Off the Water Raw – Friday

Thomas George, Olympic bronze medallist, fresh from Tokyo in the men’s eights for Great Britain 

Laura – first things first, before we get the medal out, we’re back at Henley Royal Regatta. How is it?

Tom – it’s great to be here, I keep joking to people that nature is healing. I think that everyone who loves Henley knows how special it is in the rowing calendar, especially as a sport in what’s been a pretty terrible couple of years, it’s just great to be back. 

Laura – some of your Great British team mates are actually out competing, not for you though, I’m sure you’re enjoying a couple glasses of Pimms. How are you feeling post-Tokyo?

Tom – definitely a weird one, there’s a lot of emotions, and having been part of that Covid bubble adds to the intensity of the emotions. To be here now and to be able to enjoy it with friends that I haven’t been able to see for a while has been great. I feel an overwhelming sense of pride at the result when we went into Tokyo to win a medal. We went in maybe wanting more, but when you look at the way the week went, the ups and downs of it and the nature of sport in particular we’re very happy with how it went. 

Laura – you’ve got your medal here as well. For those who haven’t seen it, go and YouTube it – after the racing at Henley of course - it was the most stunning race.

Tom – it really was. Just so proud to be part of a race like that, everyone keeps saying to me ‘ah, what a race’, and straight afterwards you don’t really appreciate that, it’s really hard to take yourself outside the race and look back at it. But now the dust has settled I’m really proud to be part of it, you know we set the pace early and maybe we could have hung on in another race but credit to the Kiwis and Germans for fighting back. 

Laura – speaking of racing, we’ve got a hot afternoon of action on the water. Your brother is racing!  

Tom – yes in 9 minutes time. I’ve never really watched a boat that I’ve been invested in before, I’m normally just at home watching it on YouTube. I was up in the floating Grandstand yesterday, it was horrible. There were a few steering issues here and there, and for me I don’t mind if they lose in a really good race. If they hit the booms it’s going to be like ‘oh no!’, but that’s the kind of things that Henley throws up that’s just totally different to any other Regatta. So hopefully it will go well, they (TBC Racing, USA) are racing Oxford University so it’s going to be a really tight race. 

Laura – what do you think Henley means to people, especially for rowers, for athletes, for students it was a missed opportunity last year wasn’t it?

Tom – absolutely, particularly at school level, and people who might never row at Henley again, and they had that taken away from them last year. Obviously this year is a delayed Henley, and it’s been strange, so I think everyone’s just really pleased to be able to come here and compete. 

Harry Leask, Leander Club, Olympic Silver Medallist

Laura – returning to Henley, how does it feel?

Harry – it’s feels absolutely amazing. Obviously we didn’t have a lot of spectators in Tokyo, and this is one of the best atmospheres around so it’s great to be here. 

Laura – and you’ve got your medal as well. I love how all the Olympians have their medals, just in their pockets, ready to go!

Harry – yep and here it is, in all its glory. 

Laura – it’s incredible to see. Now you’ve had a few days to reflect and be reunited with your friends and family that couldn’t be with you back in Tokyo for the Men’s Quadruple Sculls Final, how do you feel now? 

Harry – I think it’s just great to be back with friends and family as you say. It’s a real shame they couldn’t be there to share in that moment with us, but being back here, especially at Regatta, they get to see us row. Albeit not quite the same crew but 3 of us are there. 

Laura – of course you are racing on Sunday in the Queen Mother Challenge Cup, so you’ve got to get back on the water and get your game face back on. How are you feeling about that? 

Harry – yeah, a bit nerve racking. It would be good to have had another race, it’s always nice not going straight into the final here at Henley as it’s a bit different and good to get a feel of it. But it’s going to be great to get out in that atmosphere and have another run down the track. 

Laura – speaking of atmosphere, Regatta has been away for two years, we’re back now, how does it feel?

