Off the Water Raw: Day One

Sir Steve Redgrave

As the new-look six-day Henley Royal Regatta got underway at 0930 on Tuesday with the first of 393 head-to-head races we spoke to Sir Steve Redgrave – Chairman of the Committee of Management of Henley Royal Regatta about his feelings on this novel first day.

How pleased are you with this year’s number of entrants?

Very pleased. The first year of going to six days… fantastic entries from across the world, biggest overseas entry, biggest domestic entry and high quality crews as well.

Tell us about some of the stars or some of the races we should be looking out for this week?

Overall we’ve got 12 athletes who won Gold medals at the Toyko Olympics last year, I don’t know how many medalists and world champions or Olympic team members. Plus previous world champions right down to previous winners of last year’s Henley, as well as returning winners from 2019, high quality, good domestic entries.

Talk me through the decision to make it Henley a six-day event

The decision was from my point of view: we have so many volunteers, the event couldn’t happen without volunteers, and traditionally, when the weather’s nice it’s  case of racing from 8am to 8pm and I want to be able to give the volunteers a little bit more time, less of the early starts and of course to get a bumper entry, a high quality entry.

Given the last two years, how does the atmosphere feel?

For one it doesn't feel like a Tuesday, it feels like a Wednesday or Thursday. It’s just great to be back. It’s been tough for everyone over the past two years, especially for some of the clubs and schools, but with the 64 Stewards, a lot of heart and passion goes into the regatta so we were very disappointed to not get to race in 2020. To be back bigger and better than 2019 is great and we’ve broken most records on everything and hopefully hit financial records too.

Given it’s the start of a post Covid era, what are the big targets for the event in the next five years?

Since I’ve been Chair we’ve already changed so much.  We’ve introduced broadcasting, which the previous Chair initiated but it was under my Chairmanship in my first regatta that we were able to bring that in and that’s made a huge amount of difference and what it’s done has publicised the event. Everyone has heard of Henley, now they can see it. Rowing doesn't normally get lots of spectators but the atmosphere at Henley is so amazing and they’re seeing that and thinking ‘I want to row now!’. It’s great to see the rowing community love it as much as we do.

With all your achievements how do you describe winning at Henley? How does it feel?

Rowing is difficult to get an atmosphere from start to finish, but this is the closest you’ll get to racing in a stadium. 

Aquil Abdullah

Henley Stewards are guardians of the event. Supported by an army of volunteers they deliver the complex regatta each year and shape the future. Last December three new Stewards were appointed and Aquil Abdullah, an alumni of Woodrow Wilson High School, USA, joined the august group. And on Day 1 he was on hand to see his old school compete out on the River Thames.

How was it seeing your old school compete here for the first time? 

After the coaches had given their speeches, I sort of whispered to them to “make your own history.” As an alumni of the school it was very exciting to see them race and win here for the first time. It was thrilling that they were here in the crucible of Henley and handled the nerves with such grace.

Have you been talking to them about Henley?

It meant a lot to me to be able to be a part of it. Leading up to the Regatta I’ve been passing on how excited I am they’ll be part of it. I thought it was important. And it’s great to see them write their own legacy. 

Has there been talk at Woodrow for a while about sending a team for the first time?

I think they’ve had strong showing over the last five years and then everything aligned this year. 

What are your memories of rowing here?

I first came in ‘99 and broke my foot stretcher in my second race - my opponent graciously allowed a re-row and then I broke it again! But I came back in 2000 and won (The Diamond Challenge Sculls, Men’s Single Sculls). 

Tomas Foxley & Bronwen Holmes

Abullah knows what it’s like to compete in the cauldron of Henley. And having briefed his Woodrow Wilson team he was on hand to meet them as they came ashore having won their opening race. We spoke to Tomas Foxley (aged 17) who has been rowing for four years and rowing his first Henley, and also Bronwen Holmes (aged 16) who has been a cox for 18 months.

So this is your first time at Henley, what are your first impressions?

(BH) I was terrified.

(TF) Very nerve wracking.The crowd is definitely bigger, the crowds are on the line the whole way down the course, yelling at you off the sides. The wind is just crazy but we like this, we’re probably more acclimatised than those that row on smaller rivers. I felt we had an OK start, but we were able to settle in well but yeah the wind was a strong factor.

So you as a crew have been described as the fastest school crew to come out of the greater Washington area, how do you feel about that?

(TF) We definitely feel strong, I don’t know so much about the strongest ever from the area…

(BH) …might be a bit of a stretch.

(TF) We personally haven’t said that about ourselves, but we like to stay very humble, although others may like to blow our trumpet. But we have come to race.

Any names you’re looking at? Anyone you’ve got your eye on?

(TF) Fingers crossed that if tomorrow goes well, then King’s College will be a tough competitor on Friday, then from there on out it’s about bringing the ‘A’ game, 110%.

(BH) No matter who we’re racing we’ll give 110%.

(TF) It’s not about whether their name is bolded [meaning crew is seeded], we don’t know what will happen, anything can happen.

(BH) We’ve personally gone from behind, then in the last 250m gone to a length win so we know that anything can happen in the last stretch in the race so we expect that from other crews and from ourselves.

Have you done a lot of head-to-head, with the crowds?

(TF) Well we were at Reading Regatta to get a little bit of a taste for it, and we came in second there in the schoolboy category.

So a doubly new thing then, Henley and the racing channel 

(BH) No, I’ve never steered a course like this before!

(TF) It’s much wider than it looks on camera!

(BH) I was nervous at the start, then when the race got into it I settled into it and I wasn’t focused on the team next to us.

Mark Kakoma

Another newcomer was Mark Kakoma, from Zambia who is on a scholarship at Radley College. He was part of the first Radley College second eight to race in the Regatta in 18 years and it was no shame to be knocked out of the The Temple Challenge Cup (Student Men’s Eight) by University of London ‘A’ one of the favourites. 

How has it felt being here for your first race?

It’s been absolutely amazing, it’s the stuff of dreams if you ask me. First of all, coming into qualifiers on Friday was pretty nerve wracking for us cos we knew we had some good times coming into qualifiers but the conditions were variable and we wanted to give it our best shot. I was very pleased with how we did, qualifying. It was very difficult, there were other universities and schools that didn’t make it through and then coming into the actual race is really phenomenal. To be really honest we knew we weren’t going to win going up against a crew like UL who are stellar, one of the fastest university crews in the country. But coming up against them is a great opportunity to see how we do against really top end crews and I was really happy with how we performed, considering the conditions. There was a pretty strong headwind and some very strong gusts and UL were pulling away from us quite a bit in the first part but we are really happy with how we stuck on and just kept the rhythm going.

What about the head-to-head racing style - is there something about doing it here, with the crowd?

I can say I felt a bit of the crowd at Nat Schools but obviously not as intense as here. The side-by-side is very intense and it’s thrilling to see how you do 1-on-1 against a crew; there’s a lot of  mindgames you end up playing on yourself (laughs) but it’s phenomenal and something really special. As a crew we knew we were good, we’re the first ‘2nd 8+’ (from Radley) to come to Henley in 18 years but to hear the crowd is something incredible. 

How long have you been at Radley?

1 year - I joined last September in 6th form.

Where did you learn to row?

I learnt to row at home in Zambia, Trident College (north western part of Zambia). 

So how long will you be over training with Radley?

I’m on a scholarship until I finish - 1 more year - but unfortunately I can’t row at Henley next year because I’ll be turning 19.