Henley Rowing Club- The Junior Women’s Squad

Before I begin, I’m going to take this opportunity to explain the idea behind these new blogs. I recently approached a number of clubs in the hope of writing articles about each one, which hopefully offer more than my usual preview/review format. This is the first of those pieces and I’m hoping to keep these going through to HRR. Obviously, the demand from NSR meant I had to peg back the deadline and so I’ve had to update a lot of my stuff since my original meetings with coaches.

Before I begun writing this piece, I was thinking about possible ways to open the article. Obviously I needed it to be catchy, interesting and able to set the scene. My mind ran to superlatives to describe the Henley Rowing Club Junior squad- particularly the girls squad. However, in light of their performances at the National Schools Regatta last weekend, I think I’ve finally run out. Awesome? Incredible? Perfect? The latter is probably a word that David Lister, head coach of the girl’s squad, doesn’t have in his vocabulary- his quest for perfection is driven by his determination to lead his athletes to success and he’ll no doubt have noted any imperfections from the weekend and set about amending those.


Caption- The WNOV8+ that won at WEHORR and broke the course record.

It would be unfair to say that Henley’s junior women squad have only come to the fore this year. In 2012, they won the inaugural Junior Women’s Quadruple Sculls at HRR and Joanna Unsworth competed for GB at the Junior World Championships. Last year, the current J16 squad dominated WJ154x+ and recorded victories at NSR and the British Championships.

The remarkable thing about the success achieved this year is that Henley is, in fact, a club as opposed to a school; this was something that Steve Thompson, junior squad manager, really emphasised when I spoke with him at Bedford. Compared to the traditional powerhouse schools such as Headington and Lady Eleanor Holles, Henley naturally do not have the resources to compete with the vast intake that these institutions accept each year. They are a relatively large club but the extraordinary factor is that they aren’t a one hit wonder; David and his team of coaches have consistently boated crews across the age groups that have won at national level. In a recent piece from British Rowing on Henley’s success at JIRR, David put this down to “good coaching, good equipment, and the hard work and dedication of the competitors”. As true as this analysis is, there are surely other factors that have contributed to their success this year.

Henley won the Victor Ludorum at NSR last weekend, taking home an astonishing 7 gold medals and 3 silvers. Even more remarkable is that every single member of the Henley women’s junior squad won a gold medal. I’m not sure if this has ever happened before and it certainly won’t happen again soon. A full list of their category wins can be found here- http://media.wix.com/ugd/3c0780_aebb5bca819b4d7e87fe7899351faf9e.pdf

For the minute, I’m going to focus on three specific victories.

J14G4x+ 1+2

Building upon their fantastic showing at the OJSH, Henley racked up the win in the A and B categories. They’ve consolidated their position as the dominant force in WJ14 sculling by recording big victories in both categories, with their ‘A’ boat winning by 10 seconds over 1000m. For many athletes, being in the ‘B’ boat is a problem, a perceived failure to achieve standards that they set themselves. For Henley however, it must be a blessing as their strength in depth is remarkable. They looked so assured and confident and a lot of opposition coaches remarked on the quality of their sculling and the composed, efficient technique they displayed. Another factor is the attention to detail; although it means very little in the grand scheme of things, the girls always wear matching kit and look the part. A superb display saw them claim both prizes and the J14 contingent contributed 2 gold medals to the 7 won over the course of the weekend.

J15G8+ and J15G4+

These wins, for me, were the most impressive of the weekend. To have 12 athletes in one age group who are capable of winning at national level is absolutely incredible and the J15G4+ in particular beat some seriously good competition in the form of BMS. Coxed by Rebecca Lister, the J15G8+, racing in their Hudson shell which was sponsored by Warranty Direct, won the event that they have dominated all year long. They recorded a huge 31 second victory at the SHORR in March and, on Saturday, destroyed the field to take the prize by an impressive 6 seconds over local rivals Marlow and Sir William Borlase School. The J15G4+, who I wasn’t aware of until they recorded a victory over a much fancied BMS crew at Bedford Regatta, raced superbly and would be in the age group’s top boat at pretty much any other club. Another example of the strength across age groups.