Harry – it feels great to be back. It was absolutely dead last year, and it was such a shame when the news came through that there wasn’t going to be a Regatta as it’s one of our highlights of the year. 

Laura – yes for most rowers, it’s their favourite five days of the year

Harry – absolutely, I mean, the Olympics is great and a completely different kettle of fish but this is something that is really special. 

Dara Alizadeh, won against Simone Martini, Associazione Sportiva Dilettantistica Canottieri Padova, Italy, in the men’s singles Diamond Challenge Sculls 

Laura - Congratulations, a win in the Diamond single sculls. Talk me through the race, because it was so hard fought against Martini, you had to come back on him, didn’t you?

Dara – yes, so the start was ok, thought I got a good jump, and from that I think he got a hair ahead going into the quarter mile. I think we both had steering issues, we both got warned a couple of times and then he got a good jump at the barrier and he probably got half a length or so on me, and I thought I did a pretty good job of just holding on to him. Then come 1200 metres in he was getting warned back to his station and I took that as my chance to inch back a little bit. I took one last look across the Stewards’ and saw that we were still kind of level, down to the wire, and Italians are known for their sprints so I thought I better start making up some ground now. It was a really good race, and I was just lucky to come out on top. 

Laura – you talk it through like it was simple and easy. How tough was it? 

Dara – it was really tough. He’s a really good sculler, but I think I just had it in me today, but he made it really hard. 

Laura – and of course you represented Bermuda in Tokyo in the single sculls as well. Fresh from the Olympics and straight to Henley, how is the body, how is the mind?

Dara – yeah good, my mentality these past couple of weeks is just about having fun. Even including Tokyo, I only started sculling a couple of years ago and I just realised that when I’m having fun and not worried about the result and just focussed on the process, the result kind of takes care of itself. I was going to be happy just taking part in the race, even if he had pit me at the line I could probably live with that. 

Laura – and your expectation for the rest of the week, what’s your goal?

Dara – continue having fun. That moment I started worrying about the result and what’s going to happen, I remind myself the only thing I control is me. The singles is a head game, and you can make up a lot of ground in not a lot of time as long as you keep to your guns and not worry too much about what other people are doing, you’ll be all right. 

Graeme Thomas, Agecroft Rowing Club. Winner against George Bourne, The Tideway Sculler’s School, in the Diamond Challenge Cup

Laura – Graham fresh from Tokyo, and now you’re racing in the Diamond Challenge Sculls. 

Graeme – yes it was a great race. George, I know he is an up-and-coming star, it definitely was not going to be easy and I had heard a lot about his strength in the first 1000 metres. I had to use gears early on in that race just to wrestle control of it, trying to do a few little pushes and eke out a safety margin as we all know at Henley anything can happen. There were crabs yesterday and plenty of pleasure boats out there so you never know when a rogue wave’s going to come out of nowhere and make you lose a bit of time. 

Laura – of course, and you’re in a smaller boat as well. How were body and mind after Tokyo? You finished fourth in the double sculls . 

Graeme – I’m doing ok. When I saw Henley on the calendar, previously my rowing has been laser-focussed, especially with Covid restrictions. I’ve basically lived like a hermit for the last 18 months, and to get out there and just to put the fun back into rowing – see other crews, have a laugh out on the water, it’s been great. I’ve absolutely loved my mornings, just chatting to crews, seeing people on the bank. It’s bringing my love for the sport back, not that it was ever in doubt but an event like this is fantastic. It has so much prestige and heritage, it’s a great day out. When it moved I just thought, I’ve got to be part of that. 

Laura – fourth place is always very difficult. How are the emotions now looking back a couple of weeks on?

Graeme – yeah there’s always a level of frustration, we were very much in that medal zone, 0.1s off a medal at the Lucerne World Cup, a bronze at Europeans. John and I really did feel we could go there and come away with something, but what we did just wasn’t good enough compared to the three crews ahead of us. There’s going to be some head scratching and thinking how in the next 3 years we can make ground again from the nations that have stepped away from us but overall, it’s my first Olympics and 12 years in the making for me, I have to take something away from that. 

