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Santa Monican Earns Oars in Henley Regatta

August 24, 1989|SAM MARCHIANO | Times Staff Writer

In the little town of Henley, historic boathouses line the Thames.

Whether it is a 60-year-old gentleman in his one-man scull out for a pleasant afternoon on the river, or a heavyweight university team trying to beat its best time, rowing has been, is and looks to always be a way of life in England.

And in this particular town, the sport is celebrated in elaborate fashion.

For more than a century rowers from around the world and rowers close to home have descended upon Henley at the end of June to participate in a five-day grind, the Henley Regatta.

Amid the thousands of athletes and spectators, predominantly from Western Europe and American East Coast cities, was Brian Wachler, a Southern Californian.

Far from his modest tree-lined street in Santa Monica, Wachler was engulfed in a world of striped blazers, strawberries and cream and pints of Pimm's during last month's 150th Henley Regatta.

"It was the most incredible sporting event I've ever been to," Wachler said. "Over the years it has developed to a real intensity on the water--but a social event on the bank."

Wachler, who rowed junior varsity crew for UCLA during his freshman and sophomore years, learned to appreciate both the social and competitive aspects of the event as a member of the University of Edinburgh heavyweight team. The eight-man boat finished sixth in a field of 76 that competed in the Thames Cup, the most competitive of the college races.

After graduating from UCLA last June, Wachler accepted a Rotary club scholarship to study abroad.

Rotary grants undergraduate and graduate scholarships to students with communicative skills, dedication to public service and an interest in international travel.

In addition to studying European history, philosophy and art at Edinburgh, Wachler rekindled his love for rowing after a two-year hiatus.

"I have a wide range of interests and I wanted to develop some of my other skills," said the 22-year-old Wachler, who begins Dartmouth medical school this fall. "But rowing basically started in Britain, and so what better place to row than Europe?"

While Americans and European rowers are on par with each other technically, Wachler says a different approach to coaching on a collegiate level enhanced his experience in Scotland.

At Edinburgh, the coach only supervises on the water. Land training and administrative duties were the responsibility of the students.

"The people who stuck with the program were committed and self-motivated," Wachler explained. "Here in the States you have your coach and he's like a father figure, a disciplinarian."

For Wachler, the transition on the water was simple enough, but transcending the cultural disparities took a little more time.

"In general, Americans are very friendly, but the British are more reserved," said Wachler, an animated and talkative person. "The British view American friendliness as being a little superficial because how can you be so enthusiastic when you don't know someone? I learned to tone it down a bit until I established a rapport."

By April, Wachler had mastered some social graces and secured his trip to Henley.

Establishing all eight members of the heavyweight boat early gave Edinburgh ample time to prepare for the regatta. "Since we solidified the boat early, we had time to gel," Wachler said of the boat, which included an American coxswain and stroke man.

"There was a common level of commitment that was very important because there wasn't always a common level of ability, so being committed is what I think really made the difference."

The Henley course is unusual for two reasons. The standard course length for international competition is 2,000 meters, but Henley measures one mile and 550 yards. Also, crews race upstream, making it more strenuous.

"Since it's longer than a normal race when you're used to a sprint, you have to wait longer at Henley. And upstream, a race that's normally six minutes is 45 seconds to a minute longer," Wachler said. "Any race you're tired--but these especially. It's a tough day."

Difficult as the Henley course may be, the regatta only strengthened Wachler's passion for rowing.

"There something about rowing that is both charming and seductive. It's exhilarating to push your body to the limit and know that everyone in the boat is too," Wachler said. "Everyone is doing the same thing and it's your will against the will of the other boat. If one person gives up, that's it."

At Henley, Wachler didn't give up and it does not look like he will give up on rowing in the near future. Despite the rigors of medical school, Wachler is eager to row for the Dartmouth Rowing Club. Rowing has become part of his life.

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