Henley Women’s Regatta Journal ’08

The Trip from a Coach’s View

TUESDAY 6/24/08
By: Ola Nwabara – Women’s Graduate Assistant Coach

“An experience of a lifetime.” That’s what the girls have been saying this entire trip. And rightfully so. They have worked hard this season and were awarded the opportunity to go to The Henley Women’s Regatta. As a former rower, I enjoy the opportunity that the girls have been given. I too have had that experience to travel as one of the top eight, but never outside of the country. So this trip has been a new and exciting experience for all.

I had been curious during the time leading up to the trip as to how excited the girls really were. When we met at the RTC in Allendale, I got my answer. There wasn’t a set of teeth I couldn’t see. All nine girls were grinning ear to ear. They enjoyed the long ride to Toronto. They even enjoyed the flight with its minimal choice of dinner and its audio/video system not functioning. And when we finally arrived, the other coaches and I worked on the boats for a long while, and the girls were still in great spirits – taking pictures of each other, the kids in the area learning to row, anything the camera would focus on.

When they were able to finally row, it seemed like the clouds would part and the sun would shine with their excitement. It seemed like the reality of it all was sinking in and that made them anxious and ready to get to work. Long rows, short pieces, practicing 2-3 times a day. It was obvious how far they had come with Coach Bancheri back in the US and how far they were coming in these few short practices before their first race. When their first race did come, I was so proud. I watched the race from the posh launch called “Argonaut”. They started strong, gained a good lead and were solid to the finish. After that race, I was stopped many times with curious people wanting to know “Where is Grand Valley?” The girls really did make a name for themselves. The same thing with the following race – which was in a new boat mind you. They finished strong and even more people were asking about Grand Valley Rowing – including a Grand Valley alum who didn’t know the school had a rowing program. So even though they did not advance to semis, the girls set out to do what they wanted to do – work hard and get people wondering about this team from Allendale, Michigan.

It seemed like the girls would never tire. They wanted to take full advantage of their trip to England on and off the water. They worked hard and well on the water – coming together with girls from two different crews (Varsity/Novice) and then wanted to know what sightseeing they could do off the water. For girls who the majority has never left the country, I felt they were very open to taking advantage of all this new country had to offer. With trips to surrounding cities such as Oxford, Salisbury, LONDON, the girls have had a proper trip to England.

This trip has been a good one. I may be biased, but there may not have been a better group of girls to pioneer this trip for girls to follow in years to come. They took on every challenge and idea with bright smiles, confidence, and heart. I think one of my favorite parts of the trip was the reading of the journals. After each girl wrote the journals that you have read, Alex VanderArk would read them out loud. Even if I was not in the room, I knew what was going on. Laughing and “Oh I can’t believe you added that” filled the room with warmth and joy. It just proved how well the girls were bonding and coming together to truly make this trip one they never would forget… that “experience of a lifetime.”

DAY 9: MONDAY 6/23/08

By: Kelli O’Brien (junior) – bow seat

When we woke up this morning, it was like it was Christmas! When we came downstairs, we had presents waiting for us from the Amsterdam Skoll girls we had met earlier this week and agreed to exchange t-shirts with. They gave us lots of souvenirs from their country: shirts, hats, bags, lucky socks, and even toys. It was a pretty awesome experience to meet and make friends with different rowers from all around the world!

After arriving in London, we quickly decided that the best way to explore the city was to take a sightseeing tour on a double-decker bus. This took us around town to all of the best attractions to see while in London. We made our first stop at the National Gallery, one of the world’s most famous art collections, where we saw works from artists like Leonardo di Vinci and Claude Monet. From there we got back on the bus to see some more of the city. We saw Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral before going over the Tower Bridge to our next stop at the Tower of London. There, people went through the nearly 1,000 year fortress to see the Crowned Jewels and to learn about the execution and torture that once took place there. From there it was off to the London Eye. This giant Ferris wheel gave us one of the most amazing views of the entire city. We then made our way to the beautiful Buckingham Palace. Though we didn’t make it through the palace, it was still quite a sight to see. Plus, we got to see the changing of the guards. After a long and exciting day of sightseeing, we ended the night with dinner at an English pub and then took the train back to Henley.