Laura – absolutely, and you mentioned this has put the fun back into rowing for you. The aim though, as you’re still a competitor, is the win for Sunday? 

Graeme – yes, the Diamonds is something that has eluded me. Peter Lambert, my colleague and friend in the quadruple sculls beat me in that final in 2012, so it’s one that’s always slipped away from me and I’m coming here to win. But I’m also on the back of a massive peak, and I went back to my club in Agecroft last week, and it was great to see some old faces, speak to some juniors and inspire them a bit and give something back. 

Laura – yes it’s all about giving something back, and Agecroft of course had that really unfortunate incident yesterday, they got disqualified in that eight – how is that club feeling?

Graeme – it’s a very positive club, really starting to build something. They’ve actually got a big youth initiative coming in on the 12th September to try and get more of the local kids in. It’s a great club to be part of and I’m proud to have rowed for Agecroft. 

Will Ferguson, Captain of the boats for Eton College, Winners of the race against Eton College in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup

Laura – you’ve just beaten King’s College School, Wimbledon in the Princess Elizabeth, tell me about the race.

Will – well it’s an earlier start than we’re used to, which took a bit of adaptation on our part. They were hotter off the blocks than we had anticipated, and it took us a few strokes for us to get back into the race. But we handled that transition well, and once we were up and going, we managed it strongly and comfortably. It’s a confidence boost for whoever we come up against tomorrow. 

Laura – how have you adapted to the earlier morning racing time? 

Will – this whole season, whenever we’ve had tough conditions we’ve been able to use it to our advantage. Whatever that’s been, from weather and illness to whatever is chucked our way. It was an early morning, but we were able to crack through it, and use it as a stimulus, a boost and as something to push hard against.  

Laura – a word on conditions as well, we have had a head breeze through this Regatta and looks like it’s here to stay. How was it out there?

Will – lumpier than we thought, but we’re a group of big guys, we like a headwind, something to push against so it suited us down to the ground. 

Laura – let’s talk Princess Elizabeth contenders. So, St Paul’s School and St Joseph’s Preparatory School, USA, will be racing today – you could be facing one of the two crews this weekend, what do you make of your opposition in such a competitive field?

Will – we are excited to meet them, all season we’ve logged our clashes. We’ve had quite a few fixes with the big guys this year, against Oxford Brookes, against Molesey, and our lads have been so up for it, loved it, and we hope it’s the same with the fellas from America, and our usual enemies, St Paul’s from London. 

Laura – love a St Pauls - Eton clash. Word on Regatta and how much it means to you to be back, especially with it being missed last year?

Will – it definitely has been for everyone, big year for us, emotionally charged. This time last year I was doing a HRR on the erg at home, and it almost killed me, seriously! I found out it gave me a bleed on the brain, a brain tumour, and thank God I’m back here with my brother in the same boat. Henley has been the post on the horizon that’s got us through, and now we’re here we are determined to make the most of it. 

Laura – Oh my goodness, let’s revisit that. So you were at home, doing some simulation rowing on the ergo, and then you suffered a bleed on the brain?

Will – yep a bleed on the brain, I took myself to hospital, turned out it was a brain tumour. I spent the earlier part of this year with my younger brother in Manchester having radiotherapy, getting back on the ergo, monitoring the heart rate and getting me back into shape. So Henley really has been the pillar on the horizon that we’ve worked for and it’s a dream to be here. Every race is a gift, we’re excited and looking forward to the rest of the week. 

Laura – that’s an astonishing story, and it must mean so much more to you that your brother is in the boat with you. 

Will – yes, he was the one who really got me back on the road, got me back into fitness and I’m glad. It means more than just the racing, a year and a Regatta I won’t forget.