National Champion Men's Lightweights Prepare For Tradition Like None Other Henley
The 2009 Princeton men’s lightweight crew just finished season up the perfect season. It won the EARC and Ivy League title, and followed it up with an IRA national championship. But what the Tigers will face this week will be unlike anything they saw in 2009. After all, there isn’t anything quite like Henley.
The Henley Royal Regatta, which takes place July 1-5, was first held in 1839 and has been held annually every year outside of the two World Wars. It is an international regatta open to any crew, with different levels of competition. The 2009 lightweights will be the 48th crew representing Princeton University to compete at Henley; they will also look to be the ninth to claim a championship on the Thames.
But Henley is about much more than just the competition. It is about the tradition and the experience.
The 1930 lightweight eight was the first Princeton crew to ever compete at Henley, where it advanced to the semifinal round of the Thames Challenge Cup. Unlike collegiate championship regattas in the United States, Henley is set up as a one-on-one tournament, similar to the NCAA basketball competition. Thirty-two teams start, and thirty-one races later, one team will hoist the trophy.
In 1948, the Princeton lightweight eight defeated the Royal Air Force to win the Thames Cup and became the first American university to win at Henley since Harvard did so in 1939. With three rowers returning from that squad, the 1949 lightweights defended the Thames Cup with a victory over Lady Margaret of Cambridge.
Within a decade, another pair of lightweight crews would repeat as champion. The 1956 and 1957 lightweights both won the Thames Challenge Cup; ironically, like the 1948 team, the 1956 squad also beat the Royal Air Force in the final.
“You can’t help but get swept up in it,” said Jim Newcomer ’57, a member of both winning crews. “Rowing is so big in England. We had kids coming up to us and asking for an autograph. You couldn’t help but be intrigued.”
Under the guidance of head coach Donald Rose, Princeton was unbeaten in both 1956 and 1957 and won EARC titles both seasons. But they were also vastly different crews; the ’56 team was obviously strong enough to win Easterns and Henley, but the ’57 saw an influx of sophomores who had led a dominant ’56 freshman eight. Newcomer and Anthony Fletcher were the only rowers to be aboard both championship boats.
Still, Newcomer didn’t feel like he could adequately prepare his younger teammates for what the 1957 competition would be like.
“You can’t tell people what Henley is like,” he said. “It’s like telling people what marriage is like.”
One thing that was very clear in both competitions is the physical toll it takes on the rowers. While the Eastern championships demand two strong rows in one day, winning at Henley demands five rows in five days. And with little knowledge on opposing boats, a winning team must be ready to row hard every time it reaches the starting line.
“It takes a toll on you,” Newcomer remembered. “To win, you need a combination of a good crew and the guts to suck it up and go one more time. It isn’t about friendship or boathouse camaraderie. It is a deeper fundamental trust. We had a real commitment to getting better, stroke by stroke.”
And while that trust did lead the ’57 team past National Provincial Bank for the Thames Cup, there was so much more to the experience for Newcomer. In an era decades removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall, much less the internet, the world was a much bigger place.
“I had never been in international rowing circles before Henley,” Newcomer said. “To be with Russian, French, Italian boats, it was wonderful. I remember the Irish crew threw a big party, and the Canadian crew being so disappointed because they couldn’t talk to the crew from France because accents were so different.
“We saw them as fellow rowers. And we saw them as human beings.”
Memories over 50 years old haven’t faded for Newcomer. It is the importance of Henley that has left those moments forever ingrained.
“The quality of that achievement is first-rate,” he said. “To have done what you needed to do to win, it is one of the highlights of my life. There is no question of the majesty of the event. You can get addicted to it.”
Bill Walton ’74 came to Princeton in the fall of 1970. As a self-deemed “half-decent athlete,” Walton roomed with Bob Schmon ’74, a rower from St. Catherine’s, Ontario. Both Schmon and then-lightweight coach Gary Kilpatrick tried to recruit Walton to their sport, and in late fall, he tried it for the first time.
