests.
The final of the Fawley Challenge Cup for boys' quads was a re-run of 2016, but last year's runners-up Windsor Boys' School had refused to read the script, and turned on the power to first lead and then repel attacks from defending champions Claires Court. It was 25 years since their coach Mark Wilkinson, himself a Windsor Boys' student, had won the exact same trophy. An emotional moment.
In the girls' Diamond Jubilee quads Gloucester collected their fourth title in a row, beating Isle of Ely's first ever full crew to reach a Henley final. Scotch College were the only non-UK crew in a junior final, and spoiled the GB party by beating Radley in strong style to the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup.
Leander's Prince of Wales quad included one very unusual sculler, Harry Glenister, who became the first person ever to collect all three quads titles at the Royal Regatta. He won the Fawley junior event with Marlow four years ago, and then his current crew, the Leander under-23 heavyweights, won the Queen Mother Cup last year before being rather unusually permitted to step back down to the lower event this year. Holland Beker winners Leander A beat their remarkably tidy under-23 lightweight crew, but were made to work all the way.
A couple of hours later Glenister's rare achievement was matched by Olympian and former Fawley/Prince of Wales winner Jack Beaumont, who steered the British national quad to victory in the Queen Mother Cup. Sculling with power and force, the quartet who won the second world cup in Poznan last month broke one of the oldest records on the HRR books, the quads time set by Italy's world medallist crew in 1989, as they beat New Zealand's team crew (see the race video here).
The latest incarnation of the mighty British men's four has taken a while to find its gear this season, but put in their best performance so far to beat Italy's fearless European champions and Rio bronze medallists. By the time they raced the tailwind was less consistent, but they equalled the Barrier record and like several other crews were only marginally outside the other record times.
As well as the women's pairs and men's single, New Zealand captured the Remenham women's eights, women's double sculls, and men's doubles. They go to Lucerne on a high, and look set fair to be right at the top of the medals table this international season. However, the Dutch women's squad took the Princess Grace quads (over a British development crew) and also the inaugural women's fours. This last was a final defeat for the New York Athletic combination, who had considerable trouble steering in the wind and wash.
As the sun drifted down behind the Chiltern Hills surrounding the Henley valley, one thing was certain: this regatta just keeps getting better and better. We have a year to go until the next one: book your flights now.
Other Things We Learned
You can watch the whole thing again here, including the prizegiving ceremonies; we hope you have enjoyed the coverage!
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07/05/2017 11:43:10 PM
07/03/2017 2:18:03 PM