Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Road to WEHoRR and What Happened When We Got There

It was 6.30 in the morning and the sun was just beginning to rise over Putney Bridge, casting a tangerine glow across the Tideway. Nine women and one man gathered on the embankment and set to work, going about their task with quiet efficiency and steady hands. This was what they had spent months training for and they were ready…WEHoRR 2015.

Rise and Shine, Sunrise at Putney
The Women’s Eights Head of the River is THE winter racing event for women rowers in the UK. A 4 ¼ mile long-distance course on the Tideway from Mortlake to Putney. This year 300 crews entered. That’s a staggering 2,700 women rowers alone (not counting coxes, coaches and supporters) descending on the Tideway! For every one of those crew members, this was the culmination of months of effort.

For us, training began in the New Year. As I’m sure you can imagine, getting eight women who have never rowed all together before ready to race the Tideway takes a colossal amount of organisation. Before Christmas the next ten weeks of our lives had already been planned out. To get enough time on the water as a full crew, days and weekends off had to be coordinated in advance and each of us had to really commit to each other and to the training… I’m sure no one would say that the journey was a piece of cake, but boy was it ever worth it!

On Friday 13th March (as auspicious a date as any) we loaded our boat onto Bath University’s trailer, entrusting our precious cargo to them. We couldn’t afford to forget or damage anything or our WEHoRR dream would have been over. Brave volunteers packed the seats and wingnuts in a car, determined that not a single washer would be left behind.

In the afternoon we began our travels eastwards, by train, plane and automobile (ok, maybe not by plane, but you get the idea) and converged upon Premier Inn Putney and Il Mascalzone for a pasta/pizza feast. We had our race heads on though, and it was bed by 9.30 to get our beauty sleep ready for the morning.

One Minerva crew ready to go!
Our pre-sunrise start on Saturday was rewarded by the sight of Minerva patron and Olympic Champion Helen Glover and the other half of her gold medal-winning pair Heather Stanning stroking their crew of Olympians past Putney embankment on their warm-up row. Hearing a bellow of “Come on Minerva!” from our 7-seat, Glover pumped her fist in response. Yes, it was going to be a good day.

It wasn’t long before our Minerva supporters (the best in the world, undoubtedly) appeared beside our boat, fresh from the first London train of the day, to wish us last-minute encouragement and collect our wellies as we waded into the Thames and took our seats in the boat.

The row to the start was confident and relaxed until a familiar voice came over the megaphone… “Boat 107, you can cross to the other side of the river after you’ve passed the red buoy.” Nothing in the message gave it away but the voice was familiar… We kept rowing… There was the launch… It was him! It was Matt Pinsent! We just got marshalled by 4-time Olympic gold medallist and all-around rowing legend Matt Pinsent!

Shortly after, we witnessed our patron Helen, proudly wearing her Minerva kit (the same kit as all of us, I hasten to add) whizz by in the winning crew. We gave her a cheer on her way and she later tweeted that her entire crew had sworn they could hear Minerva supporters lining the entire course… I believe it – I told you, our Minerva members and supporters are the best in the world.

Just before 10am it was finally our turn. Expert coxswain Mark Melbourne gave us the word and we began to row, stroke Tammy Crain taking us up to a cool and relaxed 28 strokes per minute just before we crossed the start line.

I’ll admit it, that first half of the race was a slog. A cross-headwind was attempting to upset the boat and blowing the river into choppy little waves. But we could do this. We’d practiced rowing in a headwind at Nottingham Head of the Trent just two weeks before, and as one we kept our cool, sitting back into the wind and holding in the finishes.

By the time we turned a corner and made it out of the wind we still were only maybe a quarter of the way through the course. The next bit, the Chiswick Eight, was the longest part of the race for me. I really felt like Hammersmith Bridge, the middle point was never coming. But Tammy and 7-seat Elaine Hoyes held their rhythm; middle 4 – Vicki Wheeler, Kayleigh Weaver, Siobhan Tuohy-Smith and I – dug in, laying down the power stroke after stroke; bow pair, two of the most experienced rowers in the boat, Hayley Sewell and Hils Strickland, kept their bladework clean, backing us all up from the pointy end.

Finally Mark called the bridge and we rowed through to cheers of “Go Minerva!” Buoyed by the incredible support the boat just sailed as we got our second wind and really hit our stride. Half the race still to go.

Crews were overtaking us but we pushed back at them, we made them work for it. We found our inner steel and kept pushing. As coach Maggie Cooke so often said to us, the only thing we had to do was put the blade in the water together and take it out together. And then do it again, and again, and again, until the end of the race. And that’s exactly what we did. We put our faith in each other and in our cox and coach, and we just kept rowing.

By the time we crossed the finish line and wound down through Putney Bridge we were exhausted but elated. We had a few more hours in Putney to soak up as much of the atmosphere in the Vesta boathouse and on the embankment before it was time to head home to Bath. I’m pretty sure that after this experience most of the crew will be looking to return next year!

It looks like 2015 is shaping up to be an incredible year for women in sport – the 75th annual WEHoRR, Sport England’s #ThisGirlCan campaign and, on Saturday 11 April, the women of Oxford and Cambridge will compete on the same stage as the men for the first time in Boat Race history – and the Minerva WEHoRR crew are proud to have experienced just a small part of it.

Now, bring on the regattas!


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