Over the next four decades, Walton would become the president of the Princeton University Rowing Association (PURA); suffice it to say, he took to the sport.
Walton quickly found he had some skill on the water and on the ergometer and made the first varsity boat as a sophomore in 1972. At that time, the lightweights had a brilliant freshman boat, and the fusion of those two made for a dominant varsity crew in 1973. Walton was the lone junior rower on a crew that also included two seniors and five sophomores; together, they led Princeton to an 8-0 record and its first EARC title in 16 years.
“Except for the HYP race in Derby, we won things pretty easily that year,” Walton remembered. “We had a length by the 500 mark at the Eastern Sprints.”
Traditionally, the PURA has funded the trip to Henley for any Tiger crew that won the Sprints. The 1973 squad accepted the trip with one clear mission in mind.
“We were very serious, very focused,” Walton said. “We weren’t into the festive aspects of it. We worked our tails off in June, living in Princeton.
“I don’t think the impact of the whole thing hit us until afterwards.”
The crew trained against several heavyweight crews, including, ironically, a Trinity boat that featured current Princeton heavyweight coach Curtis Jordan. When the Tigers headed to Henley four or five days before the competition, the singular focus was victory.
After a fairly easy first-round win over Townmead Rowing Club, Princeton came up against Christiana Roklub, a crew from Norway. Like many of its races from the season, the Tigers jumped out to a substantial lead.
Unlike those races, though, that lead got smaller. Smaller. Smaller.
“They just kept coming,” Walton said, the respect for that crew still in his voice. “Our team wasn’t expecting a race so close so early and probably wasn’t mentally prepared for it. We held on, but it was the hardest race of all.”
The final wouldn’t be a walk in the park, either. Princeton held off the Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club by about a quarter of a length to win Princeton’s first title since Seymour Cromwell ’56 won the Diamond Sculls competition in 1962.
“When we were there, we had a job to do,” Walton said. “It is more amazing when we look back at it. It is one of the greatest sports experiences of my life.”
What made the experience all the more special, as is the nature of any team sport, is that it is a shared one. Every five years, the entire boat gets together, coxswain included. Walton guessed that in seven total reunions, maybe 2-3 teammates (of a possible 63) have missed the reunion.
The ’73 Princeton squad, which held the course record for the Thames Cup for several years, is the second-to-last American lightweight program to win at Henley. In 2000, Yale won the Temple Challenge Cup. Three years later, Princeton would have a shot at the becoming the latest lightweight program to win Henley, but an awfully familiar foe stood in its way.
Coming off a third-place finish in the Goldthwait Cup regatta, the 2003 Princeton men’s lightweights didn’t exactly enter the EARC grand final with great momentum. Three teams which already owned victories over Princeton Harvard, Yale and Georgetown were in the race, and Cornell was less than one second away from bouncing the Tigers into the Petite Final.
But Princeton made the grand final, and 2,000 meters later, it had a championship and a ticket to Henley. Led by head coach Joe Murtaugh, Princeton won the Eastern title by more than four seconds and traveled to Henley to compete for the Temple Cup.
During recent competitions, Princeton teams would stay together with a local family. The Coleman family, who had an indirect relation to Princeton, would welcome whichever Tiger crew competed at Henley and cook dinner for the team each night.
In 2003, the dinner table was even more full than usual. Joining the lightweights was the Princeton freshman heavyweight boat. Led by then-coach Greg Hughes, who will lead the lightweights to Henley this week, the Tiger freshmen won Easterns by more than six seconds and included many of the key rowers that helped Princeton to the 2006 Ivy League title and No. 1 national ranking.
While both teams couldn’t fit in the house each night to sleep, both would fit around the table each night for dinner. And they did so night after night, victory after victory. On opposite sides of the Temple Cup draw, they would consistently meet after victorious performances.
