Drexel at the 2016 Henley Royal Regatta: A Look Back at a Week of Racing Crew in England

Drexel rowers enjoying an afternoon touring Oxford.
Drexel rowers enjoying an afternoon touring Oxford. 

No other race is quite like the Henley Royal Regatta.

Started in 1839, it is a 2,300-meter straight chute down the Thames River against the current into the heart of the quaint town of Henley. Races are held two boats at a time — one against the other — with floating wooden beams enclosing the course. At the Henley Regatta there is no second, no bronze medal, just knockout competition to find out the simple truth: Who is the fastest?

In 2016, the Henley Regatta fielded its largest number of entries yet, with over 630 teams from 27 countries competing, including the Drexel Dragons. This was the third time the Drexel men’s crew qualified; the Dragons previously raced in the Henley in 1972 and again in 2012. But a win had always eluded the men’s team in previous years. The Drexel women’s rowing team have traditionally fared better, competing at Henley in 2015, 2010 and 2014 — and they won the Elite Race in 2010. 

This year, with Drexel coming off its fourth consecutive Dad Vail team championship in May, the question was whether the third time at Henley would be the charm for the men’s team. As it turned it, 2016 was indeed their lucky year.

The crews are welcomed on course by the enthusiast spectators who cheer on all the boats.

Drexel rowing has come a long way since a January 1959 Triangle article promised a "workout on the river" to "anyone, frosh or upper classman, who wants a sport which requires a lot of energy, stamina and conditioning." Philadelphia Boathouse Row folklore has it that “Doc” Kerr, Drexel’s first coach, purchased an old eight-oar shell in 1958 needing much work and restored it in his own backyard. He had eight Boathouse Row clubs donate one oar apiece and presto, Drexel rowing was born! 

Today, Drexel rowing is a high-tech endeavor. Head coach Paul Savell rented German Empacher shells from the University of London crew program, but refused to part with the Dragons’ own oars, bringing them from Philadelphia. Drexel qualified an eight and a four for the 2016 Henley.

The pageantry at Henley is second to none. A mix of the Kentucky Derby and the Super Bowl, Henley features private enclosures, a dress code, champagne and oysters and, of course, strawberries and cream. There is an incredible sense of sportsmanship engaged in by all teams, as each salute the others after the race with a “Hip hip hooray!” 

The 2016 Drexel Crew Royal Henley Regatta blazer.

The Drexel team wore elegant and stylish Henley blazers designed by Drexel’s first lady, Cara Fry, whose background includes a master’s in art history from the City University of New York. The Henley blazers, which were made by the “authentic” Collier & Robinson located in Henley-on-Thames, feature a blue-and-gold edging and the Drexel family crest.

Here’s a video that gives a feeling for the incredible pageantry and the international scope of Henley.

All smiles after beating Dublin. Alumna Sandy Sheller and her husband and Drexel Board of Trustee member Steve, congratulate senior Dan Palombo after the race.

On race day on June 29, the Drexel eight squared off with Ireland’s fastest boat from the University College of Dublin, winner of eight national champions. In one-on-one racing you have to come out strong at the start and dominate early; once there is open water between the shells the race is all but over. The Dublin team was very formidable and it was not until the 1,000-meter mark that the Drexel Dragons controlled the race.

Exhilarated, the Dragons crossed the finish line as if they were flying on water, with the Dublin crew limping in behind them. The official verdict, Drexel by over two lengths, represented the first time the Drexel men have won a race at Henley. An afternoon of celebration and high-fiving commenced. It was a great moment for our Drexel crew, which no one present will ever forget. Not to be outdone by the Drexel eight, on Thursday, June 30, Drexel’s four beat the University of Surrey crew, completing the second win for Drexel in the 2016 Henley. The next day, the four went on to lose to Oxford Brookes University and the eight lost to University of California, Berkeley, both international powerhouse programs going 2-2 for the week.

The Henley Drexel four with cox posing for British television.

Henley Regatta allows Drexel Athletics to imagine what is possible on a global canvas. Henley creates inspiration, and a feeling of pride and accomplishment for the University. It is where Drexel crew should be competing. Getting to Henley is a great achievement, both logistically and competitively, but winning at Henley is for the ages. 

This past week the Drexel men's crew team also had 17 rowers recognized to the Intercollegiate Rowing Association All-Academic Team, by the IRA Board of Stewards. Drexel's 17 members of the academic team tie it with Yale University for the school with the most athletes honored. To be eligible for the recognition, a student-athlete must have maintained a cumulative GPA of 3.35 or higher, completed one full year at their institution, be an institutional letter winner and competed at the 2016 IRA National Championship Regatta at which Drexel finished No. 20 in the nation. The Drexel crew team is getting it done on the water and in the classroom.

I am proud of our teams and how they fought hard and represented our University with great class. 

Eric Zillmer, PsyD, is the director of athletics and the Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology at Drexel University