Saturday’s Races at Reading

Today we went over to Reading for the Reading Town regatta, the last tune up for the Henley Royal Regatta.  Two weeks ago, we began our trip at Reading, but that was about a mile upstream of where we raced today.  Today’s races were staged in a big field that had been empty two days ago.  But a mini regatta village sprung up quickly.  Every regatta needs to have a few marquees – a fancy word for a tent that you do not sleep in – including one that becomes an Enclosure (i.e. members and swells only), a large dining area, and various ones for officials and announcers.  Add in all of the pop-up ones that each school has and you’ve got a real village along the banks of the Thames.

Before 1966, the Reading Town Regatta was known as The Reading Working Men’s Regatta.  You will remember from an earlier email that I talked about the significance of the British “Amateur” regattas.  (Yes, there will be a quiz on all of this at a later date.)  Well, this regatta today was the half-brother of the Reading Amateur Regatta.  From the program notes of today’s regatta:
The Reading Working Men’s Regatta was established in 1877 and received Royal Patronage in 1896.  At the turn of the century the town enjoyed a half-holiday to celebrate the Regatta and Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory, the town’s largest employer at the time, closed for the day.  The Palmer family continued as benefactors of the Regatta until recent times.  The present title of the event was adopted in 1966, differentiation between professional and clerical occupations and manual workers no longer having any relevance, although rowing was one of the last sports to eliminate such segregation in Britain.

The Town Regatta is not quite as elegant as the Reading Amateur, and it is on the outskirts of the city, not smack in the middle.  But for a small-time operation, it is remarkably well-organized and well-run.  It is only 800 meters long, which is very short, but it does serve to let everyone practice the first part of their race.  Today it did not have stake boats at the start to hold the sterns of the boats, so it was not always dead even at the start, but given the near-flood conditions that have been ever present, thing s worked quite well.

This would be the last race for three of Groton’s teams.  The girls quad and boys four would be done after today.  And Sarah Black, our spare for the quad, would have her first and only race.  Sarah rowed in the girls four in the first two regattas.  But because the HRR does not have a fours event for girls, the rest of her boat left for home on Monday.  Sarah stayed and began to row a single scull, something that she had done a bit of last fall on the Nashua.  But getting into a racing single here on the flooded Thames was baptism by fire.  The first few days she worked on making sure that she was balanced and that she could steer and stay out of the way of the bigger boats (everyone else).  But each practice (did I mention that the Brits call a practice “an outing”?) she gained some confidence.  By Wednesday she was doing full power.  Thursday she did some 1000 meter pieces, and Friday some 500’s and racing starts.  That’s a very quick introduction to sculling.  But she was able to row at a 32 – about what she would need to be competitive – and she looked as good as a novice can.  She was entered into the Novice Women’s single.

Sarah had a 9:39 race, so the girls and I rose at 8:00 and zipped out to the course.  She launched her single into pretty good conditions.  There was a head wind and there was a strong current to row against, but nothing like Friday.  This was real racing, not survival.  The 800 meter course allows a spectator to see almost the whole race, although it is always hard to read angles and margins from a great distance.  But as Sarah came into view, she looked good and was sculling smoothly.  It became clear, unfortunately, that there was one girl ahead of her and one behind.  The girl from Sir William Borlase School was ahead, rowing with just a little more confidence than Sarah.  Sarah crossed the line in second place.  It was a fine result for her first race.

It is a surprise to Americans that the English do not give out second place medals or even record the times of anyone except the winner.  I had always thought that Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights had invented the slogan “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”  But it appears that the Brits beat him to it.

Next up, in their last race together – and as Allie reminded us, her last in a Groton uni – was our girls quad.  On the starting line was the Australian school quad that we have gotten to know a bit, Watford Anglican School.  There was also a quad that was half Australian and half Maidenhead Rowing Club.  The girls were hoping that they might beat the Australians – who did qualify for HRR – but it was not to be.  The 800 meter race wasn’t long enough for us to find a rhythm that could move back on Watford’s blazing and well-practiced start.  We rowed the race pretty well, but couldn’t make up the ground we lost at the start.  At the end, we were 1 ¼ length behind Watford and 2 lengths ahead of the Combination boat.

Although it was our last race of the season, it wasn’t a climactic race, so there weren’t tears or great disappointment.  It reminded me a bit of major league baseball.  They play 162 games in a season and there is no one who will ever be close to undefeated.  You can’t get too emotional when you lose a game when you play so many.  We never have anywhere near that many races, of course.  By my count, our first two boats had a record of 7-0 beating 38 boats in 2012.  The third and fourth were also undefeated.  In England, we went 8-3 in the first weekend, 2-2 at Henley Women’s, and 1-1 at this second Reading regatta.