As the trip winds down to a close, I look back on what an awesome experience this has been for all of us. I mean, we just spent a week and a half in England, racing at one of the most prestigious regattas in the world! Not too many people can say that. I am so proud of what we have accomplished. We came together beautifully as a boat, both on and off the water. We worked hard and really made a name for ourselves over here. And after all the racing was over, we have had an opportunity to experience a whole new country. Most of us have never made it out of the United States (Canada doesn‘t really count), and now we have seen some of the best England has to offer. So thank you to all of you who have made this trip possible; it truly has been the experience of a lifetime!

Quote of Day: Kendra (to a rower on the train) – Are you rowing at the Henley?
Rower – No, I have to leave for altitude training before going to Beijing for the Olympics.
Kendra: …Oh.

DAY 8: SUNDAY 6/22/08

By: Alex VanderArk (soph) – two seat

Today we decided to go to Oxford. We got up for breakfast at 8am and then headed down to the train station to begin our trip to the city. We split into a couple groups to explore for a few hours. Some of us went to the Christ Church and toured the different sections of the elaborate college and others went to the Oxford museum to look around for a while. Bob was going to take a picture of the group in front of the beautiful church, but as he was backing up he fell off a two foot high ledge before he could get the shot. We all started to burst out laughing at him as he rolled around on the ground with a huge smile on his face. He remained unharmed. While at the church, we saw some of the places where scenes from Harry Potter were filmed. After we were finished looking around the city, we got back on the train to go watch the last races of the Henley Women’s Regatta.

We watched a few races go by and cheered on the American teams. Trinity College (Hartford, CT) ended up winning the Senior eight event in which we raced. After the races were done, we looked around at the Henley merchandise. On our way back from the course we had to carry our oars back to the B&B. We caused quite a scene walking down main street in Henley with eight giant oars in our hands. Tonight we’re going to get dinner on the town and explore a little more of Henley before we head to London tomorrow.

Quote of the Day: Katie P. – How do you like that crepe? Kelsey – Did you just call me a creep?

DAY 7: SATURDAY 6/21/08

By: Kendra Socks (soph) – three seat


Our second race was against the National University of Ireland. I was uneasy before the start, taking my last few shaky breaths before we gave it all away. I steadily gripped the wet handle in my hands, sitting still before we got lined up. It was rainy and cloudy outside. So many thoughts were running through my mind. And then I saw it. Sarah turned around and smiled, all the way back from seven seat. See, there’s a time in every hard race, where a decision has to be made: A decision to go to the end, never holding back, never pulling hard enough, never being satisfied. An understanding, that everything is possible. A belief, and that we will sacrifice everything for the ones we love. And all in that second, I decided that I couldn’t let that smile down.


Our third race was against Thames Rowing Club. As the flag went down we took off. I never think too much during a race, just little flashes and fragments of thought and colors. Sometimes rowers get distracted, “eyes in the boat”. Today, every time I thought about looking outside, I just stared at the word “Lakers” in front of me, on the back of Katie, my pair partners, unisuit. I looked and I thought, “This is the only thing that matters now. She’s the only thing that matters. Not the other boats, no one else, just right here, right now, our boat. This is all we have control over. They had us off the start, no big surprise. GV dominates the middle thousand, and we knew we had a chance to gain back on them. We wanted it so bad I could feel the tension. In the midst of the splashing of water, the thundering of resolute oarlocks, and Alex’s breathing, I could hear Katie’s words in fragments. “Stern pair…Sam…help her out…Sam…5 and 6… 3 and 4…power house…” Like I said, I can usually barely think. But I knew one thing. One of my teammates needed me to take the weight off her, to take the burden for her. We used to always talk about pulling for each other, theoretically pulling harder so the other person wouldn’t have too, taking the load off of her and onto yourself. I couldn’t pull hard enough. Katie, Sam, Sarah, Kelsey, Katelin, Katie, Kendra, Alex, Kelli…we all needed each other. Before our races, we always pound it back all the way down the boat and then give high fives all the way up. Today, when Katie passed it down, she said, “I trust you”, and I heard the silent “I trust yous” all the way through the boat. Before the race she told us, “Trust in each other, trust in yourselves, trust in me.” Now I can finally drink coffee, and I don’t even want it anymore.

Quote of the Day: Sarah – Are you mad too Bob? Bob – Yea, I’m mad I haven’t taken a shower in four days.

