There are two types of pain you have to deal with as a rower, the relentless pain that strikes your body as you power down the course, and
the brutal, unforgiving pain that follows the loss of a race when everything you have been working towards comes to an abrupt end. At Henley Women’s Regatta (HWR) the Exeter women’s 8+ experienced both.
The girls arrived at Henley on Wednesday afternoon. Travelling up to the event a couple of days before allowed the crew to take in the scenery and become familiar with this famous stretch of the river Thames. The crew practiced starting from the stake boats, refined technique and watched in awe as elite crews passed completing their final preparations on the same stretch of water. After some relaxation time in the hotel and a crew meal at the local pub the girls were ready to race.
Mirror-like water conditions greeted the crew on Friday morning and temperatures were rising. The first race for Exeter was against Worcester Rowing Club at 17.40 so it was important to stay out of the sun and conserve energy throughout the day.
With just a few hours to go the girls found a shady spot under the boats to relax, and wait. At 17.00 it was hands on. Cox Dani Wall guided the boat to the launching pontoon and the Exeter crew looked very professional as they rowed past the hundreds of people lining the enclosure area. In the marshalling area there was more waiting, the afternoon sun was hot and the water was glistening as the girls gradually tapped up to the stake boat. Dani was in control throughout and kept the crew calm and relaxed as they attached the stake boat with ease. At 17.40 exactly the start umpire called ‘attention’ on the final crew race of the day. Drama unfolded from the first stroke, Exeter didn’t have their strongest start and within a few seconds Worcester were warned by the umpire for coming dangerously close to Exeter. Despite this cox Dani Wall remained in control and held her line. Off the start the crews were level, but as Exeter lengthened their strokes they began to edge ahead. 40 seconds into the race the Exeter crew relied on the power of their middle 4 rowers: Rebecca Kelly, Ellie Dodd, Susie Howells and Jane Stack, who had to push through the pain plagued in their legs to get the boat into a comfortable lead. Passing the enclosure area Exeter had a convincing lead and with the immense cheers from the bank this lead was only set to increase. The stern pair Kirsty Barker and Kerri-Ann Upham set up a strong, sustainable rhythm while the bow pair Lisa Cocks and Nadine Levin rowed with precision and finesse, drawing upon their years of experience to support the boat. Crossing the line the girls let out cheers of joy and relief, they had won the race and earned their place at this regatta. The final verdict was a win for Exeter Rowing Club by 3 lengths. Upon landing the girls were greeted with beaming smiles and words of congratulations from their coach Pete Cork and loyal supporter Nic Walker, when the crew lifted the boat onto their shoulders the national anthem began to play signalling the end of racing, the magic of Henley had inspired everyone.
Saturday was due to bring greater challenges as the girls were up against Thames Rowing Club. Thames is one of the biggest rowing clubs in the country, they entered 10 crews into this year’s HWR and the 8+ was one of their top crews. The Exeter girls had one race strategy; to get ahead off the start and hold onto this lead for as long as possible. Rowing up to the start the girls maintained their confidence and professionalism rowing like an experienced crew and not being phased by the other boats practicing around them. Once attached to the stake boat each crew member had their eyes fixated forwards with determination to make this race as uncomfortable as possible for Thames. Exeter Rowing Club had a fantastic start, the hours and frustrations of practicing had paid off as the first few strokes were powerful and precise. The expression on the Thames cox’s face changed from confidence to concern and panic, Thames were not expecting this. Passing Temple Island 250m into the race Exeter Rowing Club had a ¼ length lead. However as the race unfolded the experience and strength of the Thames crew shone through as they took the lead and edged further ahead. At the enclosure area Exeter were a length down and the Thames lead was increasing. Despite this the girls rowed their own race and chased after a good time. Crossing the line the girls were exhausted, they had given everything, heads bowed as the overwhelming pain of losing a race that you have invested so much time in preparing for set in. The final verdict was a win for Thames by 4 lengths, it was later announced that this was the fastest quarter final of the day by 23 seconds and that Exeter Rowing Club had recorded the 3rd fastest quarter final time.
The crew should be incredibly proud of themselves, they have shown what Exeter Rowing Club can do, to reach the quarter finals at Henley in a crew where over half of the rowers are novices is a fantastic achievement. The girls can take this experience and look into the future with confidence that they will be back next year stronger than ever.
On behalf of the whole crew I would like to say thank-you to all of our supporters that made the trip to Henley I hope you enjoyed your ride on the umpire’s launch, to Exeter Rowing Club itself for your words of encouragement and all the members that crowded around mobile phones to watch our race online – we were all touched to hear this! We would also like to thank Exeter University Boat Club for towing our boat, Southampton University Boat club for their support and cheers on the bank and for letting us set up camp in your tent. Then lastly but by no means least thanks to our coach Pete Cork who pushed us to our physical and technical limits and provided unconditional support throughout.