Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Henley coach hopes to repeat legendary win

THE coach who led Henley Rowing Club to its first open victory at the royal regatta

THE coach who led Henley Rowing Club to its first open victory at the royal regatta is back after a five-year absence.

Ian Desmond, who was head coach when a Henley eight won the Thames Challenge Cup in 2005, stepped down from the role in 2010 to focus on his work.

Now the 54-year-old has returned as senior men’s coach and says he’s glad to be back and is confident that his charges will make him proud.

This year Henley will have crews in the Princess Royal Challenge Cup, the Wyfold Challege and the Britannia Challenge Cup.

Dave Lambourne, who was in that winning eight, is in this year’s Wyfold crew alongside Ben Crouch, Sam Agas and Francis Highton.

Mr Desmond, of York Road, Henley, has been training the men six days a week and often twice a day. They are on the water before 6am on Tuesdays and Thursdays and have weight training sessions in the  evenings.

They recently returned from a week-long training camp in Spain, their second this year.

Mr Desmond says it is hard juggling his voluntary coaching commitments with his job as a self-employed cabinet maker and joiner. He also plays the guitar and sings with acoustic covers band Highly Strung.

However, he wanted to help his hometown club, which he first joined as a junior sculler in 1977, after it was embroiled in controversy last year with claims of favouritism and “derogatory” behaviour towards junior girls.

British Rowing investigated and took disciplinary action against three officials — captain David Lister, who was banned from coaching children for 18 months, president John Friend, who was banned for a year for failing to investigate the claims, and chairman Jeff Morgan, who was ordered to undergo safeguarding training.

Mr Desmond, who rejoined the club just over a year ago, says: “To see my club in difficulty and John and his family going through sheer hell had a huge impact on me.

“I wanted to go back as soon as I was asked but I first had to stop and consider whether I actually had the time.

“It’s very difficult to balance my various priorities. It’s not just the actual coaching that takes time but the thought process that goes into selecting crews and putting together training regimes.

“The bit on the bike is relatively straightforward but dealing with injuries and illness while trying to get the best out of people is very tough.

“Getting the crews to the point where they’re capable of winning is a long and complex process. There are so many hoops to jump through and if you fail at any stage, you’ve had it.”

Mr Desmond was born at Townlands Hospital in Henley in 1962 and grew up on the Fawley Hill estate, where his late father Stanley was a farmer.

His mother Beatrice, who lives in Western Avenue, was a personal assistant to the Mackenzie family, who used to own the Fawley Court estate, off Marlow Road.

Temple Island, which marks the regatta start line, was then part of the estate and he would often play there as a child.

Mr Desmond attended Great Marlow School at the same time as Sir Steve Redgrave, but did not take up rowing until he was 15. He had preferred football and played for Newtown FC but was advised to give up the game after suffering a knee injury.

He decided to join Henley Rowing Club after passing its then headquarters in Thames Side (now the Haringtons hair salon), and chatting with former captain Arthur  Holloway.

Mr Holloway taught him to scull and he later learned to row under Bob Bushnell, another former club captain.

Mr Desmond recalls: “I didn’t have a clue about the sport but I poked my nose in to see what it was all about and that’s where my passion started.

“I was fascinated by all the boats and very keen to remain active as it was devastating to hear I couldn’t play football any longer.

“The thing I remember most about the early days was falling in a lot! We trained very hard. It was perfectly normal to cover a lot of distance and go out in the dark or in a flood stream on your own.

“It was also perfectly normal to go for a few drinks in the Little White Hart afterwards. All this health and safety, which of course I agree is a good thing, didn’t exist back then.

“Nothing ever fazed us. We would carry our boats across the road to the clubhouse in fear of our lives because cars would come racing around that bend from New Street.

“We’d go out in the middle of the night in winter, in any conditions, and there would be ice floes on the water. You would get covered in ice but that was typical — you’d just get on with it.”

Mr Desmond won his first pot at St Neots within a year and was hoping to try out for the GB junior squad but pulled out after becoming ill through overtraining.

He took several months off with glandular fever and Bell’s palsy, a temporary facial paralysis brought on by viral infection, before gradually easing himself back into the sport.

In the years that followed he rowed alongside world lightweight champions Nigel Read, Peter Zeun and Ivor Lloyd in events such as London’s Head of the River race.

He says: “When you’re rowing with good people as a youngster it really brings on your technique. It’s a fast track to improving your own rowing. These people had been performing at a very high level and I was incredible lucky to be training alongside them.”

Mr Desmond first competed at Henley Royal Regatta in 1984 as part of a Henley coxless four in the Wyfold Challenge Cup.

