“Listen to that explosion of noise and cries from the coxes as we go away in the Prince Philip Challenge Trophy, Headington School on the left and Greenwich Crew from the U.S. of A on the right,” an announcer declared, noting “a few stripes of wind” as the semifinals of the Henley Royal Regatta got underway last July. More than 100,000 spectators lined the River Thames, cheering on the Women’s Junior Eights with an intensity usually reserved for football stadiums.
In spite of the raucous sound, Henley-goers dressed elegantly for this summer social-season highlight, wearing dresses and hats or jackets and ties, following the traditional dress code of this event, established in 1839. On either side of the river, split between Berkshire and Buckinghamshire counties, cameras set on cranes swung over the water to capture every angle, like a movie set. Theresa May, former Prime Minister of Britain, and other dignitaries wearing navy blazers, were riding behind the crews in a wooden chase boat, Ulysses, in an effort to catch the best view of the Headington girls, the British national champions and favorites in that race.
The atmosphere and dynamics of this six-day event that draws athletes—from Juniors to Olympians—from around the world were unlike anything the Greenwich Crew girls had encountered. These high school girls were rowing in a new-to-them boat called a sectional for an unusual course length (2,112 meters instead of 2,000) in strong currents and wind. “Henley was very different,” says Francie McKenzie, the coxswain, who is now rowing for Princeton. “It’s like a bracket system. You race each day, and you have to beat the other crew you’re racing in order to move on.”
The Greenwich Crew rowers arrived in England less than a week after competing at Nationals in Florida, some attending their high school graduation and team banquet in between. They spent three weeks living in the homes of British host families, as the town of Henley literally opened its doors to the athletes.
The experience, talent and perseverance of this powerhouse crew paid off. Brooke Legenzowski, Lauren Koester, Julia Doss, Catherine Ruf, Phoebe Wise, Percy Wayne, Bow Cassidy McKee, Stroke Adair Beck and Cox Francie McKenzie rowed their way through a week of races to take first place, winning the Prince Philip Challenge Trophy at the most prestigious regatta in the world. With the support of their coaches and alternate Phelan Bryant, the team upset Headington and ultimately beat another American team, Deerfield Academy, in the final.
“It was a surreal experience,” says Julia Doss, who is a senior at Greenwich High School and headed to Stanford. “Being there is such an amazing opportunity, because you’re surrounded by all these different teams from everywhere.” Coach Heidi Hunsberger adds, “Some of the best rowers in the world are there. You’re in these tents, and you’re sitting next to these college teams who just won at the NCAAs, or you’re sitting across from a world champion.” So much to take in while trying to stay grounded.
Prep and Pep
The logistics of Henley add to the challenge.
In Europe, crews race in sectionals that are transported in two pieces and then assembled on location. (The trucks used to ship the longer shells used in the United States can’t fit on the small, windy roads in the U.K.) So Greenwich Crew had special boats and oars built for their Junior Women’s and Junior Men’s rowers, sponsored by Vineyard Vines and shipped to England on a barge. Vineyard Vines also designed custom blazers for the team, which the girls wore along with proper below-the-knee dresses in the Awards Ceremony when they received their handmade trophies in red boxes. It was a journey to reach that point.
While Henley is a festive, lively scene with tents on the riverbanks housing all-night parties, the Greenwich Crew girls had to stay completely focused, first on training in a new boat and then racing every day. They practiced twice a day for three hours each practice.
“It was breakfast, practice, second breakfast, meet, lunch, practice, dinner, sleep,” says Coach Paul Ruggeberg. These girls are no strangers to heavy lifting, typically dedicating fifteen to twenty hours a week to practice and doing doubles—rowing at 5:15 a.m. and then again after school—in order to prepare for Nationals.
There’s a mental component, too. “We talked to them throughout the season about the importance of maintaining a level head,” says Coach Heidi. “Not matter how fast you are, no matter how many races you win or lose, it’s important that you’re doing the basic stuff. Are you doing your warmups right? Are you taking care of yourself? You have this big checklist that starts not right before Henley but freshman year in high school, learning how to take care of yourself, learning how to be tough.”
(Host) Family Ties
As strong as these young women are, they are also typical teens who enjoyed the camaraderie of being in Henley for three weeks. They were already good friends and teammates, but living together with British families brought them even closer. “They’re literally like your sisters,” Julia says about her teammates and roommates for the weeks at Henley. “Before every race we’d have our dance routine. We would be blasting music in the house and do a little hype-up dance before we went out.”
The host families treated the girls like their own, making them a breakfast of eggs, bacon, cereal and yogurt every morning, doing their laundry and rooting for them from a canoe tied up to a wooden boom near the finish line. “The families didn’t know them two weeks before, but then they were screaming until their voices were cracking to cheer them on,” says Heidi.
As the race week progressed and the girls advanced, the possibility of winning made the stakes even higher. “The nerves and adrenaline compound each day,” says Coach Paul. “I can’t imagine how they felt. To stay focused for that length of time is a testament to the maturity of these athletes.”
It’s the cox’s role to act like a conductor for the boat, helping the rowers to perform their best and keep their edge through races. There are technical calls and motivational calls, Francie explains. She had to find the right balance of both. “To an outsider, it sounds like some kind of secret code. It’s like numbers and random .”