THOUSANDS of people lined the streets of Henley to welcome home our Olympic heroes.
Crowds of cheering fans greeted Team GB’s rowers as they were paraded through the town centre on an open-top bus on Saturday.
Supporters of all ages, from children to pensioners, walked behind or alongside the vehicle while waving Union flags and taking photographs and videos.
The athletes disembarked at the town hall and spent 40 minutes chatting with well-wishers, posing for selfies and signing autographs before returning to Leander Club for a private reception.
The rowers said they wanted to express their thanks for the welcome and that they would always remember the occasion.
Leander crews returned from Rio with three gold medals and two silvers, making a total of 12 medallists and bringing the club’s total number of all time Olympic medals to 123.
Twenty rowers took part in Saturday’s festivities, including Leander captain and double Olympic champion Alex Gregory and Vicky Thornley, who won silver in the women’s double sculls with Katherine Grainger.
The celebrations began at Leander Club, where the rowers took to the water in their Team GB kit for a ceremonial row-past in two eight boats and a double scull.
The first boat consisted mostly of women, including Thornley, Polly Swann, Katie Greves and cox Zoe de Toledo, who were accompanied by fellow Leander member Alan Sinclair.
Also on board was Olivia Carnegie-Brown, of Oxford Brookes University Boat Club, who grew up in Goring and attended Queen Anne’s School in Caversham.
The second boat contained only men, including Gregory and Leander’s Matt Gotrel, Matt Langridge, Will Satch, Tom Ransley and cox Phelan Hill.
Clubmates Jonny Walton and Jack Beaumont were in the double scull.
The crews rowed upstream to the River and Rowing Museum before turning around at Rod Eyot and heading downstream to Upper Thames Rowing Club and then back to Leander.
They were watched by spectators lined up on Henley Bridge and both banks and the air resounded with cheers and applause as the boats passed.
After returning to dry land, the rowers boarded the bus for the parade, which was led by the Shires Royal British Legion Youth Band.
The procession travelled at walking pace across Henley Bridge and into Hart Street as the athletes leaned over the sides of the top deck of the bus and waved at their admirers. Residents of flats above the shops leaned out of their windows to cheer.
Many in the crowd were cheering for Gregory, who was accompanied by two of his children, Jasper, six, and Daisy, two.
The parade passed the gold post box in Hart Street, which was painted by Royal Mail in 2012 to mark the GB squad’s achievements at the London Olympics.
The bus then turned right into Bell Street and again into New Street before going along Thames Side and back into Hart Street towards the town hall in Market Place.
During this final leg, the bus slowed as the athletes waved to the crowds and threw cuddly pink hippos, the symbol of Leander Club, over the side for people to catch.
The vehicle parked beside the hall and the athletes entered the building from the rear before stepping out on to a red carpet on the town hall steps at the front of the building.
Mayor Julian Brookes and Henley MP John Howell briefly addressed the crowd before compere Martin Unsworth, who is Satch’s stepfather, introduced the rowers one by one.
The athletes formed up in two groups on either side of the steps before passing through an arch of blades held by members of Phyllis Court Club and young members of Leander Club, Henley Rowing Club, Upper Thames Rowing Club, Marlow Rowing Club and Shiplake Vikings as well as rowers from Shiplake College and The Oratory School in Woodcote.
The crowd barriers were then moved so the rowers could mingle with the public.
Gregory, 32, who was part of the men’s coxless four that won gold, said: “We’re very excited about today and thrilled to be here.
“Many of us remember taking part in the 2012 parade and it was an incredible experience that we still talk about and will never forget. These experiences aren’t normal, everyday ones and we value them very much.
“Henley isn’t just the home of Leander Club, though of course the club supports us incredibly well, but the wider community gets right behind us and no one will ever know how much that means to us.
“We all think it’s hugely important to give something back to the people who’ve been encouraging us for the past four years.”