The boys four is a boat that to my eye has improved with each week.  At Reading this weekend they raced hard several times and although they are getting closer to their nemesis Belmont Hill, they came away without medals.  Their first race with Belmont Hill and Brunswick School was a barn burner.  Belmont got out to a slight lead and then Groton began to move back.  As the boats came into the finish line area, Groton was moving like crazy, but ended up a “Canvas” short.  Had there been three more strokes in the race, I think that we would have had them.  That was the closest that we’ve come to them over here.  The boys raced furiously and looked like a strong crew.

They had one more event to row, the Intermediate 2.  In the semifinals, Belmont lost to Durham University by the “Easily” verdict, a huge margin in a short race.  We had a bye into the final with Durham and Balliol College, Oxford.  Our guys knew that the Durham boat had walked all over Belmont Hill and they were determined not to let that happen to them.  We fought very well and stayed right in the race with the northerners.  At the end, it was a loss of 2 lengths, but that’s at least 3 better than Belmont Hill had done.  Our guys went to meet and congratulate their older opponents and came back saying, “They are huge.”  It shouldn’t ever be an embarrassment to lose to a good crew, especially if they are older and stronger.  Our four ended their racing on an up note.  I think that we were all sorry that they would not be bringing medals home, but they really learned to race and to row hard.  I was proud of them.

The big news of the day was that the boys 8 had a break-through race against Belmont Hill and Tabor.  These two boats, both of whom will be strong competitors here at Henley, lined up against us and off we all went.  Groton, on the inside, had a quick and effective start and rowed very aggressively, seizing the lead.  As they came into the final meters, not only were we holding the lead, but we were moving away.  At the end we were half a length up on Belmont and 2/3 on Tabor.  It was thrilling.  Belmont Hill has for many years now been the gold standard in our NEIRA league, and we all knew that beating them meant a lot.  The boys had finally broken through and showed that with a very aggressive race, with laying it all out, we could do it.  It’s no exaggeration to say that it was the most thrilling race of the year.

In the finals of the Intermediate 1 an hour later, we showed that it hadn’t been a once-in-a-season event.  Against Gonzaga H.S. from Washington D.C., a very fine crew that has won a bunch of big races in the States, and Potomac Boat Club, a good club of post-college men, we rowed with just as much fury and speed as we had in the first race.  It was a near-carbon copy although the margin at the end over Gonzaga was a mere 3 feet.  Potomac was a half- length back.  The boys were ecstatic, as they should have been.  They beat some fine crews by rowing and racing well.

We had one more race, and whether it was tiredness or a bad race, I’m not sure, but we lost the Junior 8 to Brunswick and Pangbourne.  Although that was a bit sobering, we had already had our high points.

I’m dashing to finish this because in an hour or so we have our first race at Henley against the Reading Blue Coat School (see an earlier email for details about them.)  I’ll pick up after that race, but I wanted to get this off before then.  There is great tension and intensity surrounding these races, and we need to row well to get the Henley racing started.

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Henley Women’s Regatta and Marlow Regatta at Dorney Lake, June 19, 2012

It is always harder to write about races that disappoint than those that finish well.  It’s taken me a couple of days to get over the disappointments from this past weekend and to feel like I want to write about the races.  I will let you know about those races at the Henley Women’s Regatta when the girls’ undefeated streak of a year came to an end, but let me begin this recap with the good news that played out for our boys.

The boys spent the past week building upon their racing at Reading last week and worked hard to begin feeling like a racing eight and a racing four.  Rowing an eight is quite different than rowing a coxed four.  The difference over 1500 meters is about 40 seconds.  What that translates to per stroke is that every stroke (of an approximately 150 stroke race), the eight goes about 30% faster than the four.  Think about how a 30% difference plays out in other sports.  If you were a baseball player used to facing an 85 mph fastball, now you would be looking at a pitch coming at you at 110 mph.  Even major leaguers find that kind of difference extremely intimidating.  Rowing a boat doesn’t demand the same skill set as hitting a fastball, of course, but you get the idea.  It takes a while to be able to figure out how to get your power on, to be able to be as effective as you were in a four.  And when you add in the complications of synchronizing eight people instead of four, you see that it does really take a lot of work to make this happen.

So, the weekend’s racing at Dorney Lake, the site of the Olympic rowing events in a little over a month, was highly anticipated for the boys.  First up was the boys four with cox, a boat made of oarsmen from boats 2, 3, and 4.  They were in an Intermediate 2 event.  In their qualifying heat, they had only to finish first or second of three to make it to the finals.  Coach timpani told them to be cagey and row hard but not to go flat out.  They rowed a smart race and finished second to ASR Nereus, a university club from Holland that often comes over to Henley.  Nereus have very cool racing shirts.  They are white with about six quarter inch maroon vertical stripes on the sleeves.  The tradition is that when you make a racing boat, you are given your stripes which you have to sew on by yourself.  They are somewhat irregular looking, depending on each person’s skill with a needle and thread, but tradition dictates that you must do it yourself.  (Our rowers relied on mothers, most notably Mrs. Harwood, Ms. Haberkorn, Ray Dunn’s mom, and Lorayne Black to sew on our blazer patches.  Thanks to all of them.)  To be close to Nereus speaks good things about how our four has come together.

