Headington School Boat Club

For me, the Oxford Times provided the most apt description of the Headington School Championship Girl’s winning Eight. Ryan Demaine, head coach and ‘rowing supremo’, commented that the girl’s eight were an ‘exceptional unit’ and the OT had this to say-

‘Who would argue since they wrote off their opponents and won by more than ten seconds!’.

The full article can be found online but the salient point is this. Headington School, winner of the CHG8+ prize for the sixth consecutive year, are undoubtedly the most successful junior rowing program in the country and their methods, procured through years of trial and error, are effective in producing some of the best junior crews this country has seen.

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Caption- Headington on Easter Camp

Headington were an all-round success story at National Schools; their haul of 4 golds, 4 silver’s and 1 bronze was only beaten by Henley Rowing Club in the medals table. I’m always in awe of their performances and their margin of victory at National Schools in the flagship girls events was staggering. They appear to be streets ahead of all their competitors and, as I’ll talk about later, I recently spoke with Ryan Demaine to try and find out more about their Oxfordshire-based program.

I’ll just take a quick look at some of their recent performances at various events.

J8+ [Henley Women’s Regatta]

The remarkable thing about this victory is that Headington only trained in this boat a couple of times before the event. Their focus has been almost entirely on HRR and the impending Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup and injuries prevented them from boating a quad for HWR. Therefore, they reverted to the eight and demonstrated their versatility in winning the event by nearly 3 lengths. This was another remarkable victory in light of the fact that their first session in the eight after National Schools was the Saturday before HWR; Ryan had been training his athletes in singles and pairs. They were pushed hard by a talented crew from St Paul’s, USA in the semi-finals but they always looked in control of the race. Their technique is so relaxed and efficient and Headington crews are always so well-drilled- a real credit to their coaches and school. This unit is no exception and I look forward to seeing at least four of them racing at HRR in the Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup.

Footage from this race can be found here- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InJfpqEe5z0

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Caption- Headington’s CHG8+ after winning national gold

 

CHG4x

Ryan declared himself  ‘satisfied’ following Headington’s silver medal in CHG4x behind a very talented Marlow crew. Although Gloucester Hartpury led to the 1000m mark, Headington stayed calm to row through the girls from the performance based sports college. Having given slightly more emphasis to the eight before National Schools, the girls have switched their attention to the quad although they’ve struggled with injuries, illnesses and uncertainty surrounding crew selection. At National Schools, the Headington crew looked very strong and, having not sculled in quads through the year, will have a lot more to offer at Henley. It’ll be interesting to see if this crew can better the achievements of the Headington quad from last year, who made the final of HRR and were beaten by a fantastic Latymer crew.

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Caption- The final of the CHG4x with Headington nearest to the camera

J15G4X+

I think this is one of the only crews to deny Henley a win in a junior girls event! Having seen Henley win the Time Trial by 7 seconds, the girls from Headington showed great maturity in the final to get off to a great start and lead the field through all the timing markers in a dominant display of sculling. Headington are always very strong in the lower age groups too, which gives great hope for the future. The rivalry between Henley and Headington over the next few years will make for a fascinating undercurrent to junior rowing; Headington have the coaching infrastructure and intake of athletes to challenge Henley for the prize of top junior women’s club. It is also important to look at the three Headington crews that qualified for the J154X+ 2 event, showing that the Oxfordshire based school have at least 16 athletes of a good standard. They had two crews in the final of this event too, which was a remarkable achievement in a very competitive field.

Following a few emails, I was lucky enough to get the chance to speak with Ryan Demaine, director of rowing at Headington School Boat Club. We spoke at length about the club, the ethos and attitude he instils in his athletes, the recent results and his plans for the future.

 

My Question- ‘Hi Ryan. First of all, how are your crews shaping up for Henley Women’s Regatta?’

Ryan: ‘We’ve been training today actually. It’s the first time since National Schools that we’ve been out in the crew but we’ve struggled with illness and injury as of late. We’re very fortunate that we’ve got a group of talented girls which means that even if we are missing a few, we are still a strong team. We were actually missing two of our top girls for the Schools Head of the River and still managed to come away with a decent result’.

My Question- ‘Ok, tell me more about this approach in terms of crews and training’

Ryan: ‘Well, we train mainly in singles and pairs. I’m a great believer in not over-training a boat class and we rarely train very much in the eight before a big event. Before Women’s Head, we trained in the crew four times, while on camp we had 21 sessions and 5/6 of these were in the eight. Singles and pairs are very important as they build boat-moving skills and tenacity.

[Footage of the CHG8+ from camp can be found here- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ge0rJwTSAR4]

‘In 2008, we had a very strong eight but we realised that there are different points at which we peak as a crew. It is very much a balancing act and I felt we trained too much in the eight then- I strive to make sure my crew peaks technically and physically for the event.’

