Every year, thousands of athletes from all over the world converge on a little Oxfordshire town all with different agendas, but one thing in their hearts they all want to race there at the annual Henley Royal Regatta. Some, like us, have to go through the qualifiers in order to compete before competing. Or not as the case may be.
Somehow, I knew there was irony afoot when my employer asked me to go to a conference in Disneyland Paris, which was to finish on the same day as qualifiers. I politely informed them that I was going to Henley on the Friday and that I would need to leave the conference early. They agreed. The first time I started to get nervous about qualifiers was when I was checking out of the Wild West themed hotel and saying my goodbyes to other delegates. I realised then, qualify or not, we were attempting something special.
It had, to say the least, been a while since an Avon County crew had qualified for Henley. What gave this away I don't know but it could have been the knowing look in people's eyes as they said: "Good luck!"
The day of qualifiers woke to bright sunshine and the promise of a classic Summer's day. For me, this usually meant Hayfever but today I had sorted my drugs in advance and so I was unaffected by this. I would, of course, like to point out that the treatment I used was clear with all sports governing bodies as legal! My Pharmacist and I had a long discussion about it....
I had agreed to tow the rather large trailer with solitary coxed four on it to Henley, for the qualifiers, and for the Ironbridge Regatta we were going to after. The closer we got to Henley, the more the contents of our trailer hinted at our intentions on the Britannia Challenge Cup. We were going to contest it. At this point, I should like to point out who my colleagues were, for this intrepid adventure:Robin Latham (stroke), Guy Burlington (three), Me (two), Steve Locke (bow), Beth Hockley (cox).
On arrival at Henley, we were ushered into a suitable spot to leave the trailer and pick-up and assemble our bid for qualification. A bit of brutal but effective boat modification by Barry Bathe-Taylor ensured a damaged shoulder would cause us no problems (with the boat - the man's not a surgeon) and we headed for the water for a trial run. We were joined by Stan Collingwood who had very kindly agreed, with Barry, to offer us some coaching and advice. Without their help, the day would simply have not been manageable for us and so I would like to take this opportunity to thank them both once again.
Bobbily water meant we were rather tentative with the boat at first but soon got to grips with the way we were being juggled about by the Thames. It was as if the river was saying: "Hey fellas, I'm in charge here!" There was a silence in the boat too, as many crews rowed about us and the gravity of the situation we were in started to hit home. After about half an hour on the water, we went in search of food in Henley itself. Barry had informed us of a "too good to miss" opportunity for a big slap-up meal in the railway station cafe so off we went. Sadly, it was shut. We eventually found ourselves in a "Mrs Miggins Pie Shoppe" type venue, enjoying omelette and chips in a way only rowers seem to manage. Basically, think full plate and empty plate, simultaneously.
When we returned to the boat, the time was soon upon us to make our way to the famous start, at Temple Island. We had the dubious privilege of being the first crew off. I shall never forget the blank expression on the face of the official start marshal as we got lined up for our run. I cheerily greeted all in the start launch with: "Hello there!" It was met with nothing more then an unemotional stare. Not impolite you understand, but unemotional is about as far away from what I was feeling as you could have got. It's never been said, but I reckon the rest of the crew felt the same.
I don't remember much after: "Five, four, three two, one, go!" However, I will not forget the echoes of Beth's voice as my total and utter focus through the seven or so minutes we were travelling down that course. I couldn't tell you what she was saying but I can tell you there was not a second's silence from the speaker just under my feet. She was brilliant. She somehow managed to lift something out of us which we never knew was there. We could not have tried, any of us, harder than we did that day.
They say: "No news is good news." They also say: "Silence is golden." However, "they" have obviously not listened for "Avon County" and been met with something completely different. If we had qualified, we would have been the first crew named as qualifiers. However, we had not been successful. I can't tell you who the first crew was because I was trying to convince myself a mistake had been made and the announcer was about to say: "Oops, sorry. Made a mistake. My handwriting you know. Actually, Avon County have qualified." Anyone who's been to Henley will know, of course, that mistakes like this do not happen.
It turned out we had really only just missed out on qualification. We weren't the fastest non-qualifiers, but we were certainly not the slowest. Given that we had only been together as a crew for a few weeks, and had been borrowing a boat, kindly supplied by Monkton Coombe School, we had done rather well. This is of course with the benefit of hindsight and proved little comfort in the weeks after Henley had taken place.
Why reflect now, then? Well, we are about to start a bid for qualification in 2000 and we still don't know in which event. It looks likely that we'll be going for the Wyfold Challenge Cup this year once the club has acquired a suitable coxless four. We don't know yet whom the crew will contain. I hope to be there. This year, I will also make another attempt to squeeze a smile out of those start marshals. I bet, if we qualify, they'll afford a little grin at least. Darren Rhodes.