In the finals, a few hours later, the four was told to run with the pack of boats, not to get out in front, not to fall behind.  Steve told them this because there was a cross wind blowing strong and he didn’t want them out in it all by themselves, getting more buffeting than their competitors.  That struck me as very good thinking, although that kind of racing is tough to do when you are young and not very experienced as a boat rowing together.   But Steve reports that Will Anderson, the cox, (and my son, I say proudly) did a very good job of holding them back and staying in the pack.  Then, at the right moment, just after the midway point of the 2000 meter course,, they sprinted for the finish line.  It almost worked to perfection, but with a few final strokes at the end, Reading Rowing Club moved past our guys and took the race by 1.3 seconds.  They were very disappointed, but they had rowed a very fine race, beating Nereus by 12 seconds.  They also beat crews from Christ Church, Oxford, and Wallingford Rowing Club.  It was a very good showing.  A week ago they had lost to Reading by a length.  In this race that was down to about a third of a length.  Things are coming along.

The boys eight was looking forward to racing, especially since a number of American high school crews have now arrived at Henley, and we would have a chance to match up with them.  But it was not to be.  A long day of waiting around for a 1:30 race ended poorly.  In order to catch up on the schedule, which was significantly delayed because of the high winds (more about that later), the Race Committee cancelled the Intermediate 3 eights event.  29 boats, many of them from foreign countries, were told “Sorry, your event will not be run.”  Almost every trip, athletic or otherwise, has its low moments.  This was certainly the Death Valley for the boys.  Coach Madden told me that after putting up with a week of rainy, cold weather, some minor illnesses, and all of the normal things that can go wrong, on Saturday night it felt like, “What are we over here for.”

But the sun always comes out the next day, right?  It certainly did for the boys 8.  On Sunday, the boys returned to Dorney to race in the Intermediate 2’s.  The Sunday races were only a thousand meters, and because their race was scheduled for 8:10 am with the finals at 9:20, it was a pretty good bet that there would be racing.

A word about Dorney Lake.  It was built by Eton College (the famous high school) on a tract of land that the school owned not far from campus, maybe two or three miles as the crow flies.  It took about ten years to excavate what, in effect, is a large swimming pool of eight lanes + another four lanes separated by an island.  (The smaller course is for warming up and cooling down, so that the racing lanes are never impeded by that necessary traffic. )  The cost to Eton to build a world-class course?  The price tag I’ve seen was at a cost of £17 million, but Eton was smart.  It was paid for, apparently, by selling the excavated soil, gravel, and stone.  It took almost ten years to complete, but when it opened six years ago, it was to great acclaim and contained those magic words for school administrators and trustees “Cost Neutral.”  Wouldn’t it be great to do something like this in West Groton?

I’ve been told that it is possible for a person to walk the full length of Britain, from Land’s End to John o’Groats, on land that is owned by Cambridge University.  That’s 1200 miles.  Eton is not in that league, but they, too, have incredible resources.

The boys won their heat in the Intermediate 3’s in a time of 3:01.  They beat Upper Latymer School, a school in London where former Parents committee member and father of three Groton grads, Jeremy Silverman, went to school.  They also beat a University College, Dublin, boat, a Brunswick School (Greenwich, CT) boat and a Twickenham Rowing Club entry.  I arrived that Sunday morning just in time to see them race the finals.  I was accompanied by Groton’s Director of Development, and tireless rowing supporter, John MacEachern, and the even-more tireless parent, Phipps Hoffstot.  We watched as our boys rocketed off the line, moved out to a lead and then held on for a 1.8 second win over Latymer again.  They won this time by 2.2 seconds, a bigger margin.  But their splits indicated that we slowed down by five seconds in the second five hundred.  It’s virtually impossible for a school crew to row even splits, which is the most economical way of racing – and most likely the goal that everyone aspires to.  The boys will be working on making sure that they follow up their fast take-off with strong times in the succeeding 500’s.  But let’s not quibble about times.  They were excited to win these races, and they should have been.  They have plenty of time to keep working on consistency.

It looked like that was going to be it for the eight, but we got the idea to ask whether we could enter the I 2’s if they had an open lane, seeing as how our event on Saturday had been cancelled.  We’ve come to race, and the more of it we can get, the better.  Our petition to enter the I 2’s was accepted, and we had another race coming up at 3:00.

But not before I was able to watch our boys 4+ in the Im 3.  (The plus on Sunday was Aria Kopp; she and Willy have been sharing coxswain duties for this boat.)  Groton wins heat by 5 seconds over boats from Brunswick, Worcester Rowing Club, and Oxford Academicals (whatever that is).  The winds were way down on Sunday; it wasn’t a perfect day for racing, but compared to Saturday it was heaven.  No need to stay in the pack.  Blast off and keep going.  They did just that, with a newer, sleeker, faster shell and a rearranged lineup that has Bo Harwood stroking.  In the finals they would race old nemesis Belmont Hill School.  Like us, Belmont Hill has a four of younger oarsmen to serve as spares for their eight and for the experience that a trip like this gives them.  The final was apparently a good race.  The Groton boys liked their new shell, and they raced well.  They were third at the 500 mark, 1.3 seconds behind BH and Brunswick.  Groton rowed the fastest last 500 hundred, albeit only by .02 faster than Belmont, but our opponent’s early lead was too much to make up for.  They won by 1.2 seconds.  We went through Brunswick and beat them by 1.4.  So it was excellent racing.

