Agony & Ecstasy in Royal Regatta Qualifying Races

Photo © Alistair Craigie

With 387 crews competing for just 88 places, the strain on the water and cries of encouragement from the banks of the river were more intense than ever at the qualifying races for Henley Royal Regatta on Friday.

“The Qualifying Races for Henley Royal Regatta is a unique day for all those involved with its mixture of elation and disappointment, and that has rarely been more true than with the record entry we have had this year.” Sir Steve Redgrave, chairman of the Committee of Management said. “For many people I meet, rowing at the Qualifying Races is the highlight of their career. We’re delighted to have Qualifying back on the Course today. It’s a taste of where all the crews would all like to be on Tuesday – but of course not all of them can make it through.”

This is not the biggest Qualifying in terms of numbers, but it is the toughest in percentages; in 2019, 422 crews raced for 116 places and in 2016, 402 crews raced for 99 places. In heavily oversubscribed events, such as The Fawley Challenge Cup (Junior Men’s Quad Sculls), 44 crews were racing for just 3 places.

Unlike the head-to-head contests of Regatta week, Qualifying is all about A to B speed, with crews racing in a time trial format (with 45 seconds between eights and 30 seconds between the smaller boats).

The sense of occasion has been magnified by qualification being staged on the Regatta Course for the first time since 2019, after the Regatta was cancelled in 2020 for the first time outside of the World Wars, and qualification was hosted at Eton Dorney last year because of COVID-19 constraints.

It was a mixed result for the local clubs.  Upper Thames crews did not qualify in the Thames (Club M8+), the B crew in the Wargrave (Club W8+), Stonor (Open W2x) and the Princess Royal (Open W1x).  Henley Rowing Club crews in the Wargrave (W8+) both A and B crews, B crew in the Fawley (Student M4x).  Shiplake College just lost their B crew in the Temple (Student M8+).

The field of 419 crews for the first six-day Regatta, includes 12 Olympic gold medallists from Tokyo, five from New Zealand, four from Australia – the top two nations at the Tokyo Olympics – and three from China.

The strong New Zealand entry includes Kerri Williams (née Gowler) and Grace Prendergast, (racing as Waiariki Rowing Club), who won the women’s pair in Tokyo. They are favourites for the The Hambleden Pairs Challenge Cup (Women’s Pair). Williams and Prendergast won silver too as part of the eight in Tokyo, but will not be doubling up at Henley. The withdrawal of Kirstyn Goodger and Jackie Gowler (Williams’s sister and also part of the silver medal winning eight) has removed the probability of an all-Waiariki final.

Emma Twigg (racing as Waiariki Rowing Club), New Zealand’s Olympic gold medal in the women’s single sculls in Tokyo and favourite for the The Princess Royal Challenge Cup, was drawn in the same half as perhaps her strongest challenger (if fully fit), Magdalena Lobnig of Austria (racing as Völkermarkter Sport- und Turnverein 1868), who won Olympic bronze in Tokyo. Twigg won The Princess Royal in 2009 and 2019.

The men’s and women’s quads from China will take some stopping. In The Princess Grace Challenge Cup (Women’s Quad Sculls), Leander Club, the holders, will face a formidable challenge against the favourites, the Chinese National Rowing Team, who won Henley 2019 (the first Chinese winners at the Regatta) and include three of the quad that won gold in Tokyo. As a measure of the challenge facing champions from 2021, Leander has to get past Brown University (USA) first.

In the The Queen Mother Challenge Cup (Men’s Quad Sculls), the rebuilding British quad have drawn the Chinese National Rowing Team – winners of the first and second World Cups this season.

Olli Zeidler, the German sculler and World and European champion, is an even bigger favourite for The Diamond Challenge Sculls (Men’s Single Sculls) after the withdrawal of Britain’s Graeme Thomas, Henley’s defending champion.