Henley-on-Thames, United Kingdom
July 2, 2011
The Henley Regatta effectively stratifies its spectators. Anyone can watch from the banks downstream toward the start, if they can live with the crowds. Those willing to pay can watch from the Regatta Enclosure. The Steward's Enclosure is limited to people who know people: To purchase a ticket you have to be invited to do so by a member. But even once inside the Steward's, there are grandstands limited to members only and a special set of stands overlooking the finish line for . . . well, I'm not sure what it takes to get up there.
The racing, however, is in an odd way not as carefully culled. Sure, there are a number of different events generally distinguished by school, club, and international status. But the two events that matter the most to U.S. collegiate rowers, the Temple Cup and the Ladies' Plate, create some matchups that would be anathema in regattas in the States: lightweight varsities against heavyweight freshmen; big-school heavyweight freshmen vs. smaller-program heavyweight varsities; top collegiate varsities vs. all-star teams of young club rowers.
The differences are apparent in the regatta programs, which, like a horse racing form, list each competitor's individual weight and each crew's average. Just to be British, or maybe to revel in anachronism in yet another way, the program lists weights as stone and pounds, as in 15 stone, 4 pounds. A stone is 14 pounds, creating a challenge for anyone who has gone a while since doing multiplication in his or her head. (To save you the frustration, 15 stone 4 is 214 pounds.)
This year's regatta brought out the oddness of the unstratified field. Watching Yale's tough, experienced varsity lightweight crew (avg.: 11 stone 12), the one that had eked out the IRA by a bowball, take on the Harvard heavyweight freshmen (avg.: 14 stone 0) served as a harsh reminder of why there is lightweight rowing in the first place: the boats don't go as fast. Lightweights are cats and heavyweights are dogs: they are different animals. In other weight class sports, like wrestling or boxing, it might be considered cruel to pit a mismatch. At Henley, it happens all the time. Dominant lightweight crews, some of world-champion pedigree, get edged by heavyweight crews that are a notch down the experience/quality scale. It's a regatta that favors dogs. If you're a cat, you might look to compete elsewhere.
Harvard's varsity heavyweight eight faced a similar anomaly in the Ladies' Plate. A crew simply designated Leander "A" pretty much ate Harvard's lunch. Who were those guys? Certainly not a college crew. But not the national team, either.
The most impressive crew here didn't seem to care about either the stones or the experience of the competition. The Cal freshmen, in the Temple Challenge, relentlessly mowed down the opposition whoever they were, including the Harvard freshmen that had dispatched the Yale lightweights in a rare Harvard-Yale match on the English Thames. Setting records nearly every run down the course, Cal looked the way a crew should: clean, powerful, and in perfect rhythm. Saturday's semifinal with Harvard was simply no contest. The margin in this morning's final with the much more experienced, veteran Henley performers Nereus (okay, Amsterdamsche Studenten Roeivereeniging Nereus) from Holland could easily have been called "easily."
I'm sure that the Cal crew is, as I write this, celebrating its victory. But sometime soon they may look back at the brackets and think: what a melting pot of crews we beat for this trophy. At Henley, equal opportunity reigns--as long as you have an oar in your hands.