He recalls: “We hit the quarter mark post and smashed our blade to bits. We were going like the  clappers but that was the end of that! I was absolutely  devastated.

“We competed again in the Britannia in 1985 and 1986 but while we were unbeaten in every other event during those years, we never quite made it at Henley.

“In those days the rules were different as you could have top international rowers in so-called ‘club events’.

“You have to bear in mind what we were up against — the standard was very high. I think the rules are much better now for developing club rowing.”

Mr Desmond quit rowing in 1986 as he then had his joinery business and soon afterwards the club relocated to its current premises off Wargrave Road.

He rowed briefly for Henley’s Upper Thames Rowing Club in the early Nineties, during which time his crew twice beat the GB lightweight quad scull and became national champions in the Home International Regatta at Holme Pierrepont, near Nottingham.

In 1996he was invited to surprise Sir Steve on an episode of This Is Your Life and presented his former classmate with a hand-made wooden case that held his four Olympic gold medals and one bronze in the same arrangement as the five Olympic rings.

He later altered the case to accommodate the fifth gold that Sir Steve won at Sydney in 2000.

Mr Desmond says: “It was a real honour to present that to him. I thought it would be a nice gesture and I was more than happy to modify it when he won gold again.

“Steve is a great guy and was the perfect choice to take over as chairman of the royal regatta. I have no doubt he will continue to do a wonderful job.”

Mr Desmond began a two-year degree in building surveying and architecture at Oxford Brookes University in 1999 and rowed for the university during that time.

He was in a men’s eight which came third in London Head of the River in 2001. His crewmates included Rowley Douglas, who had won gold for GB in Sydney, and future Olympians Alex Partridge and Steve Williams.

Mr Desmond rejoined Henley Rowing Club in 2001 and started coaching when Mr Read asked for help improving his son David’s technique in 2003.

He became chief coach the following year and put together an eight which reached the final of the Thames Challenge Cup at Henley that summer.

He says: “Unfortunately, the fin of the boat got caught in a wire near the buoys at the start line and it bent, which scuppered our chances. We still had a bloody good race but the boat was snaking all over the course. You could see the crew were really battling to keep it in a straight line.”

In 2005, the club’s prospects of a Henley win looked bleak after its boats were vandalised at an event in London earlier in the season.

However, they were able to replace them following a donation from the World Advertising Research Centre.

That year’s victorious eight consisted of Mr Friend’s sons Nick and Charlie, Mr Read Jnr, Jonny Smith-Willis, David Lambourn, Jasper Hasell, Richard Guiver, Ariel Perez-Calderon and cox Avery Penna-Couttenye.

The crew led their final race from the outset and despite a late surge by rivals Lady Elizabeth Boat Club, of Ireland, hung on to win the Thames Cup by a length.

Mr Desmond says: “It was nice to be able to put something back into the club, having learned my trade there. No one thought we could do it but we’d finally secured our first win after 175 years.

“The great thing is that it was a genuine club crew. Many of them had learned their first rowing strokes with us and I, as their coach, had done the same.

“We had so much support up and down the country so it was, for want of a better word, a ‘popular’ win.”

Over the five years that followed, the club reached six Henley finals and also entered a composite crew with Tideway Scullers. The last of these reached the finals of the men’s quad sculls, now known as the Prince of Wales Challenge Cup, losing to Leander Club by a length.

Mr Desmond, who works from a unit at the Henley Enterprise Park off Greys Road, then left to focus on his business.

He believes the club is capable of winning at Henley again this year.

“It would be amazing and a huge achievement,” he says. “Winning at Henley is a lifetime goal for many athletes and only 18 people in the world can win in the club events each year.

“All the hard work is actually in the training. If you haven’t put the hours in beforehand, you’ve got no chance of winning on the day.

“We want to make sure we don’t waste one stroke and can obtain a consistent performance from our crews without them getting ill. I’m very conscious that athletes can overtrain and it’s crucial to realise that rest is just as important.

“You have to get the balance right because those boys aren’t full-time athletes and have to do jobs as well.

“It’s very rewarding to see a crew improving but I always advise people to learn from my mistakes because I’ve made plenty.

“Coaching isn’t only about knowing the technique but communicating it in a way people can understand. You could be a fantastic rower but that doesn’t mean you can teach it.

“I believe we get the best out of individuals at Henley. It’s not just about me — it’s a team effort from athletes and staff. Someone has to be in charge and call the shots but everyone has to contribute.

“It’s brilliant to be involved again because Henley is where I found my roots and learned an awful lot as both an oarsman and a coach. I feel very loyal to the club.”

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