DAY 6: FRIDAY 6/20/08

By: Katie Phelan (soph) – four seat

I always knew that putting on the Varsity unisuit for the first time would make me nervous. When that fact was combined with being in England, racing only one other team at a time, and rowing in a relatively new boat, I was amazed at the extent of my own inability to calm down. I definitely had nerves to deal with, but I knew there were bigger things to focus on.

This morning was the first morning we got to sleep in. Breakfast at nine was followed up by a quick nap for most of us before we needed to be awake, in order to obey the “be up three hours before racing” policy. When everyone was up, we sat around the living room reading or talking, staying hydrated, and trying not to be too nervous.

Excitement started generating as we walked down to the racecourse. We had some time to stretch out and relax and I could feel us all getting more focused as we talked through the race plan and the coaches checked the boat.

We launched and rowed downstream to the starting line, throwing in some high twenties and starts to prepare for the race ahead. Katie lined us up flawlessly in the starting block and our opponent, Auriol Kenzington, aligned themselves beside us. It was surprising to note that their coxie was an older man. We quickly refocused, zeroing in on our own boat, and with a deep breath and a quick “Attention… row!” the race began.

Legs and arms, legs and arms, three quick strokes and one swing and we propelled ourselves into the power twenty. Every stroke was filled with force and purpose, pushing out the nerves and breathing in the dry air, striving for that perfect rhythm. We quickly created some distance between our boat and Auriol Kenzington, and were able to gradually drop the stroke rate, at the command of Coach Mark, who was frantically biking alongside the race course, shouting at us.

We picked up the pace through the finish line, finishing several boatlengths ahead of our competition. We let it run, took a moment to breathe and absorb the result of our first race at Henley, and then paddled into the dock. We had just finished putting our boat on the rack when a redheaded British boy (who may or may not have been Ron Weasley) asked us where we wanted our Resolute. A fleet of English boys quickly appeared behind him, the smooth black boat up on their shoulders. After a bit of confusion, we figured out the Resolute was intended for the Grand Valley boys who will be racing next week. Everyone looked around at each other, noting the discrepancy between the size and color of our boat and the new one, and shortly thereafter took the Resolute out for a test row. There were a few complaints (Mark gave us a two minute “complaint window”), but adjustments were made and ultimately, the boat moved well, so we will likely be competing in the Resolute from here on out.

After docking and walking back to the B&B, we completed a strange combination of stuffing our faces with pancakes and bacon, and putting on sundresses. We had only a short amount of time to get ready for the Henley Welcome Reception, held at the rowing museum, so most of us sported ponytails with our high heels and we walked back downtown.

The reception was short but worth the hustle it took to get there – we met crews from Scotland, Amsterdam, and Hamilton (in the U.S.). The girls were all friendly and talkative, and it was interesting to compare tales of travel and preparation with crews from around the world.

As the day winds down, we are getting ready for an early bedtime to prepare for our 9:00 race in the morning. We couldn’t have asked for a better first race, but we know we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Other crews will be fast, but so are we, and we are excited for the challenges ahead of us.

Quote of the Day: “Your girls had a tidy race.” (The umpire (official) to Ola in the launch)

DAY 5: THURSDAY 6/19/08

By: Katelin Steigenga (junior) – five seat

This morning we woke up to a beautiful morning. It was bright and sunny and the perfect temperature for our last practice of the year and before we race here in Henley. In this last practice we worked on some more starts and sprints. We also worked on technique and just rowing solid. It was a great practice to end on before our races. I definitely feel that we are prepared to race tomorrow.

After practice we came back to our house to freshen up and eat some lunch. Once lunch was done we were on our way to go on a tour of the Leander Boathouse/club which is one of the fastest boat clubs in England and where the English National team’s four is training. In this tour we learned a lot about the history of the club and a cool part of the club is that half of it is a restaurant and hotel, where all the money goes to the club’s expenses. Another cool part about our tour was we got to meet some of the guys who live at the boathouse while they are rowing for the club. One of the guys that we met has won the Henley Royal Regatta five times. We were very greatful to the rowers who let us tour their boathouse, it was a wonderful experience to see what rowing is like at the elite level.

