#HoosGoingToHenley, Part Five: Bittersweet Endings, and New Beginnings

High Tea with the Hoos

The following is the fifth installment of our series with Virginia's Forrest Brown, after the Hoos' close loss to Hobart in the Temple Challenge Cup.

From Forrest:

Greetings, once again, from Henley. Yesterday was a difficult one for the Virginia program, with both the eight and four falling in competitive races. We are now beginning the somewhat bizarre and sudden transition from full-time athletes to spectators, and in some cases, from collegiate athletes to members of the “real world” (*shudder*).

"It’s already an experience racing total strangers on the Henley course, but racing men you know and respect, men who you know first-hand have struggled through the same challenges to be there makes a race truly special."We began our race day with an early morning row, a tradition we began in Switzerland as a way to work out some pre-race nerves. We did a lap of the course with a few starts, and came off the water feeling primed for what we knew would be an extremely tough race. We grabbed a quick bite to eat in town and then cycled back to our house for a few hours of rest. Just like Wednesday, we cut ourselves off from friends and families for two hours to focus our energy towards our boat and develop our focus. When we cycled back down the hill in the early afternoon, we were both physically and mentally ready to get onto the course. We warmed up, huddled up one last time, and gave what was probably our loudest “VIRGINIA!” cheer of the season in the boat tent. This whole time our opponents, Hobart College, were in the bay next to us doing pretty much the same thing. They are a program we scrimmage every March, and know personally as well as competitively, which gave the race, if possible, even more importance. It’s already an experience racing total strangers on the Henley course, but racing men you know and respect, men who you know first-hand have struggled through the same challenges to be there makes a race truly special. Hobart’s eight were not just our opponents, they were and are our friends, which is something that is truly a privilege to be able to say about the boat lining up next to you. Even before we launched, you could feel that unique anticipation building.

We had the privilege of being the second race out of the lunch break, or what I like to call “Prime Time,” meaning the Stewards recognized how well matched our race was and that it was likely to be competitive and entertaining to watch. And they were right. We knew we had a fast start, and we came out of the gates quickly, but Hobart was even faster and by the barrier had about a length of lead. For the rest of the course we would push back into them only to have them take a few seats back, and the key moment of the race happened around Remenham Club. We were making our strongest surge yet and had found some solid momentum, taking a seat every few strokes. I honestly believed at that moment that we were about to win, and you could feel that confidence from every member of the boat in our impulse. It’s my favorite feeling in the sport of rowing, the sort of collective euphoria that comes from a boat unlocking the next level of speed by rowing as a single unit. We had it for a few strokes, and having that feeling on the Henley course is an experience I’ll never forget.

But Hobart is a crew of true racers. They recognized our surge and took a huge move to put the race away, a move that speaks to their maturity and composure as well as their power. A lesser boat might have crumbled under the pressure of our move, but they elevated their performance in response to ours. In our program we strive to give our opponents the gift of measuring themselves against our best performance, and using our best to find their own full potential. I’d like to think we gave Hobart that gift as we came down the course in one of the fastest and most competitive races of the day, and they surely gave us that gift in return. While it is always disappointing to lose, especially with so much regatta left, there is no shame in losing that kind of race. I was proud to shake the hand of every Hobart rower on the dock and wish them luck in the races ahead. Hobart, Virginia will be cheering for you from the shore.

[Ed note: Hobart fell in a very close race on Friday, by 2/3 of a length, to IRA silver medalists in the lightweight eight, Columbia University.]

Our four raced about an hour later, and despite jumping out to an early lead were unable to stay ahead of a powerful crew from Exeter University. Just like the eight, they fought every stroke down the course against a worthy opponent, and showed why they’re a two-time Head of the Charles winning group. All competition has winners and losers, and today the Virginia program as a whole was in the latter group. But you don’t race just for the result, you race because of what the competition teaches you about yourself and those around you. As a group in the last five and a half weeks, we have learned more than I could possibly write here.

"Rowing is an impossible and seemingly foolish search for the perfect stroke, the perfect race. It will never happen. But it's actually about the journey, and more than anything, it's about who you make that journey with."So I’m not going to try. Instead, I’m going to try and capture what I felt in the last few strokes of my collegiate rowing career, and hope it captures the feelings of my fellow fourth-years Garret Thomas, Perry Cox, Charlie Hanley, Gage Wells, John McNulty, Lindsay Sackellares, and Xavier Quinn. First and foremost I realized how much I love my team. Every rower, coxswain, manager, and coach, from the novice program to the varsity eight, has had such a profound impact on my life. Waking up every morning at 5:30 to row for two hours for four years of college is not a typical thing, and it takes truly special people to make that kind of experience worthwhile. But there are few times life is as simple as it is with an oar in your hand, with only the five strokes in front of you to focus on.

Rowing is an impossible and seemingly foolish search for the perfect stroke, the perfect race. It will never happen. But it's actually about the journey, and more than anything, it's about who you make that journey with. In my final strokes as a member of the Virginia Rowing Association, all I could think about was how I wanted those strokes to be the best I’d ever taken, not for me, but for my brothers and sisters who had put me in that unbelievably rare and special place of racing with people I love, on the biggest stage, and who had put me there by sacrificing so many other opportunities and embracing so much effort and responsibility. I wanted my last strokes to be a thank you to my parents and family for supporting us at far less glamorous regattas as much as they were in England. I wanted my last strokes on the Henley Course to be a thank you for four of the best years of my life with Frank on the Rivanna. And while they may not have looked like it, and I may not have been ready to accept it at the time, those strokes were pretty much perfect. Wahoowa. -FB

Hear, hear! Thanks very much to Forrest Brown for bringing us inside the Virginia experience of Henley Royal Regatta—it's always a difficult thing to have a season end this way, but I have to admit, Brown's writing not only touches on the 'you of you' that George Pocock preached about, but reveals the kind of character and depth of understanding that makes me proud to call him a fellow rower. Here's to you and your teammates, Forrest!

"It's a great art, is rowing. It's the finest art there is. It's a symphony of motion. And when your doing well, why it's nearing perfection. And when you reach perfection, you're touching the divine. It touches the you of you, which is your soul."
-George Pocock. 

Photo © Forrest Brown.

There's much more racing still to come at Henley, with the semifinals and finals on tap, and the excitement of the weekend building toward Sunday's trophy presentations. Remember—you can watch all the races live via the Henley YouTube Channel, and catch each individual race, plus highlights from the day, following the action on the Thames every afternoon. 

Complete Henley Royal Regatta results can be found here, as well as via their dedicated Henley Results Twitter feed


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