I left Dorney, which was more impressive than I had expected, to return with the girls to watch the finals of the Henley Women’s races, which sadly, we were not a part of.  The boys eight had their third race of the day at 3:00.  The field was not big enough for heats – a few boats had dropped out because of illness; others had left in disgust the day before when the I 3’s had been cancelled.  But Groton lined up against Pangbourne College (until recently a boarding school for naval cadets), Manchester Univ, and Liverpool Univ.  We jumped right out to a lead again, 1.7 seconds at the 500, and then added .3 in the second 500 to win by 2 seconds.  According to Coach Madden, the extra racing on the weekend made the whole day a success.  The boys won two medals – in England they generally give medals for first place only. And the four had come in a close second twice.  It looks to my eye like the eight is beginning to move fast, like they are beginning to really work together as an eight.  I’m excited about further racing.  Well done, boys.

And now the part that is hard to remember although necessary to reflect upon.  Our girls, who had raced so well at Reading the week before, awoke on Saturday to find that the rain and winds that we had seen all week were the worst that they had ever been.  The Regatta Committee had considered cancelling the whole Regatta, and we spent a couple of nervous nights wondering what we would do if that indeed happened.  But because so many crews had travelled great distances to be in Henley, they decided that the show must go on.  Our quad raced first on Saturday at 9:18, one of the first events of the day.  Our opponents were a club from Broxbourne, north of London.  Despite some steering trouble in the high winds – I was told that they topped out at 30 mph – which caused us to hit “the booms,” the long timbers that denote the lanes of the racecourse and in theory help provide some protection from the motorboat wakes that are omnipresent, we were able to win the race by a length and a half, coming back from behind after our steering mishaps

If our girls ever have needed confirmation of the importance of the coxswain, rowing’s equivalent of a jockey, they have received it on this trip.  It takes three people in the quad to do what the coxswain usually does.  One must steer.  Maeve does this by moving the heel of her shoe; the shoe is attached to the tiller cables, so by moving the way she wants to go, she can control the rudder.  If that sounds simple enough, it isn’t.  Allie is the coxswain, calling tens and remembering what the boat is supposed to do on the water, since in England, coaches typically coach from the shore, riding bikes along and shouting out a few well-chosen words.  It’s not easy to talk when you are rowing very hard; certainly our girls are not used to it.  Finally, Olivia keeps track of the stroke rate, by means of a small device called a Stroke Coach.  She does set the pace, so it is a natural thing for her to do, but it’s an added burden.  Everyone in the boat wishes that we could enter a time warp and go back to 1984, the last year in which the quad had a coxswain.  (The Olympic movement, in order to pare down the growing costs of staging an Olympic Games, required all sports to come up with plan to cut the number of athletes.  Rowing eliminated a couple of men’s events and the coxswain from the women’s quad and four.)

Our coxed four raced next and did not seem quite as disturbed by the weather as the quad had been.  They rowed  out to a quick length lead, and I turned my bike around after 500 meters, thinking that they had it made.  I could scout our opponent in the next round< Aberdeen.  Much to my surprise, when I finally saw the four on shore after their race, they told me that their opponents, Durham School, from the north of England had begun to move back on them.  We had to do an all-out sprint to hang on and preserve the victory.  We won by a “canvas,” the measurement they use for the bow decking of the boat, although canvas went out even before wood did.  No, they assured me, they hadn’t had a crab or met with a steering problem.  They had just stopped moving.  I’m still at a loss to understand what happened; I guess I never will know.  But Groton had at least turned in the fastest time in the first round of races.

The quad was next up for their second race of the day.  The wind was now howling, and the Thames which was “at red boards, the Thames River Board’s language for extremely dangerous conditions.  When you get conditions like this, the fairness of the race course is always suspect.  One side of the river is usually more sheltered from the wind or has less current to race against.  But I can’t say for sure that there was any unfairness.  All I know is that our usual fast start was nowhere in evidence and that Henley Rowing Club, the local favorites, moved briskly away from us.  The girls were working hard, but perhaps not as well together as they needed to.  Our time in the morning had been 7:17, very slow, but we did have to stop when we hit the booms.  Henley’s time for this race was 6:56, and we were another five lengths back, about 15 seconds.  Our first  boat at Quinsigamond had won with a time of 5:28.  Here we were in a quad, a boat that moves faster than a four, and we were almost two minutes slower.  Perhaps you can see why many people called it the most atrocious conditions for racing that they had ever seen.  It was not the way anyone would want to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Henley Women’s Regatta.  In a certain way it was hard to be too upset because it wasn’t racing as anyone knew it.  Imagine playing soccer in the pitch dark: you wouldn’t be too upset if you lost.  Being able to see is important in soccer.  And being able to row requires certain conditions that let it be possible.  The Umpire who followed the race said “It was obvious to me that we had two highly skilled crews, but that one of them had more difficulty in the conditions than the other.”  So the girls tasted defeat for the first time since May, 2011.

