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Hooked on Henley

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Annabel Vernon | 15:11 UK time, Saturday, 10 July 2010

Last weekend, I took part in Henley Royal Regatta for the first time. Although Henley isn't part of the World Cup series, it still attracts top international crews, as well as the best of club rowing in the UK.

The quad that has been racing as Great Britain all summer - Katherine Grainger, Anna Watkins, Beth Rodford and me - put on club kit to represent Marlow, Leander, Gloucester and London.

Here's my diary from the event.

Grainger, Watkins, Rodford and VernonGrainger, Watkins, Rodford and Vernon compete in rough water at Henley - Photo: PA

Thursday

We had an early row on the course to get our bearings, check our steering, and to generally enjoy the atmosphere. I had a good look around the course to make sure exactly where the markers are.

At Henley, the row to the start can also be tricky with punts and drunken people in boats charging up and down, so sitting at bow I've put eyes in the back of my head to watch out for all hazards. If we do crash, I will personally take the impact so I'm very keen for that not to happen!

Returned to our national training centre down the road at Caversham for our second session, where it seems pretty quiet after all the excitement of Henley.

The crews not racing are training as normal throughout the regatta so racing is definitely a bonus as it gives you a bit of a rest - we'd all rather race than endure our normal training load of three tough sessions every day.

I find it frustrating that there isn't a full complement of events for women - there are three for women, compared with 16 for men.

The event is run by the Henley Stewards and they are entitled to do what they want; and I am fully aware that for various reasons, including that most women quit rowing in their 30s, the standard of women's domestic rowing doesn't have the same depth as the men's scene.

However, to restrict women to three open events - which means everyone from club rowers to internationals - seems a pity. Let's have a junior event for a start. Henley is such a fantastic showpiece for British rowing it seems a shame to not have a full women's representation.

Friday

Kick-off! And can I say that I am now officially hooked on Henley. With all the fuss about blazers, Pimm's, skirts below the knee and so on, you forget what the essence of Henley Royal Regatta is: absolutely top-class international and club racing on home water, which is, (as I've mentioned before in this blog) the ultimate buzz for any athlete.

I'd also not appreciated just how close the racing lane is to the bank here. You can virtually hear the pop of champagne corks and the chink of glasses; and as you race down the course you almost feel the spectators are right on top of the boats as the boozy cheers from the towpath give way to more restrained applause in the Stewards' Enclosure. This is brilliant!

Most of my mates were doing the social bit today, so after we'd raced I put on my dress and headed out to see them all. Henley's a great place to catch up with people; you can really take the tradition or leave it.

You can opt for the formal blazers, expensive champagne and oysters in Stewards', or go for barbecues in the field and picnics down the riverbank. Whichever way you go, there's such a positive atmosphere in the whole regatta and there's so many friends to bump into.

Saturday

Woke up with a pretty stiff neck this morning - it must have been a consequence of spending most of my rows looking over my shoulder every few strokes.

Having beaten a Belfast crew yesterday, our opposition today is a Canadian quad which is actually a composite of their lightweight and heavyweight doubles.

We thought we'd have a crack at the record to the barrier - about 640 metres down the course - which had been set in 2001, and broke it by a second, which in crosswind conditions was something we were pretty pleased with. Another good row which was a step on from yesterday.

Swung by the press box to do some tweeting for the Rowing Voice, an online magazine for rowers, with Rachel Quarrell and Zoe de Toledo, who are the editors.

The press box is just past the finish line and is in fact set slightly on the course so you get a fantastic view of the boats coming down towards you.

Quick interview for BBC Radio Berkshire, where I was asked about the unique nature of Henley, with Olympians alongside schoolboys and club rowers, but no sense of being stopped for autographs.

My reply was that one of the best things about rowing is that it is very egalitarian: it is such a tough and demanding sport that there's a huge mutual respect between competitors and between rowers at all levels.

I object quite strongly to all these open-top bus parades that seem mandatory now. As one of my friends often points out, "You're not saving the world, you're doing PE."

There are so many people who are contributing to society far more than we are, yet we are held up as heroes. Let's keep perspective over what we do: it's not life or death, it's sport. It's incredibly exciting, passionate, and can dish out tremendous highs as well as crushing lows, but it's still just sport.

Later that evening I cycled back down to the boat tent to get our race times for the following day. Saturday evening is a pretty drunken affair so I had to weave my bike through the crowds of sunburnt Pimm's-soaked punters. We were scheduled for a mid afternoon final.

Sunday

Finals day. After an early row on the course, we returned to my house in Henley to chill out for a few hours before our race. The problem with racing so late is that you miss all the other finals, so we kept up to date with what was happening with Regatta Radio, which broadcasts throughout Henley week.

The wind was building throughout the day and by the time we hit the water, was probably as strong a headwind as any in which I've competed. It made for a pretty brutal race but we were pleased to beat the Kiwi national quad for the win.

After that it was a quick change, prizegiving, and in true Henley fashion, we finished the regatta by swigging champagne from the trophy.

Henley is very very different to any other kind of international racing - there is a reason the last true international race held here was the 1948 Olympic regatta! However, a win is a win, whatever the circumstances, and we're glad to have this boost as we move into the third and final World Cup event in Lucerne.

Watch Sunday's finals of the Lucerne World Cup live on the red button and online (UK only) 0920-1040 and 1200-1355 BST, with selected highlights online afterwards. Annabel's quad races at 1231. Full highlights on Monday on BBC Two, 1400-1500 BST, and for seven days afterwards on iPlayer.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Great piece. Totally agree with Annabel's frustration: "I find it frustrating that there isn't a full complement of events for women - there are three for women, compared with 16 for men."
    - not only are there fewer events, but the women's events are open to 8 crews only - therefore most spots are automatically taken by international crews. The men's events are mostly for 16 crews, but 32 for the club level. While club women do have the opportunity to race at Henley Women's Regatta (and this is as competitive for clubs to qualify for as HRR - more so if you consider most events have max 16 rather than 32 places), it's not the same as being able to say "I've raced at Henley Royal!"

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree with MK01.
    It almost seems that the women's events are just in there for a bit of 'fun' and a spectacle. If they are going to offer women's event at HRR why not offer them in the same format as the mens. And if that's not to be the case - keep HRR for the men and Henley Women's for the women -or combine the two. Adding a couple of women's events at HRR with only 8 boats might mean the box has been ticked but I'm sure some will say its more of an insult!

  • Comment number 3.

    "There are so many people who are contributing to society far more than we are, yet we are held up as heroes. Let's keep perspective over what we do: it's not life or death, it's sport. It's incredibly exciting, passionate, and can dish out tremendous highs as well as crushing lows, but it's still just sport."
    ------
    As a counterpoint -- not a rebuttal or an argument, just another addition to the discussion -- a LOT of people draw inspiration (to undertake many endeavors COMPLETELY different from sport) from what you do, and the dedication and pain and commitment that you incredible athletes put yourselves through.

 

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