As a fifth former, I was the youngest person in the crew. It wasn’t my first experience in the 1st 8, or at Henley, as I was in the 1st 8 earlier in the year but got really ill, so I couldn’t train. I also went to Henley in the second 8 last year (as a 4th former) to try and qualify for Henley, unfortunately we lost out to some better university crews. Thankfully though, I had another 3 years of going to Henley and last year (although it was a great experience) wasn’t the real Henley, it wasn’t the real deal of racing side-by-side against crews from all around the world.
When Todd asked me if I wanted to row in the boat for Henley this year, I had very mixed feelings. Obviously nervousness was the predominant feeling but I did feel slightly guilty for Judah Rand, of whom I had taken his seat. A sense of confusion overwhelmed me as Todd subbed me in 2 weeks before Henley, but anyhow, Todd was the coach and I respected every one of his decisions…I also had to give up some of my half-term to train. Although Henley was 2 weeks away, it went very quickly.
Monday 25th June
2 days to go
By the time we got to Henley I felt the crew had accepted me as one of their own - I wasn’t their ‘toad’ or the ‘fifth former that did everything for them - a word beginning with ‘B’ and ending with ‘itch’ probably wasn’t the best way of describing my contribution to the crew. After all, I did know them all vaguely well after our tour to America in the Easter and after the 2 weeks training. There were also 4 Riggites in the crew! After a week which sped by, Monday seemed to go really slowly. I’m not sure if it was because I was nervous about the race against Monmouth on Wednesday, or because I was thinking about how badly our 500 metre piece went in the morning. Our start was slow and we really needed to sort it out. Fortunately, we had a chance to correct things in the afternoon and we felt a lot more confident by the end of the day. Some of Paul’s friends very kindly agreed to host the entire crew in their house! They also cooked breakfast for us every morning. You can imagine how many pieces of toast were eaten!
After a hard day’s rowing, we watched Due Date and went to bed. We all slept in the same room, in a barn; unfortunately all the decent beds had been shotgunned by the time I reached the room, so I had to sleep on the camp-bed on the floor, but I didn’t mind - it was comfier than some of the other beds. As I crawled into bed, it occurred to me, we will be in the faster lane (depending on the rise of the river and indirectly the rain). This seemed very promising as the chances of having such a lucky draw was 1/36! I assured myself that the crew wouldn’t mind if I did a little rain dance to further increase our advantage…
Tuesday 26th June
1 day to go
Fortunately, we were doing a ‘swing and pop’ outing, which in simple terms, means an easy paddle the day before a race. I was knackered so I had a snooze after lunch, after which I felt equally as tired! I hadn’t really thought about tomorrow’s race since yesterday. I was trying to keep the nerves at bay. Although I had discovered that Hampton had to sleep on mattresses in the church hall, which made me appreciate my bed on the floor a bit more!
By the afternoon, I had stocked up on raisins (apparently they’re a good food to eat before a race) and I was buzzing for the race tomorrow against Monmouth. As we weren’t a selected crew, the stewards wouldn’t have been surprised if we lost to Monmouth, but we would be, so the pressure had mounted. Monmouth got a significantly better time than us at National Schools and they came second in their division; we didn’t get to the final in ours. As we were driving to supper through the rain (thanks to my rain dance!) Rupert Chitty, who sits at 7 seat, joked about losing to Monmouth and how embarrassing it would be, everybody in the bus laughed...I just twiddled my thumbs.
Wednesday 27th June
I woke abruptly, after dreaming that our boat sank while we raced Monmouth. Debbie Poston made us a cooked breakfast and wished us luck. We left calmly and quietly. The bus on the way to the course was silent. It was so silent that I could even hear Paul’s heavy, nervous breathing. So I plugged in my headphones, not knowing how to prepare and listened to Jack Johnson sing his reggae/country tunes. I hoped it would calm my nerves. Sipping water helped. I thought to myself, I am about to race in the most prestigious, well-known regatta in the world and I had plans to do well.
When we arrived at the boat tent, we all sat down inside to rest, unsure of the outcome of the race. It was cloudy but not too cold; perfect weather for rowing in. The river had risen as well, so our advantage had been extended. Some 40 minutes later, we had had our final loo break and gathered by the boathouse. Todd came to greet us, he smelled distinctly of coffee and stress, although I didn’t know he liked coffee. He called us in a group and looked at each and every one of us and said ‘Guys, you need to row hard.’ Those words will stay with me for a while. There were loads of people I recognised waiting to see us boat, loads of teachers, parents and friends had gathered and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I knew my parents were among the crowd somewhere but I didn’t dare think about them. Eventually Todd told us to boat…
This was it, my first race at Henley and I was ridiculously nervous. Most of the crew reassured me. I caught site of Sophie Walker (our cox) who looked like she was shaking; it was her first race at Henley but she knew the course pretty well as we had been training there for the past few days. Some good lucks were dished by some people as we boated. Most of the crew just ignored them, as if they weren’t there. I tried to do the same.
The wait at the start was gruelling. We had had our warm-up and were ready to race. Eventually a massive crew pulled up next to us and unfortunately, it said ‘Monmouth’ on their boat’ ‘Size means nothing,’ I kept telling myself, but deep down I knew it helped. Sophie called ‘heads in’ in a shaky voice. Handshakes were exchanged down the boat and we sat ready. All the nerves had gone, I was ready to race and get a victory under my belt. There were loads of people at the start, glaring at us or casually glancing at their Henley programme. The umpire rolled up behind us and called, ‘sit ready please.’ This was it.
