By Jeremy Gaunt
HENLEY-ON-THAMES, England, June 19 (Reuters) - The river running through the Oxfordshire town of Henley-on-Thames was heaving with boats, oars and athletes this past weekend, but it was not, as might be imagined, the storied Henley Royal Regatta.
That 178-year-old event - known for its blazers, boaters and boozing - comes 10 days from now. The splash and sparkle along the river this time was from the Henley Women's Regatta.
One of the world's premier women's rowing events, the HWR celebrated its 30th anniversary over three days with a record number of entrants, now totalling more than 1,800 rowers from 190 clubs across the world.
Crews came from Britain, Ireland, Australia, the United States, Canada, Germany and Switzerland - all vying for 25 different trophies in 214 races featuring 418 entries.
It was a far cry from the one-day, 109-entry, 97-race launch in 1988, when women's rowing was still relatively rare and had only been included in the Olympics 12 years earlier.
There was little place then, for example, at the more well-known - and famously traditional - Henley Royal event, which squeezed in only a few invitational races.
"Women did not have a chance to row at Henley Royal," said Miriam Luke, the HWR's chairman. "(Now at HWR )we have elites, top clubs, academic, juniors, intermediates."
Luke herself is something of a women's rowing trailblazer.
She won silver at the 2000 Olympics in the quadruple scull - Britain's first women's crew to medal - and gold at the 1998 world championships in the double scull, among other awards.
Henley Royal Regatta now has some women's events, which the better crews at HWR stay on for, getting, as Luke puts it, "two bites at the cherry".
But for women-only regattas HWR is in a fairly exclusive class. There is a women's Tideway Head of the River in London and the college-only U.S. NCAA women's rowing championships, as well, of course, as the women's events in the Olympics and worlds.
Luke says women's rowing has grown in leaps and bounds in part because it thrives on a special closeness between athletes that you do not necessarily get in individual or other team sports.
"It's a different sort of niche sport," she said. "You build a lot of community with the women you row with."
Organisers estimate that around 30,000 people attended the three-day regatta, which was free for spectators, many of whom were young women like those in the boats.
Nicholas Edwards, a Henley local and father of one of the rowers, looked on with a mixture of pride and joy.
"It is such a collective spirit," he said of the regatta, which is a far more relaxed affair than the longer-running event.
"It really celebrates women's achievement," he said. (Editing by Ed Osmond)
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