Off the Water Raw: Day Five

Aquil Abdullah

Aquil Abdullah is a previous winner of the Diamond Sculls and now a Henley Steward with a particular interest in the progress of the American teams. As a Henley veteran he shared his experiences and learnings with the Woodrow Wilson crew – a state-funded Washington DC school – as they began their Henley campaign earlier in the week.

Aquil Abdullah | © Martin Wackenier

How do you rate the international turn out at this year’s Henley Royal Regatta?

There’s definitely a strong number of entries from the US this year but the competition here at Henley is very fierce and match racing is a very different beast from the six-boats-across norm. 

Of course it’s not all about the top end of the sport, what's the pathway like from schools and unis, right up?

It’s definitely a tough path to get here, competing at Henley Royal Regatta. Some boats come through qualifiers, some are coming through seeded and prequalified from qualifying regattas, but every athlete and every entry that makes it here has proven their metal to be here. 

Why is Henley so important to schools and young people, right up to the top crews?

Henley is pretty important for many crews for two reasons: one - the social aspect, but two also the competition side. In the finals, in the semis, in the heats, whichever level you’re racing in, you can find high quality crews, so it’s always nice to say you’ve beaten one. 

How do this year's entries compare to previous years?

So this year's entries compared to previous are an unknown matter for me, I haven’t been here in 22 years! However with this year’s entries I’m particularly interested in how the US women do against some of the other brilliant international crews. General excitement from me. 

What’s it like for the US junior crews coming over here to race?

I think to be able to come to this regatta as a junior, and race against Olympians is huge. Some get to talk to them and get a sense of how they’ve got to where they are - I can’t even describe it in words. For me, when I came here, when I raced as a school boy it really gave me the motivation. 

And what does it mean to be here in your first year as a Steward, and to have your old school here too?

You know I spoke to the boys [Woodrow Wilson High School] before they raced and it was very exciting to see Woodrow Wilson here especially this year now that I’m a Steward, and I’ve told them to go out there and make their own history now. 

Delaney Gardener & Riley Harris

Back in the USA Florida state television news has been following the fortunes of their new rowing stars as Winter Park Crew have been progressing in the Prince Philip Challenge Cup for junior women’s eights. The American crew booked their place in Sunday’s final when they beat a local Henley eight. And we spoke to cox Delaney Gardener and Riley Harris from the 6 seat.

How significant is it that you’ve got a crew racing here at Henley Royal Regatta?

[Delaney] It’s crazy! We’ve remained undefeated all season and we’re hoping to keep it that way. Back in February we really started making some big moves and it’s incredible to be here, it’s still blowing my mind.

How long has it been in the plan to come over here?

[Riley] At the beginning of the season we did discuss the idea but it seemed like an almost distant dream, like we never really expected it to happen. But now that we’re here it’s absolutely incredible and I can’t believe that as a sophomore in high school I’ve had the opportunity to come over here and compete. 

Has it lived up to expectations? How’s it been so far?

[Riley] It’s truly exciting. I’ve never done the one-on-one style of racing and it’s much different than having multiple crews out there with you, so a lot to focus on!

And Delaney, how were the conditions out there? 

[Delaney] Conditions were definitely tough and originally a lot to contend with but I had complete trust in all eight of the girls in the boat and it was just important to stay cool, calm and collected and that’s exactly what they did.

As we look ahead to tomorrow, how are you feeling about the final?

[Delaney] We’re feeling good, it’s been a lot to persevere through, particularly with the conditions we’re facing but we’re feeling confident.

Prince Philip | Winter Park Crew | © Alistair Craigie

S Y Lyu

Three Chinese Tokyo Olympic gold medallists are racing in the Chinese women’s quadruple sculls at Henley. We spoke to one of them  – S Y Lyu – as she came ashore after winning their Princess Grace Challenge Cup semi against the Waiariki Club from New Zealand.

Princess Grace | Chinese National Rowing Team | © Alistair Craigie

How pleased are you with how today’s race went?

Today’s race was very aggressive, particularly at the beginning. In the middle of the race we began leading more and more and happy we continued right to the end.

How important is it to China as a team and for yourself to come to Henley?

Henley is a huge opportunity to learn more, not just about racing but about the rowing culture too and so it’s important to take that opportunity, push hard and do better.

Sarah Cook

Australian Sarah Cook is a former Olympian and World Champion and now a Henley Steward and commentator. She sees Henley through the lens of someone who was competing until 2012 where she made the final at the London Olympics. We spoke to her about the Australian contingent at Henley and the appeal of the Regatta to crews from the other side of the world.

How do you rate this year’s entry compared to previous?

It’s been an extraordinary caliber of entries this year. 739 crews entered and a huge international contingent coming off the back of three long years of Covid. So everyone is just excited to get back out here. We have a record number of entries from the United States with 66 crews and also from Australia with 37 crews. 

What is it about this event? Why do so many people come from far afield to race here?

There’s no event like Henley. It’s the only regatta where you see crews that are the best school crews, the best university crews, as well as the best Olympic and international crews. There’s no other regatta where you’re all out there on the same course throughout the week. And it’s a chance as well to see if you’re the very best; there’s no other better opportunity to find out whether you’re the best school crew for example, not just of your own country but internationally - it’s an entirely unique event, one where the best of the best get to test themselves.

What does that do to the atmosphere here at Henley Royal Regatta?

I think that’s great for the schools and junior crews to be able to come here to see what the pathway is like. All of it adds to the richness of Henley every year, plus the addition of the three women’s eights is so exciting for women’s rowing internationally, the caliber of those events so far has just been extraordinary. Obviously St Catherine’s (AUS) taking the win over Surbiton in the semi final was an absolute thrill for me. To see those girls from Melbourne competing on the world’s biggest stage is huge!

It’s a long way for the crews from particularly Australia and New Zealand, why do the crews love to come here?

I think it’s just one of those ‘bucket list’ things to do, not just in rowing but in sport generally. I say to people that know nothing about rowing ‘come to Henley’, it’s just one of those unique and extraordinary events. If you love sport you’ll love Henley, and even if you don’t, come and pop in for a Pimms and soak up the atmosphere! Some fantastic racing is just the cherry on top. And people want to be a part of the atmosphere and the history, 183 years this regatta has been going, who wouldn’t want to come here and be a part of it.

Sarah Cook