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A History of British Rowing

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A History of British Rowing


Being surrounded by water, it is no surprise that the boat plays a large part in the history of Britain. Add to that the many lakes and significant rivers, some of which almost cut the land in two parts, and it is easy to see why rowing has become a pastime and subsequently a sport that the Britons have come to excel at.

Prior to the Roman invasion, the ancient Britons used to weave basket like boats known as Coracles. It is not certain when it was first decided to engage in competitive races, but the Coracle Race still survives in some parts today. Undoubtedly, given the seemingly inherent competitive nature of Homo Sapiens,the practice of racing coracles is almost as old as the coracle itself. Students at Bedales School , one of the Britainís top private schools, engage in the Coracle Race as a tradition at the end of each Summer Term. Since the invention of the coracle, more sophisticated forms of rowing boat have been developed and modern rowing races use state of the art technology and materials.

Rowing has since become a hugely important part of our history and culture and rowing skills are still highly prized today. The tradition of competitive rowing in England centres mainly on the River Thames , with two of the main rowing events in the traditional rowing calendar taking place at different points along Englandís longest river. The Henley Royal Regatta and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race both take place on the Thames and are amongst the oldest and most famous rowing events in the world.

The two events are quite different in nature however. The Henley Royal Regatta is a full race meeting and a chance for fashionable well-to-do ladies and gentry to air their latest summer collection. Despite the obvious importance attached to this unashamed show of fashion the racing is no less serious. The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race on the other hand is a single, long distance race along the Thames to establish the bragging rights between the two universities.

The rivalry between the two Universities dates back to the very establishment of Cambridge University by renegade Oxford professors. It is manifested in many ways, including a whole range of sporting contests. None is more famous than the boat race which is renowned all over the world. The boat race is easily the best known of all the Varsity challenges between the two universities.

The Boat Race was the brainchild of two former Harrow pupils; Charles Merivale (by then a Cambridge student) and Charles Wordsworth (nephew of the poet William Wordsworth and at the time a student at Oxford).† On March 12 1829 Cambridge challenged Oxford to the first Boat Race, starting a tradition that continues to this day, with the losing side challenging the winners to next yearís rematch. From this beginning, the event has grown into a huge worldwide spectacle. About a quarter of a million people crowd the banks of the River Thames on race day. They are now joined by millions of others making up the ever expanding worldwide television audience.

The first race resulted in a victory for Oxford, but Cambridge got their revenge by winning the next four races. The series has always remained close, despite long periods of apparent dominance by one team. At the time of writing Cambridge lead the series 79-75. Cambridge has actually led the series since a period of dominance in the 1930s. The Oxford team closed the gap to 69-68 in 1992 after a run of wins.† Unfortunately, their winning run came to an end in 1993, heralding in a new streak of success for Cambridge.

The course is not the same as the very first races, indeed the two crews argued back in the early years as to whether the race should be held in London or at Henley.† London was soon established as the venue, however, and the course as we know it today was laid down. The teams head westward down the river after the start point just after Putney Bridge. The University Stone on the south bank of the river marks the start. The race then takes the crews past Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham Football Club . The boats then pass the mile point, marked by ĎThe Mile Postí. This is a stone monument erected in honour of rowing coach Steve Fairbairn, a legendary Cambridge coach from the early 20th century.† The race continues to take in landmarks such as the Crabtree Inn on the Middlesex bank and the Harrods Furniture Depository (a distinctive building that has now been made into riverside apartments).†

Next up is the picturesque Hammersmith Bridge, followed by St Paulís School and Fullerís Brewery , before reaching Chiswick Pier and entering the last section of the race. The crews must pass The Bandstand and then pass through the centre arch of Barnes Bridge. The bridge is on a tight corner and it can be interesting if the crews are neck and neck at this point. It is very rare for a team leading at this point to lose the race, but in 2002 the Oxford team unexpectedly rowed past Cambridge after trailing at Barnes Bridge. This, however, was mainly due to the unfortunate collapse of a Cambridge Oarsman due to exhaustion. From Barnes Bridge they row into the final bend, past Stagís Brewery and onto the finish line just before Chiswick Bridge. The finish is marked on the north bank with a post, and on the south bank with a stone. By this time, the crews have rowed a total of about 4.25 miles and are mentally and physically exhausted after the gruelling race.

In recent years, the crews have included many top class established rowers from around the world. The World Champion stern pair of Germans Thorsten Engelmann and Sebastian Schulte, together with Olympic Gold medalist Kieran West MBE and Tom James , another GB medal winner, all rowed in the 2007 crew for Cambridge. They won by an impressive margin despite a brave row from the underdog Oxford team. It is hard to judge these teams against the standards of international rowing teams because they train for a very specific race and one that is very different from the events the other teams train for.

