It has to be said that some races are pretty serious affairs, and with good reason. As a culmination of months of training, the focus, determination and tension on the start line are palpable. The Henley Mile is a much more relaxed affair. Not that there wasn’t some serious racing, but the day is billed as a family fun day – with the emphasis on fun.
As an introduction to open water swimming the location is pretty hard to beat: distill the essence of Englishness and you end up with Henley-on-Thames. The swim takes place along the course of the annual Royal Regatta so no need to worry about navigating turns in the river – it is a dead straight mile, point to point. And so close to London yet so beautiful: a blissfully bucolic swim, with a backdrop of rolling fields and the Chiltern hills. No spluttering about in a bleak dock, this is River Thames swimming at its best
With waves broken down into distance, age group, speed, gender and attire (wetsuits or skins), swimmers were able to choose the swim best suited to their experience (and the experience they wanted out of the swim). There was also a suits vs skins competition to find out how much faster you are in your wetsuit. Non-competitive swimmers could choose the sporting wave, which wasn’t a race, while masters swimmers could compete in their age group and gender categories. And if the mile was a bit too much, there were also half mile events (and for the kids, the Henley Splash – a short swim from the bank under the supervision of Olympic bronze medallist Cassie Patten).
And there were lots of kids (and also lots of dogs. Maybe we are missing out on something here – swimming races for dogs?). But the most encouraging sight of the whole day was the amount of children just loving being in the water – whether lined up ready to do battle with the endless pool in the beep test (how long can you keep swimming before the increasing force of the water jet becomes too much) or for the open water coaching session given by Cassie Patten, or jumping into the river for the Big River Jump or Henley Splash. Events like these hopefully give the lie to the Sport England figures showing the decline in swimming: maybe they were just looking for swimmers in the wrong place.
The mile swim was also the focus for eight women inspired by the This Girl Can campaign. Reading their blogentries you are struck by the enormity of the challenge swimming a mile was for them, and their sense of achievement having completed the distance on Sunday: the Henley Smile.
After swimming in the river, competitors could browse the stalls at the H2Open Open Water Swimming Show and listen to talks in the seminar room. Cassie Patten had a rapt audience of junior swimmers hoping to follow in her footsteps to Olympic glory, and Red Szell, the first blind man to scale the Old Man of Hoy, gave an inspiring talk before also taking part in the mile swim with a guide swimmer. Caitlin Davies, author of Downstream, gave an illuminating talk on the history of women swimming in the Thames and there were other talks on injury prevention, masters swimming, nutrition and creating your own swimming adventures. But the centre point of the show was the endless pool. The elite swimmers put on impressive performances warming up and warming down before and after their races, and Total Immersion and Maximum Performances gave coaching sessions, but the pool was mostly used by children trying to beat the current. And that is surely the best way to encourage kids to get involved with swimming: make it fun.
Jack Beddows and Nicole Ryan, winners of the elite men’s and women’s races.
Full results of the Henley Mile are available here.