Once our tour was done we went to visit the Medieval Catholic Church that is on the route back from the race course. It was a beautiful church with a bell tower that was built in the 16th century and had an old cemetery. After we visited the church we went to check out the farmer’s market that was set up in the town square. Some people also split off in to groups to do some shopping in town. Once everyone got back we had a snack and played charades. Next some people went to take naps to rest up for tomorrow, however, Sarah, Alex, Ola, Mark and I tried to entertain ourselves while everyone else was sleeping since we had so much energy. First we played winky, which is a game where one person is the murderer and they wink at someone to kill them. We quickly got sick of this game because we didn’t have enough people to play with us. After winky we played blink, which is a high speed game that is like speed. This also came quickly to an end because Sarah kept winning and we accused Coach Mark of cheating, which he did. After blink it was down to just Sarah, Alex, Ola and I. We came up with some pretty awesome games that involved cups. First we played CUPS, it is a combination of clapping and moving cups from one person to the next; as the game progresses the speed increases. Once we had enough of CUPS we moved to making up games while sliding them across the table. This was extremely funny and amusing to the four of us. While we were playing games Coach Bob was making a scrumptious dinner of spaghetti and meatballs and salad. Now that we have finished dinner we are just relaxing some more. Oh by the way Alex was learning how to tie a necktie. Since our day is coming to a close I feel that we are pumped and ready to go, we just need to hydrate. We as a team feel that we are blessed to be here and to have this opportunity to row in the oldest and most prestigious regatta in the world, I know that we will never forget this experience.

Quote of the day: “I had a dream that I was at a cake buffet… it was amazing!”
(The first words Kelsey Arnold said as she woke up)

DAY 4: WEDNESDAY 6/18/08

By: Kelsey Arnold (soph) – six seat

Today we woke up a little before seven o’clock to Ola singing, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream….”. Everyone was still a little groggy from the jet lag, but excited to be rowing in England! After munching on toast, bagels, and cereal we headed out for our two morning practices. It looked like it was going to rain so we wore rain gear, but it only sprinkled a bit. We did drills and steady state for the first practice, and we were set even though it was windy. After taking it in and resting for half and hour we went out again for some starts. Our boat is getting better everyday because we are learning to work together as a team, and I can’t wait to race!

After showering we took a bus down to Marlow, which was about 15 minutes away. The bus driver was driving like a maniac! He was swerving through the tiny lanes and passing cars at inappropriate times. It was no big deal to all the regulars on the bus, but to us it was frightening! We were concerned for the little European cars around us; if we were to hit them they would squash like bugs. Shops lined the streets, and we visited as many as we could. Some of us bought things, but we thought twice before purchasing because the currency rate doubles the price. After a few hours we stopped to rest at a pub called Carpenter Arms before we had to catch the bus back to Henley. People around us frequently asked us why we were here, and knew all about the Henley Royal Regatta, and rowing in general. Their culture is surrounded in rowing, and they all have respect and appreciation for the sport.

At five o’clock we headed out to our third and last practice of the day. We did ten starts with twenty high strokes following. We have to fine tune our starts, since our race is only 1500 meters. All the starts went well, despite the gusty wind. We got home to a house filled with delicious hamburgers and homemade French fries made by coach Ola. We filled our hungry stomachs and chatted contently until bedtime. We are all anxious for the races to come, and to see how we compare with some of the top rowers in the world.

Quote of the day: Ola – How are the burgers? Bob – Good if you like wind.
(Ola asking about dinner and Bob thinking she asked about the river.)

DAY 3: TUESDAY 6/17/08

By: Sarah Zelenka (junior) – seven seat

“A whirlwind of activity.” That is how today could have been described. The day started with the gentle awakening of Ola saying, “Sarah Sarah wakey wakey!” at 6:45 am. We all piled down the stairs to a wonderful table setting and continental-type breakfast with “substantial” muffins and croissants. Then it was back off to Ship Lake College where the coaches made additional adjustments to our speed vessel. We then set off for our Henley on Thames rowing adventure where we were accompanied by Coach Mark running alongside us on a quaint pathway next to the river.