That included the night when both won their semifinal races.
“That was a very cool night,” Hughes said. “It was going to be a Princeton-Princeton final. As a Princeton alum, it had been 30 years since we won here. We knew at dinner that night that Princeton was going to win Henley. We had brought some really good boats over here in the past, and there were things that they just couldn’t overcome. The 2001 team lost Henley by one foot.
“That was one of the greatest nights for Princeton rowing.”
While the lightweights proved the EARC title was no fluke by reaching the Henley final, that freshman heavyweight boat was simply too strong. Hughes’ crew won the Temple Cup, and three years later, many of those rowers would return to win the 2006 Ladies Plate Challenge. That victory would be the eighth Princeton victory at Henley.
The 2009 Tiger lightweights will try for No. 9 this week.
So that is some of Princeton’s history at Henley, but what is Henley itself.
“It’s the oldest continuous event in our sport,” Hughes said. “It’s older than the rowing program at Princeton. There is a pomp to Henley. I don’t get caught up in that as much. The cool thing for me is that this venue for racing is like no other.”
When asked for an American equivalent, Hughes pointed to the Kentucky Derby. It’s athletic event meets social function. Many are dressed to be seen at the start and seeing double, thanks to the flowing adult beverages, by the end. It’s a grand party, where you’re as likely to find a passionate follower of rowing as you are to find somebody who has yet to see a single boat, despite standing on the shore of the world’s longest-running regatta.
It is like nothing in American rowing. And for somebody like Hughes, whose passion for the sport runs deep, it is truly special.
“It really is a unique event,” he said. “It’s different every year. At Easterns, you have sense of your opponent’s speed, or at least a general program speed. Here, you don’t know much about who you’re racing that day, so you have to be ready for a tough battle each time you’re on the water.”
The racing, which takes place on the longest straight stretch on the Thames, is 112 meters longer than the typical American collegiate race. According to the Royal Henley Regatta official web site, the current course is the fourth one used for the competition:
The Straight Course, first used in 1924, required the removal of part of Temple Island and of the opposite Berkshire bank. This Course is the same length as the Old and New Courses, is 80 feet wide and runs straight from below the Berkshire side of Temple Island to finish at Poplar Point.
Hughes said the course is upstream, and currents can factor into the race. The racing boats are rarely the only ones on the Thames during Henley, so catching a wave from a pleasure boat is just part of the competition. Just like catching a friendlier side of the bracket, luck plays a major role in winning Henley.
All Hughes’ knows is the nine men he has brought to Henley, and their ability to handle pressure. The crew (cox Dave Cleveland; stroke Robin Prendes; 7 Jack Leonard; 6 Justin Teti; 5 Tom Paulett; 4 James Donovan; 3 Christian Klein; 2 Dave Krueger; bow Alex Dillon) came into 2009 as the preseason No. 1 team and never wavered from that position. Princeton went 7-0 and defeated every team it would see in both the EARC and IRA grand finals. The Tigers won in the regular season; they won when they had to race twice at Easterns and they won after four weeks off at nationals.
Regardless of this week’s outcome, this is a team of winners, and the reward of competing at the Royal Henley Regatta is more than justified.
But like the previous Princeton teams, the 2009 lightweights have trained hard in June. They logged heavy miles and went to England more than a week before the competition to get in extra practice on the Thames before the rest of the field shows up. Fifty-eight teams entered the competition, and through a qualifying process on Sunday (in which Princeton didn’t need to compete in because it was a seeded crew), the field was cut to 32. On Wednesday, 32 will go to 16, and so on until Sunday, when two boats race for the Temple Cup.
Through hard racing and a little luck, perhaps Princeton will make history on Sunday.
Regardless, Princeton is part of history already.
After all, there isn’t anything quite like Henley.
To read more about Henley or to find out information on the 2009 draw, visit the Royal Henley Regatta web site here.
To see all American crews who have won at Henley, including the names of each team, click here.