by Tom Utescher
Last month two dozen members of the Mount St. Joseph Academy crew mined the mother lode of rowing tradition, traveling to England to participate in the 2015 Henley Women’s Regatta. The annual event was staged in the fabled rowing centre of Henley-on-Thames on June 19-21.
Mount St. Joe oarswomen have attended the event every three years since they first crossed the Atlantic in 2006. On their last jaunt in 2012, the Magic’s varsity eight lost in the finals by less than a meter to Phillips Exeter Academy of New Hampshire.
This time around, the Mount raced three boats, an “A” and a “B” eight, and a four. The “A” boat contained the members of the varsity eight that competed throughout the spring season, with Sabrina Ghantous serving as coxswain for rowers (stroke to bow) Steph Eble, Christina Knox, Olivia Tice-Carroll, Maddie Lauinger, Alaina Hunt, Maddie Carlton, Dana Mischler, and Alex Uzzo.
In the single-elimination racing at the Henley Women’s Regatta, the Mount opened up with a victory on Saturday morning, June 20, but then were knocked out in the afternoon by eventual runner-up Kent School, a New England power from Connecticut.
The first Mounties to arrive in England formed the crew of Mount “B”, which was identical to line-up that raced in the school’s 2015 JV eight.
While their team mates were competing at the U.S. Rowing Youth Nationals in Florida on the second weekend of June, the jayvees were already across the pond, engaged in one of the lead-up competitions to the Henley, the Reading Amateur Regatta.
The “B” boat was staffed by Emily Woodrow (cox), Brooke McMahon (stroke), Demi Simms, Cait Hagan, Alex Natale, Julianna Hunt, Mia Fitzpatrick, Michelle Lipovsky, and Grace Comerford. In Reading (located less than 10 miles upriver from Henley) and later in the HWR, this boat lost its opening race to more experienced rivals.
The only MSJ vessel to survive until Sunday at Henley was the four, which featured Erin McGreevey (stroke), Vicki Matsinger, Julia Comerford (a Norwood Fontbonne Academy graduate like her sister Grace) and Shannon Hughes, with Olivia Kylander as the cox.
All four rowers in this boat were members of the Mount’s successful lightweight eight this season. After winning a gold medal at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, the Magic light eight recorded the highest finish of any single-school crew in their category at the Youth Nationals.
At Henley, the MSJ four won both of its races on Saturday against two British “Kings School” crews, the first from Worcester, and the second from Chester. The crew from Chester had placed third in England’s annual National Schools Regatta, but the Mounties prevailed against them by a third of a length.
On Sunday morning, the Magic four’s run ended with a loss to the locals from the Reading Rowing Club, who went on to win the finals later in the day.
Mount varsity coach Mike McKenna related, “I was in a launch with some people from Reading following that race, and they were impressed at how well our lightweight girls did against good open weight rowers.”
The oarswomen in the Mount’s varsity eight had thrived through much of the high school season, with a solid showing in the Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association races capped of by a convincing victory in the City Championships. They would go on to win a Stotesbury gold medal, as well, but some clouds were gathering on the Mounties’ horizon.
“We had two significant injuries in the crew,” McKenna related, “and injuries in rowing are very difficult to deal with. You back off a little to protect the injury, and suddenly you’re not going as fast. It happened after City’s, and at Stotes we didn’t have a great row in the finals but it was good enough.”
With a busy schedule going forward through the rest of May into the middle of June, there really wasn’t a chance to get everyone fully healthy again.
“There’s a cascading effect where it then hits you psychologically,” McKenna explained. “They’re not machines, and it becomes a distraction.”
The varsity’s results at the Scholastic Nationals and Youth Nationals fell short of expectations, but over in England the Mount won its first race at Henley, easily outpacing an eight from Hinksey Sculling School in Oxford. The Mount’s B boat did not fare as well, losing by a length in its debut against St. George’s College, a Weybridge, Surrey squad which had placed third at the National Schools Regatta.
Meanwhile, another homegrown group from just outside of Oxford was attracting attention from the foreign crews. Headington School had already received recognition in England as the dominant National Schools Champion in 2015, and at Henley the Mount’s McKenna agreed with his American colleagues that “Right from the first round of racing you could see that Headington was the team to beat. They were on a par with the top U.S. crews we saw this year.”
After their opening round victory, the Mounties faced a strong stateside rival they’d seen before this spring. In one of the invitational regattas staged by St. Andrew’s School in Delaware, the Mount had lost to Kent by about six seats. Kent increased that margin when the two boats met at Henley, crossing the line two-and-a-half lengths ahead of the Magic.
“We may have given them a fight if we’d had a very good row,” McKenna said, “but that didn’t happen. Kent went on and gave Headington a much better race in the final than many people thought they would.”
The Connecticut crew had lost to Massachusetts’ Phillips Andover Academy by half a second in the finals of the New England Interscholastic championships, but when both crews competed at Henley, Kent gave the better performance. After knocking out the Mount, Kent won by one and three-quarters lengths in a semifinal match-up with Northern Ireland’s Portora Royal School. In the other semi, Andover was eliminated by Headington, which won by one and one-quarter lengths and then went on to claim the Peabody Cup in Sunday afternoon’s final, shading Kent by one-third of a boat-length.
When the Thames and neighboring streams are rain-swollen, some cross currents from tributaries can affect the water on the race course, despite various booms and barriers set up to stop them. Depending on the exact conditions, this has been known to make one of the two lanes of the narrow course (known as the Buckinghamshire and Berkshire “stations” after the two counties separated by the river) “faster” than the other.
With a relatively mild current during the HWR, McKenna said, “The course was fair, and the station you were in didn’t matter.”
Although no modern day Mounties were competing on Sunday after the four was eliminated, they got to see one of their forerunners win a gold medal in the collegiate “Academic Fours” event on Sunday afternoon. Amanda Chain, a 2007 graduate who rowed in the Mount first varsity eight to win a Stotesbury gold medal, is enrolled in a graduate program at the University of London, and she helped power their four to victory.
In addition to taking in the sights around Henley itself, the Mount girls were able to make day trips into London and out to Oxford.
This was the fourth time that McKenna made the pilgrimage to the Henley with his MSJ rowers, and as he observed, “With all the history and tradition, the trip is a winner no matter how you do in the racing. It’s a tremendous experience for the kids.”