‘In 2009, we had the premise of some very fast scullers and I work off the idea that fast scullers build a fast eight. One of my favourite crews was the Dutch Eight in 1996, which won gold. These guys were essentially scullers who had not made the Olympic team so decided to put together an eight, which beat the selected Dutch crew. They were a renegade sculling act and they rowed beautifully, putting together a fantastic race which won them gold.’ [ Click here for footage of that race- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEUqPy6iszQ]

‘For me, Harry Mahon is a very important coach; he also believed in the importance of fast scullers building a fast eight and there is a fascinating article online about his style’ [http://highperformancerowing.net/journal/2011/8/2/harry-mahon-the-age-of-enlightenment.html]

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Caption- Headington School’s first VIII after winning Challenge Eights at Wallingford Regatta

 

My Question- ‘How satisfied were you with your girls performances at National Schools, particularly the junior quad?’

Ryan: ‘I was pretty satisfied actually- I thought the race was pretty good. Obviously we raced two days whereas Gloucester Hartpury only did the Sunday so it was a good performance from my athletes. However, Henley is a very different race so we’re wary of the difficulties of 1 on 1 match racing. We were very close to Latymer at National Schools last year but they smashed us at Henley.’

My Question- ‘I heard about a foreign recruiting program. Is there any more you can tell me about this?’

Ryan: ‘We don’t do that but I understand where the confusion comes from. We went across to the USA to promote our name as Ivy League schools are more inclined to take students who have more versatility i.e. talented athletes. This gives their students a wider experience and often the skills learnt through rowing lead to a more diverse skills base. 

‘We had a girl join from Switzerland and another girl who saw us training in Temple Sur Lot on camp in France and subsequently joined. We always emphasise the importance of rowing and academic studies as we’ve had girls from other schools who couldn’t cope with the two together.’

My Question- ‘Only two girls at GB Feb Trials. Could you tell me why?’ 

Ryan: ‘Illness and injury prevented us from taking two of our top athletes. One girl has come back for Final Trials in July while we have a number of one-year juniors i.e. Becky Knowles, Hannah Tomlinson. Lizzie Lingaard, Matilda Martins, Helena Lang and Sasha Adwani [Cox][ are our athletes that are going for a GB vest this year.

My Question- ‘You have a reputation for producing fantastic crews every year and your system down at Heandington is so impressive- are there any particular things you do to achieve these results?’

Ryan: ‘We’ve got a great culture at the school, which both the parents and athletes buy into. They know what is expected and this filters through the system- when you have top crews achieving top results by doing A, B and C, the younger girls know exactly what it takes.’

‘We do a number of athlete profiling exercises. We operate spot hydration tests, surveys on nutrition along with high-tech monitoring so we get the most out of every training session. We can only train six times a week once a day so we ensure that we maximise the available time. We also do blood lactate and step tests, which have been developed through a system of trial and error. Doctor Charlie Simpson, from Oxford Brookes’s Sports Science department, has been brilliant in providing feedback on our processes.

‘Our approach is tailored for us so there is no guarantee that it would work elsewhere. I’ve been at Headington for 11 years and it took us 5 to develop an efficient system.’

‘2011 was the hardest year in terms of competition. Lady Eleanor Holles had six invites to final trials and an extremely strong eight. However we were supported by our strong links with Resolute and Jeff Sturges who have been fantastic. In the end, we managed to beat LEH but it was tough and the system we’d developed helped us to achieve the results we desired’.

My Question- ‘Obviously your girl’s quad is very strong this year. How do you view the challenge presented by crews such as Henley, Marlow and Gloucester Hartpury?’

Ryan: ‘It seems to get tougher every year! Women’s sculling is heading in the right direction though, in terms of being on a par with junior men and it is great that National Schools have continued supporting women’s rowing- it is important that we match the boys in terms of results, profiling and events. Henley are a real force with a seasoned sculling coach and they’ll get stronger every year. Gloucester are essentially a high performance centre with a fantastic set-up so they will be strong, particularly as they are strengthened by the return of their top athlete. Marlow and Bret King are superb and always competitive; their win at NSR was just the start!’

My Question- ‘Obviously the NSR and SHORR are titled as being schools events yet a lot of the entries are still taken up by clubs. Do you think that the term ‘national schools regatta’ has become a bit of a misnomer?’

Ryan: ‘I’m actually on the committe for NSR and we’ve spoken about this. The event is for people who are in education or at school and the event itself is probably slightly too big! There are obviously lots of clubs and we all love the fact that clubs compete, particularly when they always provide wins and podium positions. The lines get skewed when schools start opening their doors to club athletes- if Headington did that, it would spark trouble I feel!’.

Footage of the Headington J8+ against Yarm School can be found here- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOKeceyGfq4

I’d like to say thanks to Ryan and his team for allowing me access to Headington’s program and for their cooperation in writing this article. I’m sure they’ll continue to be a dominant force in women’s rowing for years to come!

 

 

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