Sports

Ever-changing weather can nullify home-course advantage at Henley

By Bernd Franke, Postmedia News

Ron (Swede) Burak, a coach with the St. Catharines Rowing Club, has either rowed, officiated or coached athletes on the Henley course since 1970. BERND FRANKE/Postmedia News

Ron (Swede) Burak, a coach with the St. Catharines Rowing Club, has either rowed, officiated or coached athletes on the Henley course since 1970. BERND FRANKE/Postmedia News

If Niagara’s ever-fluctuating forecast – “Don’t like the weather? Wait. It will change in 15 minutes” – is fickle enough to wash out a Saturday morning garage sale at the last minute, try preparing to compete over several days in a regatta.

 

Any “home-course advantage” that rowing crews from the region might have in the 135th Royal Canadian Henley Regatta now underway in St. Catharines can literally be gone with the wind, with medal hopes lost in choppy water.

South Niagara Rowing Club member Julia Labricciosa said that unlike The Great Dain, her home course in Welland, weather can play a bigger role in rowing on Martindale Pond.

“Knowing the course is obviously a good advantage over a lot of people, but at the Henley conditions change a lot,” said the Grade 12 student at E.L. Crossley Secondary, speaking from the experience of competing at the Henley last year and at the Canadian Secondary Schools Rowing Association (CSSRA) Regatta the past three years.

She said conditions could change from the first heat to the 10th heat on the Henley course.

“It’s a little bit different than the South Niagara Rowing Club, which is what we’re used to and which is calm water.”

South Niagara’s Sarah Fuller, a second-year Queen’s University biology major rowing in her sixth Henley, said athletes who don’t have to live out of their suitcases during race week have an edge when it comes being in a “comfort zone.”

“It helps your sleep, you’re not waking up wondering where you are,” the 17-year-old said. “It helps me. I know when I’m away at regattas, I always sleep a little bit less.”

Familiarity with the course also helps, though not to a great extent.

“It helps with your focus,” Fuller said. “Because you know the course so well, you know where the 250 is, where the metre marks are, but, other than that, it probably doesn’t mean that much.”

“It’s more of a ‘comfort thing,’ because you know where everything is.”

Sleeping in your own bed and not having to live out of a suitcase adds to the comfort.

Lauren Bench, 17, a Crossley student in Grade 12, competed at the Can-Am-Mex Regatta in Victoria, B.C.

Ron (Swede) Burak, a St. Catharines Rowing Club coach and one-time head coach of the South Niagara club, has either rowed, officiated or coached on the Henley course since 1970. He said home-course advantage isn’t much of a factor, given that the Henley is a world-class regatta with high-calibre competition.

“I would say an athlete worth their salt can row anywhere,” he said. “They can do the work they are supposed to do.”

“A lot of the athletes here have rowed on this course. Most of them are familiar with the course from the past.”

Burak agreed there’s something to be said about athletes sleeping in their own homes rather than in a hotel or in a dorm at Brock University.

“There is a little bit of an advantage if athletes are at home,” he said. “They’re in their own boathouse, they have that comfort-type of thing, not necessarily an advantage.”

The veteran coach is asked whether that edge from comfort, however slight, is nullified by the pressure of having to fare well on their home course.

“I think it’s how the athletes are being coached on accepting that pressure,” Burak said. “Do they count it as ‘pressure,’ or is it just something they know they have to do and they do the work that’s required.”

He said a lot of coaches aim to prepare their athletes for “stress-free racing,” regardless of where the competition is being held.

Over his long career Burak has won Henley medals as a rower as well as a coach. He said the satisfication of having played a role in an athlete’s success makes the coaching medals mean more to him.

“I think as a coach because you see the fruits of your labour in seeing your athletes succeed,” he said. “That gives me a great pleasure.”

“My day is done. To me, it’s about the athlete.”

Achievement isn’t limited to medals, but how athletes live up to their potential in a race.

“If you get an athlete and their podium is third in the final and that’s what they reach, to me that’s a very successful regatta for them.”

bfranke@postmedia.com