To compound matters, the coxed four lost a race that was almost a carbon copy a few hours later.  Aberdeen, from northeastern Scotland, who had in the morning rowed a race six minutes after our girls and had a time that was 18 seconds slower, took off and never looked back.  Groton had some trouble at the start with both steering and rowing, and after falling behind began to miss water.  They lacked the strong punch that had been so characteristic of our rowing all year.  Why was it gone?  Who knows?  Three hours before, we had turned in the event’s fastest time, 7:10.  Now, Aberdeen won with an 8:01 and we were a further 16 seconds back.

One of the hardest things as a coach is facing disappointed, no, devastated, athletes, and trying to explain what had happened.  I still don’t really know.  It was clear that we hadn’t done our best, but where did this absolute worst come from?  Were we simply suffering bad luck?  I’m sorry to say that I don’t really know the answer.  It probably helps that both Aberdeen, the four, and Henley, the quad, went on to win the whole regatta.  At least we lost to the eventual winners.

So, we talked about our disappointment – all nine girls in shock.  We know, of course that our entering a quad, a sculling boat in which we don’t have much experience, is a risk.  We have always known that we might do well in this new boat; we might not.  But to have our familiar four meet the same fate suggests that there was something else going on.  I told them that despite the way our trip to Women’s Henley had turned out, the mental image I will always hold of all of these kids is their terrific victories at Quinsigamond, when we swept all four events.  That hadn’t happened for a girls program since 1996.

It was hard to say goodbye to the four girls who left two days later.  They had been such an important part of the team, and now they were finished.  The quad has rebounded and is working very hard to qualify for the Henley Royal Regatta in a special race to qualify that will be held this Friday at 4:15.  The boys 4 must also go through the qualifying race, while the boys eight, which has the luxury of competing in an event that contains 32 entries, is guaranteed of racing in the opening days of the HRR.  I’ll continue to update you on those races.  As I finish this, at 9:00 pm, we are about to head out for a sunset/twilight paddle.  It is one of the highlights of each trip.  Where else can you row until nearly 10:30 at night.  We are only two days away from Midsummer’s Night, so there is a lot of light left.  It is still and quiet.  Hard to believe that just three days ago we were enduring what felt like Antarctica.  I’ll keep you posted on our Friday qualifying races.

-Andy

PS I’m sorry that I don’t have any photos this time of the boys eight.  Janet Prill has a good album but I couldn’t download from it.

 


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Sunday Racing Report

Day 3, Sunday, June 10, 2012

You all know that we raced at Reading Sunday on our third day in England.  Sorry that I didn’t write this up last night but I collapsed asleep at the computer.  And today I needed to finish my academic comments.  But those are done and I can now give you a racing report.

The Sunday regatta is completely distinct from the Saturday race.  They are in effect two separate regattas that just happen to be held on the same course.  Some crews race each day; some choose one or the other.  Well, there is one difference: the Sunday races are 1100 meters; the Saturday races were 1500.  That’s probably about a minute and fifteen seconds shorter.

I’ll start off with the girls 4+ — because I saw all of their races, because they raced first thing Sunday morning, and because they raced six different times during the day.  If that sounds like a lot, it is.  During our spring season at home we race twice in a day just two times – at the Weston Wayland Regatta and at the NEIRA at Lake Quinsigamond.   So, six races is an incredible number.  Blame me, I told the girls.  I entered them in two events, the Intermediate 3 and the intermediate 2.  (On Saturday the only event available to them was the Intermediate 1.)  In past years, there hadn’t been many coxed fours entered, and because I wanted them to have ample opportunities, I thought “Well, let’s try two events.”

First off, actually, was our assistant coach, Steve Timpany.  Steve is a fellow I met through Luis. Viacava; he lives near Hopkinton, where the Boston Marathon starts.  He has now helped coach our boys JV crews for two years.  He’s a tireless Energizer Bunny of a person, always excited to help our boys learn about the sport of rowing, always helpful to the rest of the coaches.  We asked him to come along on this trip because we needed a third adult to help with the 24 oarsmen and oarswomen.  And although he runs his own business, a company that cleans up houses, buildings, and businesses after natural disasters, he managed to arrange his schedule so that he could join us here for two weeks.  (Great thanks go to his wife, who is minding the store while he is away.  Come to think of it, great thanks go to my own wife, Cola, for taking over everything that I should be doing at home for the next month.)

