A month after winning its fifth consecutive national title, the Huskies will move up to the intermediate level at the prestigious event in England.
A month after winning a fifth consecutive national championship, an unprecedented achievement in its sport, what does the Washington men’s rowing team do for an encore?
It goes gunning for another trophy, this time at one of rowing’s most celebrated international gatherings, the Henley Royal Regatta in Henley-on-Thames, England, west of London.
The Henley, as crew fans know it, is a five-day event beginning July 1 that was first conducted in 1839. This regatta, the 176th, will involve 526 crews from 18 countries, including rowing’s reigning Olympic gold medalist (Germany) and World champion (Great Britain) in men’s eights.
UW wins at Henley
1977 – Grand Challenge Cup (men’s eight)
1977 – Visitors’ Challenge Cup (men’s coxless four)
1981 – Ladies Challenge Plate (men’s eight)
2000 – Henley Prize (women’s eight)
2003 – Ladies Challenge Plate (men’s eight)
2010 – Temple Cup Challenge (men’s eight)
2012 – Temple Cup Challenge (men’s eight)
“If you compare it to tennis, this would be one of the majors,” said UW men’s coach Michael Callahan. “At one point in time people considered it to be the world championship. It’s a significant regatta, and to win it is a significant life achievement in a rower’s career.”
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A Washington boat first took part at the Henley in 1958, and in 12 past appearances UW has won titles in seven categories, most recently taking the Temple Cup Challenge (for university-level eight-man crews) in 2012 and 2010.
This year Washington will compete in one higher category — the intermediate level, known as the Ladies Challenge Plate, which involves club and university teams.
Callahan is bringing the entire varsity eight crew that carried UW to a fifth straight national title with a 2.7-second win in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association grand final in New Jersey on May 31.
Two other American men’s eights, Princeton (third at the IRAs) and Yale (first in the IRA petite final, for boats that did not qualify for the grand final), are in the Ladies Challenge Plate field, along with high-level club teams from Germany and Australia. Every race is a two-boat race; “knockout racing,” as it is known locally. “Every race matters,” Callahan said.
UW is also sending two four-man crews, one with coxswain and one without. Eric Ledbetter, a senior and a Lakeside graduate, will again be part of the men’s eight.
Lisa Caldwell, a senior out of Interlake, will serve as coxswain for UW’s coxed four. Phil Walczak, a sophomore from Archbishop Murphy, is rowing in one of the fours along with sophomore Jake Zier (Orcas Island). These crews have remained in training after their postseason collegiate races.
Callahan says alumni sponsor the trip, and the program reaps many benefits for making the effort.
“It’s a prestigious event, so it’s a huge reward for our guys,” he said. “It’s like going to the Rose Bowl or Kentucky Derby. There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance. When you drive into the town, it’s an incredible atmosphere. For rowers who know the history of this event, rowing there is a big event on their bucket list. It’s really special, just super first-class.”
Callahan says facing high-level international crews can pay off during collegiate competition. The UW men’s varsity eight has lost to the Great Britain and New Zealand national teams in the past two Windermere Cups yet went on to win the past two IRA titles.
“It helps us race to our highest ability, and that’s something we’ll aspire to at the Henley,” Callahan said. “It allows our guys to race against people who we would not ordinarily race against, and it gives you the feel of being on a bigger stage, an international stage.
“Rowing is an international sport. It helps us learn more about ourselves, how to get faster. When you’re around other athletes of that caliber, it raises up your ability. That’s what we’re here for, to keep pushing higher. To be the best, it’s good to be around the best.”
Men’s eight uses boat housed in England
The men’s eight will row in a boat, the John N. Nordstrom, that was manufactured last year in Germany and is permanently racked at a boat club in England. “Most universities borrow or rent boats, and you never know what you’re going to get when you do that,” Callahan said. “Having our own shell in Henley is like an insurance policy, knowing you’re going to have level equipment there. This will be the first time we’ve rowed it, and we’re looking forward to it.”
UW at ‘right’ level at intermediate
A UW men’s eight last rowed at Henley in 2013 in the regatta’s premier race, the Grand Challenge Cup, and placed second despite equaling the record time for the 2,112-meter (1-mile, 550-yard) course. Great Britain’s national team set a record in winning.
Callahan says the intermediate level is the right category for UW this year. “We’re not going to beat the Olympic champions,” he said. “We’re not racing down, though. That would be like saying, ‘Oh, Washington, you’re only playing Ohio State? Why aren’t you playing the Seahawks?’ So no, we’re not racing down. We’re facing strong boats.”
• Many of the seniors on the trip were in the winning boat in UW’s 2010 Temple Cup Challenge. “Their careers started here, and it’s rewarding for them that it can end here,” said Callahan, making his fourth visit to Henley as UW’s coach. He rowed for the Huskies as a junior during the crew’s 1995 visit. That boat set a course-record time during a split and that tie is still displayed on one of the course markers. “Someone equaled the time but didn’t surpass it,” Callahan said. “It’s pretty cool that it’s still there.”
• Beyond winning the last five men’s national championships, Washington has won seven of the last nine. Callahan says the magnitude of the UW accomplishments sank in during this year’s IRA award ceremony. “The silver and bronze medalists have their medals put around their necks while they’re still in their boats,” he said. “When you win, you get to get out of the boat and stand on the dock to get your medals. I thought, ‘Oh, wow, I’ve been on the dock five years in a row.’ I thought about how special that was, how many people contributed to those moments.”