Win Henley gold
Every August, West Side Rowing Club is put to the test
Photos by Stephen Gabris
Competitive rowing is a grueling, repetitive sport that demands absolute focus and attention from rowers. Races are 2,000 meters and take anywhere from five to eight minutes. Nearly all of that time is spent experiencing one thing.
“Pain,” says West Side Rowing Club’s (WSRC) director of rowing and head coach Mike Cute. “It’s sometimes an out of body experience when you are racing at the highest level, but it teaches you to push yourself a little bit more and it teaches you about how far you can go. But you’re absolutely feeling some discomfort.”
It helps to have a goal in mind. At WSRC, that goal is distilled into a sign hanging over one of the practice rooms at the club. “Win Henley Gold,” it instructs, lettered in West Side’s maroon and silver color scheme.
As a freshman at Canisius High School in the late nineties, I got involved with the crew. That involvement has become a bit of a lifelong passion; I still coach at the club, as well as at Nichols School. In learning the rudiments of the stroke, I, like every other athlete who has come through the club, sat under that sign for hours. Its message was burned into my brain.
Though several high schools and colleges row out of the club’s boathouse during the school year, the rowers all come together as a single team under the club’s banner for summer. The main event of summer racing has always been the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in St. Catherine’s, held at the beginning of August.
The six-day regatta is one of the most prestigious in North America. It features not only crews from the US and Canada, but shells from around the world. This year’s Henley will be the 137th contested and, though WSRC (founded in 1912) hasn’t been at all of them, it has become a fixture on the medal dock at the regatta over the years. The club’s second floor has a meeting room with walls covered in plaques from previous Henley winners, so many that it’s running out of space.
Participation in rowing has exploded in the past decade, especially at the junior level, and, as a result, it is getting harder to win at Henley. At the moment, WSRC hasn’t had a winner since the summer of 2017.
“It’s the Golden Fleece or the White Whale; everyone who rows at West Side wants to win Henley,” said Frances McGuire, the U23 and U19 women’s head coach who won the race in 2006 as a high school junior.
Some of the area’s most accomplished rowers don’t have a Henley title on their resumes. Junior boys coach Graham Marks, who rowed at Boston University after graduating from Nichols, has rowed or coached in every Henley for the past decade without tasting success.
“I’ve not won and I consider that one of the holes in my rowing career,” he says. “Closest I came, I finished second in the U23 lightweight single in 2016 and second doesn’t get you anything. Paddling back to the dock was one of the most miserable experiences I’ve ever had rowing.”
Unlike the Olympics and most other rowing regattas, Henley is a winner-take-all proposition; there is a gold medal and a trophy for the winner and disappointment for everyone else.
“It was kind of unbelievable,” Elena Collier-Hezel says of her win in 2017. “I remember being on the medal dock and I didn’t know where I was and I was dazed from the race, it was pretty awesome.”
Crews from West Side, as well as from Buffalo’s newer, club, the Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association, will be competing for gold again this summer. The regatta runs all day from August 6 to 11 in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. For more info visit henleyregatta.ca.