Anyway, Steve asked me to enter him in a single sculling event.  “As long as I’m over there I want to try racing on the famous Thames.”  So we got him a boat and entered him in the Intermediate 3’s.  (If all of this intermediate 1, 2, and 3 stuff is confusing, you’re not alone.  In England there are very few age-restricted races.  Most regattas you race people of similar racing experience, no matter what the age.  High school races do exist but they are not the norm.  Most often a good rowing school will have to race against adult clubs or universities in order to find competition.)  Steve has rowed with Luis on our own Nashua River.  And he raced against a good sculler who was at least 25 years his junior.  Steve had a good start but then the other guy began to move and Steve had a bit of trouble steering.  And that was it.
Steering is a really important part of the sport, by the way, and coxswains – all too often underappreciated – are really important in races.  Kids don’t often appreciate that races can be won or lost on the steering, but they can be.  I’ve always thought that we are really lucky at Groton to have such good coxswains.  Smart, lively kids are what you want, and Groton is blessed with a good number of these types.

The next race was our girls coxed four.  Although the core of this boat is our second boat from the spring, Sarah Black has moved from starboard to port, where she is still the stroke.  Marissa Garey is at three, having moved to this boat from the first because she had not done any sculling and the core of the first boat was going to scull in the quad.  The bow pair of Marianna Gailus and Christina Strater is the same.  Diana Chen is the coxswain of this boat because the quad does not have a cox.

The first race was a row-over.  Their opponents, Kent University did not show up at the starting line.  This allowed us to row easily down the course, practicing steering and mapping out where they would take their tens.  Diana, especially, was happy to have a chance to steer the course because she had not been on it since last year.

Next up was a race with Curlew Rowing Club, one of suburban London’s big clubs.  Curlew was composed of big strong women.  They rowed a fairly common race plan – try to get ahead by rowing high – got almost a length against us, and then could not break clear.  Diana called a mid-race sprint and we moved back even and then shot past them.  It was thrilling.  Now the schedule got interesting.  The girls finished the Curlew race, landed on the dock, ran to the bathroom, jumped into the boat, and rowed up to the start again to race just 30 minutes later.  This was against Osiris Rowing Club in the Intermediate 2’s.  Osiris is the name of the rowing club for the best women at Oxford University (Isis is its male equivalent.)  Two of the four in this boat are members of their Blue Boat, what we would call the varsity.  (In 2015, the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, the oldest boat race in the world and a spectacle that close to 500,000 people line the banks of the Thames for, will include the Women’s Race.  There is great excitement about this among oarswomen.

Osiris took off with a powerful start and moved about a half-length ahead.  Our girls were not quite as cool and collected as they would have liked to be – remember, they don’t have much experience losing races – but they rowed well alongside Osiris.  In a lot of racing, getting ahead is the name of the game.  Only experienced or very good crews seem to have the ability to come from behind.  Remember that in rowing, once you are behind, you can’t even see your opponents.  It’s tough.  As Osiris tried to break out to a length clear, we surprised them by upping the stroke rate and moving back even.  Then, to their great dismay, we moved through them and kept going, winning by 1 ¼ lengths in the fastest time that any women’s four would post that day: 4:01.  Their coach is an old nemesis of mine.  In the years that I coached the USA lightweight women’s national team, we only lost to Great Britain once, and he had been their coach.  I saw him and exchanged a few words.  He was shaking his head.  When one of the Oxford women asked him “Who were those girls?” all he said was “They were fast.  Very fast.”

At that moment I felt like we had already achieved what we had come for.  The girls had won against tough competition, coming from behind.  It’s what a coach dreams about.

The boys four now had a race.  Like our girls, they had been in a tough level of competition on Saturday and we thought that this would be a better day for them.  They were in the Intermediate 3 fours, a level better suited to their experience.  Against Southampton University, which had a bunch of big strong guys, we concentrated on starting fast and pulling out ahead.  Things went according to plan and Groton won its first race on English waters.  They looked very strong, coming in 2 ½ lengths against a dispirited Southampton boat.  Next up, our boys four raced Henley Rowing Club.  Henley being a magnet for rowing, it is probably no surprise that the Henley rowing club has some very good boats.  These guys ranged in age from 17 to 21 and they were big and muscular.  Our four has its work cut out for it over here.  Remember that it is composed of one boy from our second boat, Bo Harwood, who is 2 days too old to row in the age-restricted princess Elizabeth Cup at Henley, two boys from the third boat, Johnny Bianco, switched from starboard to port, Nick Wray, who is a fine stroke, and a third former from the fourth boat, Michael Ma.  The coxswain duties are shared by Alia Kopp from the third boat and Willy Anderson from the fourth.  It’s a tall order for these guys to compete against young men, but they have been doing a very good job.

Our guys raced even with Henley for 600 meters and then Henley began to slowly pull away.  It looked to me like it was simply a case of Henley being more powerful.  I thought that we were racing very hard – at a 35 – and giving them a good battle.  At the end, though, Henley finished up 1 1/3 lengths.  It always hurts to lose a race, but the boys did have the satisfaction of knowing that they had rowed their best race of the trip so far.  They had really pushed their opponents.

