Bronco River Royalty

Since 1839, the Henley Royal Regatta in England has been to rowing what the Kentucky Derby is to horse racing. The regatta takes over Henley-on-Thames in late June, attracting the best rowing crews in the world. This year, before crowds of thousands and in the shadow of the Queen of England’s royal barge, SCU won two head-to-head races and made the quarterfinals.

Bronco River Royalty
Better with age: 178 years old, the Henley Royal Regatta is still one of rowing’s finest events. In 2017, 577 crews from 15 nations made the trip to England. Photo by Getty Images

With the waves of the River Thames lapping against the hull of his eight-man shell, Peter Morton ’18 sat at the starting line and felt the tug of nearly two centuries of rowing history in the current. The second-round matchup on June 29 against the University of Virginia was one of the most important races of his life. How important? “There are more people watching the Henley Regatta than the Olympics,” Morton says.

The Henley doesn’t follow tradition. It is tradition. The race runs longer than a typical rowing course because it predates any formal rowing organization. Coaches and judges eschew modern shells to ride behind the action in old wooden boats with names like Ulysses and Herakles. To be allowed in the stewards enclosure, spectators must follow a strict dress code—and mobile phones are banned

The Broncos made the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championships in June and finished 23rd. But SCU arrived at the Henley unranked. After beating Worchester Polytechnic in the first round, the Broncos edged out University of Virginia in what was one of the year’s toughest races. “They weren’t letting up and they kept pushing back on us,” Morton says. Alas, in the next round SCU lost to powerhouse University of California. But the Broncos were the only unranked team to make it to the quarterfinals.

The road to Henley began years ago when Marc Vallancey ’85, a former SCU rower and native of England, put the bug in the ear of Coach Jay Farwell ’94J.D. ’01. In fall 2016, Farwell began considering the trip more seriously—but there were budget realities to face. That’s where alumni rowers came in. Their financial support for crew made it feasible.

The Henley regatta course runs through the historic town of Henley-on-Thames with English cottages just yards from the water. Photo courtesy Henley Royal Regatta

In England, the Broncos stayed with a host family who cooked meals and set the rowers up with bikes so they could explore the town and mingle with the sport’s top talent. “From an athletic standpoint I think it’s great for Santa Clara to get that exposure internationally,” Farwell says. “But I think it’s also a great thing for the University to get their name across the pond.”

Santa Clara loses a few seniors from this year’s team, but Farwell points to this year’s IRA nationals as cause for optimism. Traditionally, SCU is content sending one boat to nationals. This year, the Broncos sent three. “It speaks volumes to where our program is today,” Farwell says.

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