Boats, sweat and Pimms down by the river

Fri Jul 3, 2009 11:02am EDT
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By Paul Casciato

HENLEY-ON-THAMES, England (Reuters Life!) - State-sponsored Olympians and other elite athletes are squaring off against gritty amateur challengers in front of thousands of champagne-fueled spectators this week at the Henley Royal Regatta.

The glittering jewel of amateur rowing is also a fixture of the British summer season and mixes society hijinks along the banks of the River Thames with the hard graft of an unforgiving sport, whose roots stretch back to a maritime past when Britannia ruled the waves.

"It's the equivalent of Wimbledon in the rowing world," said Fiona Knights, a keen sculler, coxswain and annual Henley visitor.

Her husband Paul has rowed 10 times at Henley and still comes back every year to soak up the atmosphere among friends and former rivals in the exclusive Stewards' Enclosure, where the Pimms and champagne flows among the men in striped rowing club blazers and ladies dressed to the nines.

"The atmosphere is great and the fact that you can meet up with all the old boys is magic," Paul Knights told Reuters.

Established in 1839 before international or national rowing associations, Henley abides by its own rules for the sport, but attracts rowers from around the world and enjoys the recognition of rowing's national and international bodies.

"Henley is a pretty prestigious event," said 21-year-old New Zealand sculler Graham Oberlin-Brown, who alongside his three other crewmates has made it to the semi-finals in the challenge for coxless fours.

"There's nothing like this in New Zealand. It's not often you get to race in front of 35,000 spectators," Oberlin-Brown told Reuters down at the boat sheds alongside fellow crewmate James Lassche, 19, after a practice session.   Continued...

<p>Spectators in a gondola attend the Henley Royal Regatta in Henley-on-Thames, west of London July 2, 2008. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh</p>