At 3:15 our girls four was back on the water for the semi-finals of the Intermed 3.  They had City of Bristol Rowing Club.  We suspected that this might be our only race that could possibly be called easy, but we were ready for it to be tough.  We did jump out to a lead, but because we were trying to conserve energy, we rowed at a 31 to Bristol’s 34, and these adult women kept the pressure on right to the finish line.  We had won by 1 ½ lengths but it hadn’t been easy.  Without even time to go to the bathroom this time, we turned around and rowed back to the start for a race 16 minutes later against Henley Rowing Club.  Semi-finals of the Intermed 2.  The girls gamely fought Henley, but by this time, their fifth time down the course (and two very fine, come-from behind victories) they were looking really tired.  We just didn’t have enough in the tank to move back on a good crew.  They beat us by two lengths.

Now came the boys 8.  Their event had only five entries, so they had been able to sleep in – a well-deserved rest after the four tough races that they had rowed Saturday – and now their first race was at 3:42.  They were up against a boat from Southampton University; it had a bunch of big strong guys and had done well in races the previous day.  I can’t give you a blow by blow description of the race because I saw only the finish of it.  I had been cycling along watching the girls and did not have time to turn and get up to the start to see the eight.  Maybe one of the boys will supplement my account with their own.  But the announcer (they announce the races over speakers) said that it had been a tight battle over the first 800 meters.  As they approached the finish line, he used the expression “there’s nothing in it,” meaning that it is dead even.  As they came into my view, it looked like we raised the rating to 36 and then 38 and moved slightly ahead but then Southampton raised its rating in the last five strokes two beats higher than us.  As they crossed the line, no one could tell who had won.  As the crews paddled away from the finish, neither knew the result.  A couple of minutes later, after reviewing the video tape, the decision was announced: “Southampton by one foot.”

It was a tough loss because we had raced so hard, but the boys could hold their heads up knowing they had turned in a good strong race.  Two hours later, after almost everyone had gone home, Southampton won the finals by 2 ½ lengths.  So they and Groton had really been the class of the field.  It is worth remembering that the reason we came over as early as we have is that prior to this weekend, the boys had raced in zero eights races.  Now, they have had five.  And every time you race you learn something.  They had a good weekend, one that we hope will help them as they get ready for Henley.

By now we had been at the race course for a long time – it hadn’t rained which we had feared, but it looked like it might at any minute – and so the boys packed up their boats and headed home for showers.  The girls four had one more race at 5:51, the finals of the intermediate 3.  I wish I could say that they had saved the best for last and come away with a dramatic victory, but they didn’t.  They had been sleeping on the ground under a boat trailer for an hour and half after their fifth race; it isn’t often you can actually sleep on race day – you get so keyed up that your body, tired though it may be, stays alert.  But they were so exhausted that they were out cold.  They woke and went out to race against University College Dublin.  There is quite a bit of rowing in Ireland and it isn’t unusual at all for them to come across for a weekend of racing.  The Reading Regatta is one of their favorites (as it is mine) and they had done quite well throughout the weekend.

We started aggressively and moved ahead by a bit, but they were big strong college students and they moved back after four hundred meters.  We tried to hang on and move with them but they were too strong and they worked their lead out to about a length.  Groton didn’t give up, though, and as the boats neared the finish, our sprint was moving like crazy.  We got it down to a ½ length  but ran out of room and that’s how it ended.  Again, I was very proud of the way we kept fighting and moved back against them.  Had it been a longer race, who knows, we might have caught them.  But we showed the toughness and the speed that we hope will carry us through this weekend’s Henley Women’s Regatta.  The tally for this four today (4-2): two great comeback wins, one very impressive loss in the finals, one disappointing loss, one solid wire to wire win, and one row over.  I am as happy with their comeback wins as any races I can remember.  These kids are racers.

The girls quad?  They had no races today.  All of the quads had raced on Saturday.  So they watched races, filmed, and supported all their friends.

So that’s the Sunday report.  Thanks for staying with me till the end.  I’m attaching some photos that Simon Colloredo-Mansfeld, also an oarsman, over to watch his brother Johann, took.  They are very nice.  Thanks, Simon.

It started raining Sunday night and shows no signs of letting up.  We are in for some wet practices this week.

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First days in England – Reading Regatta

Day 1 and 2, Saturday, June 9, 2012

Today we raced at the Reading Amateur Regatta, about 20 minutes west of Henley.  Over the years we have had very good racing here, and Groton is a name that is well-known here.  As the Chairman of the Regatta told us today, “We like have the best American schools and colleges come here.  It adds class to our regatta.”  Nice to hear.