The first lock was not but 10 minutes from our starting point. We easily coasted into the locks, gently pulling our oars in because of the narrow passageway. We sat between the walls awaiting the water line to recede. There was no one there to manage the lock so Coach Mark had to manually turn the wheel, making him a little tired J. When we finally started descending, everyone was filled with joy and excitement. Kelsey shouted to us, “THIS IS AN EXPERIENCE OF A LIFETIME!” All of us throwing our hands in the air, realizing that what she declared was true.

During our row we found it hard to concentrate and focus because of the beautiful scenery. The houses lining the river were nearly the size of castles and just as magical. We made it to the second lock within a half hour of the first, operating it the same as before, but this time there was a lock master working it, making the process much faster. After the second lock we rowed a little ways further downstream coming up to the main part of town. We stopped at where the men will be docking and rested for about five minutes, then got back in the boat and went for a swing around the racecourse. After the row we needed to borrow some slings to put our boat on to make some final adjustments. Mark told us to ask the guys from the Leander boathouse to lend us some. We walked over to find them busy washing their boats. We asked one of them for a sling, in which they responded in a rich, british accent, “ah yes, trussels.” We bashfully giggled, trying not to stare at their large, sculpted muscles. They gave us the slings where we walked back to our boat, finding out later that they were on the English National team.

After the long morning row, we walked back to the B&B where we were surprised to find a fridge full of delicious food and treats. Discovering Nutella, a treat many of us were not familiar with, (even though it is sold in the U.S. as well) was GREAT! Everyone here can say that they absolutely love it. We ate lunch and took showers, getting ready for the next activities of the day.

We decided to stay in Henley and tour the streets of the town, first walking to the River and Rowing museum. There, we learned much history of the sport of rowing and how it evolved into what it is today. We appreciated the information and fun, interactive activities displayed there. We now have a deeper understanding of what we devote so much time and dedication. On the way back from the museum we stopped for some England-style ice cream where we all indulged in flavors from vanilla to raspberry to coconut. We stopped in some dress shops, which we found were trendy but out of our American budget.

We then walked back for our second practice, a light row around the course with some stationary drills. While on the race course we saw many other fast-looking crews in fours, doubles, and eights. I felt very proud that our team is given the opportunity to engage in such a prestigious and life-changing experience. After the row we walked back to the house where Bob had prepared a scrumptious, homemade, chicken broccoli alfredo dish, which we devoured quite quickly. We sat in the living room talking, laughing, and anticipating the rest of our trip, especially the racing. Being here has really made me see how lucky I am to be part of such an amazing program, filling me with memories that I am going to share for a lifetime. I can’t wait to get started racing, and hopefully win an international regatta.

Quote of the day: “Listen for those one sounds.”
(Katie Higgins referring to listening to the bell note during catch placement drills)

DAY 2: MONDAY 6/16/08

By: Sam Morgan (soph) – stroke seat

We arrived to the London Gatwick airport around noon and had no trouble getting our luggage and all the oars were still in good shape! There was a long line through customs, but there were no problems. The man asked me what I was visiting for and I told him the Henley regatta and he asked me if we came to beat the Brits and I said yes. He laughed and said he didn’t know if he should be patriotic or sympathetic, and wished me luck. We didn’t get as many weird looks for carrying oars in the London airport because we are now in the land where rowing started and it’s both intimidating and exciting.

We got a rental van and car which we loaded up with all of our luggage and put the oars on top and headed toward Henley. There were no problems with driving on the left side of the road, but our van is the “biggest car in all of Europe” according to Coach Mark and the roads are really narrow which leads to some backseat driving. I did not see much of England during our hour long ride from the airport to Henley because I fell asleep as did a few other girls. We were all awake, though, when we arrived at the city of Henley-on-Thames. It is a very quaint little town and has a lot of shops and pubs. The Bed and Breakfast is actually more like a rental house because the owners don’t live here, but they come in the morning to make us breakfast. It is a really nice place with a big kitchen and cute little backyard. There are three bedrooms: two have bunk beds for the rowers and Ola, and the other has two twin beds for Bob and Mark.