The Henley Royal Regatta is completely different from the Varsity Boat Race because it's a full blown sporting event lasting for five days. The regatta has been held annually since it was first begun in 1839, with breaks only for the two World Wars. Initially, it was just a single day event, but very quickly moved up to two, then three and four and eventually became the five day event we know today. In 1851 it was blessed with its first royal patronage in the form of H.R.H Prince Albert . The event is held in July on the section of the Thames by the town of Henley-on-Thames.
The course is a little over 1.25 miles long, which is around 112 metres longer than the standard 2000 metre course. There are a number of different events competed at many different levels during the Royal Regatta. In addition to the Menís and Womenís Senior Races, there are Junior and Intermediate races as well as Student and Club events. The most prized trophy of the entire meeting though is the Grand Challenge Cup for the Menís Eights. This is a traditional fixture at the Regatta that which has been staged ever since the Regatta began.

The 2009 Regatta was held between the July 1 and 5. The Grand Challenge Cup was won by the Leander Club & Molesey B.C. , beating a crew from Princeton T.C. and California R.C. This illustrates the completely international flavour of the event, which attracts both competitors and spectators from across the globe.

The course runs from the start at Temple Island, a charming folly designed by James Wyatt, and through to the finish line in front of the Phyllis Court Stand on the river bend as the river turns towards Henley Bridge. It is a charming and picturesque course in an idyllic setting that has no doubt contributed to the eventís enduring popularity. Together with the Wingfield Sculls and the Diamond Challenge Sculls, the single sculling event Regatta makes up the Triple Crown in amateur single sculling events.

One of the successes of the Regatta is Steven Redgrave who has won 16 titles of varying description over 20 years at the Regatta. In recent years he has been making the rowing news that has really been hitting the headlines in Great Britain, together with another legendary rowing name; Matthew Pinsent . These two have been at the forefront of an amazing success story in the British teamís Olympic and World Championship rowing. Thanks to this pair, and many other British rowers who have supported them, rowing events are now seen as a major source of medals (including multiple golds) in the Olympic Games and the UK looks forward to great successes every time the World Championships come around.

There are many different rowing events, with one, two, four or eight oarsmen and the crews may be coxed or coxless. Redgrave and Pinsent have won several gold medals in different categories between them. They jointly hold the distinction of winning a total of 14 gold medals at World and Olympic level; a feat not matched by any other rower in history.

For Redgrave, the Gold Rush began in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympic Games when he was part of the Coxed Four crew which won the Gold Medal. He followed this with his first World Championship medal two years later with a victory in the Coxed Pair event at the World Championships in 1986, held at Nottingham ís magnificent facilities at the Holme Pierrepoint based National Watersports Centre. Holme Pierrepoint is a major facility for the sport and is one of only five National Sport Centres in Great Britain, each of which covers a different specialism in sport.†
Matthew Pinsent joined the medal party in 1991 at the Vienna World Championships, winning gold alongside Redgrave in the Coxless Pairs. The pair repeated this feat at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, marking an era of dominance in the sport. They took several more Olympic and World Gold Medals over the next few years, before moving on to tackle the Coxless Fours. The success went on for Britain and the teams including Redgrave and Pinsent continued to dominate. Their punishing training schedule has been documented since, showing the incredible amount of effort and pain that went into these performances. It is made all the more amazing when it came to light that Steven Redgrave had been struggling against ulcerative colitis and diabetes throughout all of this, making it very difficult for him to sustain the necessary energy levels for the sport. Nevertheless, the pair provided some of the most dramatic moments in recent British sporting history. Perhaps none more dramatic than Steven Redgraveís record breaking fifth consecutive Gold Medal at the Sydney Olympics, where the British crew dramatically won the gold by the tiny margin of 0.38 seconds in one of the most nail biting finishes in the history of the sport! Following Redgraveís retirement, Pinsent went on to win Gold again at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, his fourth consecutive Olympic Gold.

It is easy to imagine that with these two great rowers having retired, British dominance would be over in the sport. However, whilst these two will certainly be missed, the Great Britain team was able to retain the fours title and win many other titles at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The inspiration to young rowers from the success of Pinsent and Redgrave, and the excellent facilities provided by the National Sports Centre at Home Pierrepoint seem to be ensuring that British success will continue in future Olympic years and other International events.

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On this day:
Henry VIII ex-communicated - 1538, 1st Bowler Hats go on sale - 1849, The Wright Brothers take Flight - 1903, Mary Bell found Guilty - 1968, IRA bomb Harrods - 1983, Work begins on the Channel Tunnel - 1988, Ian Huntly found Guilty of Soham Murders - 2003
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