Caption- The women’s J15 VIII looking strong on their way to a win in WJ158+ at the Schools Head of the River


A really assured and confident display of sculling saw these girls win the prize that pretty much every betting rower in Britain expected them to win. Their margin of victory in the final, a stonking 12 seconds, was a reflection of the fact that they are, arguably, too good for this age group. The allure of HRR and that Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup on home water must be playing on the minds of these girls, who have swept all before them at J16 level. Their splits show that they constantly accelerated away from the field and this consistency in speed is the hallmark of a top quality crew. I had the pleasure of meeting the girls themselves on Sunday and it struck me as to how relaxed and unassuming they all were; they were true professionals and this is a reflection of the quality of coaching and support they have received. Speaking to David Lister a few weeks ago, he said that the squad were most certainly targeting HRR and that they would boat ‘their fastest crew’ from whatever age groups those girls came from. That is a truly exciting prospect and one I look forward to seeing in the coming weeks.


Caption- The Henley WJ164x crew on their way to victory in the WJ164x category at the Oarsport Junior Sculling Head in March

I was lucky enough to meet with Steve and David a few weeks ago at Bedford Regatta and they spoke to me about the prospects for the remainder of the season.

David identified a number of key competitors in the form of Lady Eleanor Holles, Headington and Sir William Perkins and also spoke of his ‘happiness’ with the current progress of his squad and acknowledged that, at that time, ‘everything was going to plan’ – the girls won every event they boated a crew for that day so his satisfaction was justified! David also identified the inconvenience caused by the lack of dredging from the environmental agency- Henley were heavily hit by the flooding earlier this year. The Head Coach also pointed to the support received from local companies, such as Warranty Direct, in helping the girls achieve their goals.

I didn’t want to take up too much more of David’s time as he was attempting to coordinate a number of crews so Steve Thompson, my original contact at the club and junior squad manager, kindly stepped in.

Steve really emphasised the importance of goal-setting, both at Bedford Regatta and National Schools when we spoke again.

My Question- ‘How do you achieve such consistent success across all those age groups?’ 

Steve: ‘Goal setting and organisation is so important. At the beginning of each season, we hold a meeting with the girls and parents to explain what it takes to achieve at the highest level. We tell them ‘you have to do this, this and this’ and then you’ll achieve. 

My Question- ‘There must be some magic formula though? Surely? Why isn’t anyone else managing this level of success?’

Steve: ‘There is no magic formula, the technical drills we do at Henley are obviously different to other clubs as is normal but the approach to training is probably very similar. Commitment and a positive attitude are the essential things we ask for- the parents and athletes really buy into that and that is so important. The tactics of top quality rowing filter through the system and we are lucky here at Henley to have such superb coaches, parents and athletes to build a squad around’.

My Question- ‘Tell me more about this support’

Steve: ‘Take, for example, our recent Easter training camp at Dorney Lake. Without the fantastic support from parents, this would not have been possible. The camp really helped as it allowed us a lot of water time to seat-race the athletes. The squad is incredibly competitive and the parents buy into the success of the club along with the legacy of the junior women’s squad and this aura really helps to attract new members, who want to be a part of this project. Additionally, the support received from local companies and press has been fantastic- Warranty Direct kindly sponsored a brand new Hudson shell for our J15’s to race in.

My Question- ‘How do you manage to compete with big schools such as Headington and Lady Eleanor Holles?’

Steve: Obviously we are tiny in comparison to these schools; they have as many athletes in each age group as we have throughout our junior squad! This means their talent pool is much larger which makes it hard to compete but the athletes we take receive a more personalised coaching approach and the goals laid out at the beginning of the season mean the girls have a common goal to strive for. As I said before, the support from parents is so important and they are always willing to get involved in any capacity. We’ve also received great assistance from boat suppliers, such as Kanghua and Hudson’. 


Caption- The women’s junior coxed four heading off the start line at Wallingford Regatta. Like the WJ164x, these girls are unbeaten in their age category all season.

This insight into the Henley Rowing Club junior women’s squad was an absolute privilege and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Steve Thompson and David Lister for allowing me to access and write about the successes of the squad. I wish them all the best success in the future and I’m sure they’ll continue to astound us with their ability to create top quality athletes.

I think, on a concluding note, that Henley have truly unleashed the lions!


Caption- The Henley junior women’s squad winners at the Schools Head of the River [From left to right: WJ4+, WJ158+ and WJ174x] along with head coach David Lister [far right].