Our trip over was mostly uneventful although we got caught in incredible traffic to the airport.  Most likely it was the combination of rush hour and Celtics traffic, but we arrived with minutes to spare.  Thanks very much to David Black and Cathy Lincoln for driving us.   The oars all made it safely; there was only one bag lost.  (Now found)

Friday was a long, long day.  I don’t let the kids take naps during the day, so that they will sleep like logs the first night.  They were really dragging, and to make it worse, there was a cold rain and very strong winds.  But they did a good job throughout the day.

Most of them slept 11-12 hours the first night, and although they would have been happy to stay in bed, we had to get them up at 8:00 for races.  Upon arrival at Reading one of our three rental vans died – it refused to go into gear – and so the day started off badly.  Thanks to Bob Madden, its driver, who was patient and stayed in good humor despite a trying day.

The Reading Amateur Regatta is so named because in the old days this regatta was open only to “amateurs,” the distinction as applied by the British meaning that only those who did not get any financial gain from rowing were allowed to compete.  No professional oarsmen or coaches or watermen were allowed.  Some of you may remember when tennis was like this.  Big tournaments like the US Open have their name because they were “open” to all, even tennis pros.  So, this was not originally an open regatta.  Its participants had to meet the definition of amateur, which was skewed towards the upper classes.  At any event, it’s not like that now.  It is a fine example of a town regatta.  There are competitors of all ages and many different abilities.

OK, cut to the case, Andy.  I’m tired and need to get to bed.

The boys 8 won their first three races and kept improving with each race.  In the final of their event, the Intermediate 3, they lost to a local high school, the reading Blue Coat School.  I’ve always wondered about the name too.     The bluecoat is a style of dress code, traditionally worn in Bluecoat schools (British private schools deriving from charity schools).  The main element of the bluecoat is a long (dark blue or black) coat, belted at the waist, with white neck decoration. Underneath a white shirt and grey shorts are worn, with knee-length socks and smart shoes.  The school was founded in 1646 by a wealthy London merchant, Richard Aldworth of Stanlake Park, who left the Corporation of Reading the sum of £4,000, the proceeds of which were to be devoted to “the education and upbringing of twenty poor male children, being the children of honest, religious poor men in the town of Reading.”

Although they were disappointed to lose a race, it was close and their fourth race of the day was their fastest by almost ten seconds.  They told me that they felt that they had learned a lot over the course of the day – which is exactly why we come over right away.

The boys 4 with coxswain had a tough draw.  They were in the Intermediate 1 event (almost the highest level, there is also Elite) because that was the only race available today.  We knew that for the fours this would be tough.  It was.  They lost to a Reading Rowing Club men’s four (who looked to all be in their mid 20’s) by one length.  Reading went on to be the second place crew in the event, so I think our ids raced pretty well.  Tomorrow they will have a much better day, I am sure, because they will race in Intermediate 2’s – a more suitable match.

The girls 4 with coxswain also had a tough opening race in the Intermediate 4’s.  They raced against Vesta Boat Club, one of the biggest clubs in London, and although they raced hard, they came up short “a canvas”, the bow deck of the boat.  (about 10’).  They will have their fill of racing tomorrow.  I have entered them in both the intermediate 2 and 3 events.  If all goes well, they could race 7 times.   They are going to be some tired kids tomorrow.

Finally, the girls quad (quadruple scull, the difference being that sculling boats each person has two oars while our normal sweep boats each have one oar.  The difference between the two has often been compared to the difference between squash and tennis.  It helps a lot to be good at one, but they are really quite different.) .  Anyway, the quad raced with a young boat from Lady Eleanor Holles School, one of the strongest schools in England.  We beat them “easily” the term for a victory of more than 5 lengths.  Then a few hours later we raced their top boat, a boat that, like us, is planning on racing at the Henley Royal Regatta, which has opened its gates to high school girls for the first time ever this summer.  Three of the four of this boat had raced our girls in an 8 last summer, so we are old rivals.  Or, as their coach told me, “one of my girls asked why Groton always has to show up at these regattas and ruing them for us.”  They did their best in our race, starting very quickly, rowing at 35 to 37 beats a minute (to our 32-33) and leading by a half-length for the first 500 meters.  But then our girls showed their determination (and speed) and rowed through them to win by 2 lengths.  The final, at 6:30 tonight, followed a similar pattern.  Reading Rowing Club jumped out ahead, but we rowed them down and won by two lengths.

These victories in the quad against LEH and Reading are especially exciting because they prove that we belong in the sculling event.  It’s always a risk to try something new, but the girls had wanted to take that risk, and it looks like it wasn’t a crazy idea.  But we’ll have to see.  There is bound to be a lot of really good competition down the road.

Ok, I’m turning in.  I was proud of all of the Groton kids today.  They raced hard and showed speed and class.  Tomorrow is another long day of racing.  The distance is only 1100 meters, instead of today’s 1500, but everyone will be tested fully.

We are having fun.  And working hard.  (Incredibly, the kids seem to buy my little saying that working hard can be fun.  It doesn’t hurt that we had wonderful English strawberries and lots of Nutella for lunch.

Andy

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