After we arrived at the Milton House we went to town to find something to eat while Bob stayed and tried to contact the place where we got our boat. The town is a very short walk from the house. We ate at a pub where a lot of us got fish and chips. The food was very good and we were very hungry. Upon returning we got back in the cars and went to the Shiplake College where our boat awaited us. The College is a boarding school for boys and they were playing cricket and having crew practice at the boathouse. Either it was a really hot day for them or it was everybody’s birthday because they kept throwing eachother in the river while we rigged the boat. The Empacher comes in two pieces and we put it together and unpackaged the oars. After the rowers did all they could to help, the coaches told us to get out of the way and stretch so we would stop moving the boat. The stretching quickly turned into a photoshoot and we took a lot of pictures as a team and of the beautiful scenery around the boathouse.

By the time all the measurements were set on the boat it was too late to row the boat down to Henley and the locks were closed. We went for a row just to check everything and tomorrow we will do the 12k row after we make more adjustments.

We are now taking showers and getting settled in. The owners came over to make sure that we have everything we need and they are very nice and helpful. It looks like it will be a very enjoyable and comfortable stay and an overall exciting trip. I look forward to beating the Brits!

Quote of the Day: “Taco is good, because there comes a lot of tortilla.”
(Sarah Zelenka – about homemade dinner ideas)

DAY 1: SUNDAY 6/15/08
(Late post due to inability to access internet from airport.)

By: Katie Higgins (soph) – coxswain

The women’s varsity team left Grand Rapids this morning a little after 9 and started on their way towards the Toronto Airport. I met up with the team at a McDonalds in Flint for lunch before we continued en route for the Airport. As we walked in together dressed in our team polo’s and khakis, a man approached me and began to tell me all about his experience with crew when he was younger. He told me that he rowed for General Motors and how it was by far one of the best times of his life. As he started in on his abridged life story, he gave me little tips here and there, one being how to counteract cottonmouth. So in case anyone is curious he told me that the best way he found to prevent cottonmouth was to keep rocks in your mouth, and no I’m not kidding. He told me that the best rocks to use were the ones found along the rail beds and that you only needed 2-3 clean ones. He went on to wish us the best of luck on our adventure and I have to admit it felt really good to have the complete support of an absolute stranger.

When we reached the border between the US and Canada, we had to of course explain why we were crossing the border and the woman questioning us was shocked when we told her we were headed to England. As Coach Bob explained that we were going to England to race, her eyes grew wide and she told us she had never heard of anything like that before. (Later I found out that she also asked Kyle Lemoine if the oars in the back of the truck could be used as weapons. He calmly assured her that they were far too heavy to be used as weapons).

The rest of the ride from the border to the airport was quiet and uneventful as most of the girls slept. We arrived at the airport about 6 hours prior to our flight and got some of the most entertaining looks from fellow travelers as we brought the packaged oars into the airport. We checked all of our luggage and then watched nervously as a baggage handler attempted to wheel all of our oars into the oversized cargo area. He looked particularly perplexed as he tried to clumsily tape them onto his cart. I can only hope that they arrive with us safely and undamaged.

Everything went smoothly from passing through security to finding our gate and waiting around for a few hours. We all got the opportunity to pay a large amount of money for relatively small airport meals. While we were waiting to board the plane, a British couple sitting next to us gave a brief “English” lesson. We learned that “bonnet” means the hood of a car, a “window-screen” is the windshield, and the “boot” is none other than the trunk of a car. Finally they began to call rows forward to board the plane, and while we had all boarded on time for our departure at 9:50pm, we didn’t end up taking off until shortly after 11pm due to storms.

The plane ride itself went smoothly, which made it a good first flight for Katelin Steigenga….congrats on surviving your first flight!! :)…….I think the best part of the flight was watching the sunrise as it created a rainbow of colored clouds throughout the sky.

Overall I think everyone was excited to finally be on our way, but I don’t think the reality of what we’re about to experience has hit any of us yet. All of the girls and coaches seem to be relaxed and just enjoying each other’s company. Personally I’m eager to see what’s in store for us in England. I’m excited to see differences in culture, the infamous sites and attractions I’ve always heard about, and the racecourse on the Thames River. I hope to have some of the best races of our lives, to prove that we are the crew to beat, and to just make everyone back home exceedingly proud since we could not be doing this without all of you. I’m sure none of us say this enough but THANK YOU! Thank you for all of your support, your donations, and your faith in us.

Quote of the day: “I’m a duck! Wait why am I a duck?”
(Katelin Steigenga asking about why Katie Higgins called her a duck about her first time on a plane – because ducks are calm above water, and anxious beneath)

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