Monmouth had a fast start, they pulled away to about half a length by the 500 mark, then they slowly died, one by one, we broke each of their crew member until we were a length up by the 1000m mark. We held them up until the stewards enclosure where, what seemed like hundreds of voices, were yelling ‘come on Shrewsbury.’ I couldn’t hear any Monmouth cheerers, I just assumed they were hiding their heads behind their programmes or shuffling back to the Pimms bar. We had won by a length. I just fell backwards on Max Kimpton-Smith’s feet, and which he urged me to sit up. A paramedic in one of the boats asked me to sit up as well. Apparently lying down can make you become unconscious. I guess I should have known that before all my other races! There were cheers as we boated and our stroke (Sam Lapage) turned round and said something like ‘that’s how we race.’ – (I can really remember what he said). Keith was there to greet us at the pontoons and dragged our boat in. He congratulated us and everybody cheered as we got the boat out. I knew we had done OK by then. After we had put the boat away, we went to shake Monmouth’s hands - it was hard to believe we had beaten such a big crew. Our crew went to see the parents and teachers, I just went to sit for a while in the bay and stare into space.
I later learned that my dad was in the umpire’s boat behind us watching the race. Thank God I didn’t know that before the race. I spent the rest of the day sleeping, paddling or absent-mindedly wandering the boat tents. I didn’t want to think about tomorrow’s race.
Thursday 28th June
It was sunny today. Our race was at 4:05, which meant we had to spend the day focusing on the race and getting increasingly more nervous as the minutes when by. At 2:00 we went to sit by ‘the big tree’ and chill. We just sat and sipped water. We were racing Ridley College from Canada, they were Canadian National champions. I remember thinking to myself, ‘we can’t lose to a crew that aren’t even real Americans.’ I was definitely more prepared for this race, as I knew how it all worked. As we boated and were putting our blades in, Todd came round to me and patted me on the back, ‘Will’, he said, ‘row like a maniac!’
I can’t remember going up to the start but I do remember that every time the umpire started to say something, Sophie kept getting straight and making the umpire restart what he was saying; this did make me chuckle to myself. It was also unintentionally annoying Ridley who were losing their focus. Finally Sophie was straight and the umpire started us. They took the best part of a length of us at the start, but we hadn’t done our glide yet; it ripped seats off of them, Sophie was yelling at us to push harder. By the 500m mark, we had half the crew, Sophie called a ten and we gained more seats, ‘I have their 5 seat, give me their 4 seat! I have their 4 seat, I have their 3 seat, 2 seat, I’ve got their bow!’ Sophie screamed at us. We just kept gaining seats and eventually seats turned into lengths. With 500 to go, I saw them make a push and I panicked slightly, but Sophie was on the ball and pulled a ten to push off them again. We won by 2 and a quarter lengths.
The Ridley guys were actually really good lads; they wished us good luck against Radley tomorrow. Their coach also came to shake our hands. As I went to see Todd, he called it a near-perfect race and I was pleased. Phil (Lapage) told me ‘we made a selected crew look like novices’. The stewards must have been surprised after we beat them, because we weren’t selected; we were theoretically supposed to lose; we were the underdogs. Random people (supposedly from Shrewsbury) came to shake my hand and congratulate me, which I appreciated, but it was a bit weird. We paddled at 8:00pm and there weren’t any boats out; which made for a really serene outing. When we got in, ready to go to supper, Todd had hit his head on one of the boats but he seemed more concerned about the boat than about his bleeding head. Natalie rushed him off to hospital.
Friday 29th June
Radley. Arch enemies since the Jurassic period. We had drawn against them on the Friday 3 years in a row now. In 2010, we lost and in 2011 we won. So this was the decider, it was all up for grabs here. I had never seen such a big crowd of people; Old Salopians came over to greet us and wish us good luck, they also all commented on the disgusting school food at Henley. There weren’t as many boats in the tent, many crews had already been sent home.
I made a prayer before the race, unfortunately, it was to no use. Radley beat us by 2 lengths; they were simply the better crew. Their start was faster than ours, their finish was faster than ours. Although we rowed a good race, they still beat us. The problem is, they always seem to peak at Henley. They beat us at the Nationals by 0.01 seconds. So we really thought we could beat them.
Saturday 30th June
We had learned yesterday that Todd believed if we beat Radley, we could have won. I trusted Todd’s decision. I believed every crew member did what they had to, but it wasn’t enough to beat Radley. We went home empty handed. I tried not to get too caught up in the boats’ emotions as they were all mainly upset because that was the last time they’d ever row as a crew again. 6 crew members are leaving school. I’m staying, so is Harry Lonergan and Max Kimpton-Smith. We had a barbeque in the evening with our hosts and said goodbye to Todd. Some parents came for a jolly evening of drink.
Sunday 1st July
As a new month, it was like a new start was ready for me next year. After all, I still had another 2 shots at achieving the esteemed Henley title. I spent most of Sunday in my pyjamas, glad to be home. We had spent 3 weeks training for Henley, so I think I needed a day just to do nothing. As a wise man once said; ‘There’s always a tomorrow.’ I’m looking forward to next year…