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News > Alumni stories > Sam Hayes-Newington's journey to compete at Henley Royal Regatta

Sam Hayes-Newington's journey to compete at Henley Royal Regatta

Old Mole Sam (class of 2016), now in his final year at Abingdon School, writes about his crew's journey to Henley to compete alongside the world's elite rowers in August 2021.
15 Mar 2022
Alumni stories

Henley Royal Regatta, one of the most, if not the most, prestigious rowing events in the world. There was a lot of pressure on the nine boys chosen to represent the school. 

The road to Henley started off rough, uncertainty related to COVID-19 was at an all-time high. The journey began back in March 2020 when the Prime Minister announced a lockdown. It soon became clear that we would not be able to compete for the rest of the season with both National Schools and Henley Royal Regatta being cancelled. With no more racing in 2020, we began to focus on the 2021 season by training throughout the summer on our ergos, bikes and homemade weights. Slowly restrictions were eased and we had a very productive Michaelmas term with great progress made on and off the water. 

Just as we were building up momentum for a promising season ahead we were once again submerged into another lockdown and hopes of a racing season started to fade as we took to our bedrooms and garages to train in some very dark and bleak winter days. The camaraderie of the whole squad really shone through during those months with training every day being hosted on zoom, making us feel like we were all going through the pain of the tough sessions together, which definitely made us stronger as a unit. 

Once things started to open up again, with a backdrop of snow and freezing temperatures, we went to Goring Gap for some intense seat-racing, where over one weekend we completed nine races to select the fastest crews. With the First and Second VIII decided, we started preparing for the race, which was a mere five weeks away, plus we had never rowed together! 

At the National Schools Regatta, we grabbed 4th place in the flagship event, which solidified us as one of the quickest schoolboy crews in the country, and put us in a good mindset for the massive project ahead. Due to the lack of recent racing, we took every opportunity to race, attending the Metropolitan and Marlow Regattas both “behind closed doors” so no one could spectate. Racing in silence was an experience that will not be forgotten anytime soon, as we needed to be significantly more mentally resilient. 

After the end of the summer term, we took training to a new level: five to six hours a day, six days a week, for six weeks before Henley. This period truly tested our determination with a rigorous training block amounting to over 200km of rowing, multiple land sessions and a long cycle ride in the space of 12 days without a day off. However, with the great camaraderie and love for the sport, the six weeks went past as though it was a holiday. Everyone believed in one another and we were all aiming towards one goal.

Knowing that we had trained through three lockdowns, chosen to ignore countless opportunities to go out and lost nearly our entire summer for this one event really built up the pressure. We set out on Monday for our first proper training session on the historic course at Henley and the tension started to build as the 450 other racing crews began to arrive. To add to the pressure, the upper sixth received their A-Level results the day before the Regatta started. Due to our strong result at the National Schools, we were seeded and received a bye on the first day of racing, making Thursday our first race day.  We went for our final training session on Wednesday evening as the first day of the Regatta had come to a close and the atmosphere off the bank was electric with music blaring everywhere and countless pleasure boats speeding up the river making the water very tough to row on, a sign of what was to come and one of the joys of Henley.

Then came Thursday, the big day. Lining up against Bedford School in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup at 12:20, the last race before lunch with the busiest crowds of the day. We boated from the competitor’s enclosure and carried out our warm-up on the way down to the start line, at this point, it all became very real. The cheers from the bank for us were unbelievable and we felt so pumped up and ready to show our true colours. We lined up on the stake boats and came under the umpire’s call. 

“Abingdon, Bedford, when I see that you are both straight and ready I shall start you like this, Attention, Go! ”. At this point, the adrenaline was pumping and we were ready to give it our all, as all eight pink and white blades locked in the water.  “Attention, Go!” and the flag dropped. 

We were off with a very fast start out of the blocks and continued to extend our lead to the Fawley marker (around 1000m into the 2112m course). Although we were all zoned out during the race, the noise from the bank was indescribable and the support for us throughout was overwhelming. We began to bring our rate of striking down as our lead extended to 4 ½ lengths as we crossed the finish line. We were the quickest schoolboy crew to the Barrier and the Fawley marker on that day.

However, we had big opponents the next day in the quarter-finals of the competition, St. Edwards. Sadly, even though we left everything out there we didn’t come out on top. After leading by a length to the Barrier, St Edwards, unfortunately, managed to claw back past us and win by a margin of two lengths. This was a very emotional moment as, although we were devastated that we couldn’t reach the semi-finals, we knew we had given it our all and looked back at the last year with real pride to have finished our Henley campaign as the best Abingdon School Crew in seven years, and one of the top school crews in the country. We did thoroughly enjoy the rest of the Regatta as a crew without the stress of another race to put ourselves through.

We are hugely grateful to our parents for their unbelievable dedication ensuring we could be ferried to and from training every day as well as our coaches for their wisdom and enthusiasm during lockdowns and the summer holidays as they made it a thoroughly enjoyable project that we will all look back on with pride. Despite the hardship of relentless training as a crew, our friendships and humour always shone through, and these will be memories that we will all cherish forever.


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