* Latest in a series of periodic stories on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Cal athletes in different sports

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When the COVID-19 pandemic got revved up in the United States and Cal was shut down in March, Elliott Kemp returned to England.

And when he arrived home in Bracknell, he did what Queen Victoria could not bring herself to do way back in the mid-19th century.

He stayed a while.

A junior on Cal’s rowing team, Kemp remained at home for five months, finally returning to Berkeley early this week.

Kemp refers to Bracknell as “just a standard town,” citing its best quality as its proximity to London, located 37 miles to the east. “One of the best cities in the world . . . or the best city,” he says.

According to an online story titled, “Things you should know about Bracknell,” Queen Victoria once made her way through the town, then located in a forest. An antique print commemorating her visit is available on ebay for £5.99 (about $8), and cites the occasion’s date as 1845.

“Although she never actually got out of the coach, left very quickly and never came back, Bracknell people are tremendously proud of their place in British history provided by this event,” the story reads.

“It kind of just tells you the kind of town Bracknell is today,” Kemp says of his hometown of about 85,000 residents. “Not a place where people come by and stop and take a look around. It’s more like you either live there or you’re going to pass through. Even if you’re the Queen.”

Kemp was happy to be home and avoid the lockdown in the Bay Area. Folks at home dealt cautiously with the coronavirus, he says, but things loosened up a bit more quickly than they did here, with restaurants and pubs opening in early July.

“It was a big shock. Coming from full-time training and then within four, five days I’m back at home. It was just so weird,” he says.

Back in Berkeley just a few days, Kemp notes the difference. “Here in the Bay Area, I’ve noticed that everyone is wearing a mask. it’s even stricter.”

A postscript to our tale: It turns out that current UK monarch Queen Elizabeth II actually has made more than one visit to Bracknell, most recently in October 2018 to tour the new Lexicon shopping area.

Kemp missed that occasion, too. He was a freshman in Berkeley at the time.

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*** Kemp shares his experience at the famed Henley Royal Regatta: 

The Henley Royal Regatta is the world’s most famous rowing competition. Held on the River Thames at Henley-on-Thames, the event is five days of fierce competition and a highlight of the English social season.

“It has all that tradition, weird kind of clothing and old-fashioned kind of stuff,” Kemp explains. “People come by with no idea what rowing is — they just come by, standing on the river bank for a couple days. It’s just a lovely occasion.”

Races were canceled this year because of the coronavirus and were not held during World War II. Otherwise, the Henley Royal Regatta has been an annual event since 1839.

In 2019, the regatta drew 1,900 athletes in 660 boats, including 159 from 17 different foreign countries. Races are held in a range of categories.

Kemp competed three straight years, through 2018, while in secondary school, and acknowledges it as a rowing career highlight.

“It’s huge. Just qualifying is special. Once you’re inside, you can potentially go for five days straight,” Kemp says.

He calls 2018 “the pinnacle year,” with his team’s boat advancing through to the final day.

“Unfortunately, we lost out in the finals to our bitter rival,” he recalls. “Five days of brutal racing, only to lose is heartbreaking.”

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*** Kemp is hoping his third spring season at Cal finally arrives without drama:

Not only was Cal’s recent spring rowing schedule wiped out, but Kemp’s freshman season was impacted when he developed a severe chest infection while at home over Christmas in 2018. As a side benefit, Kemp couldn’t food or fluids down for about two weeks.

He lost nearly 20 pounds, noting, “I was very skinny.” Gone also was some of his strength and endurance.

“Winter is the important part of the season for building fitness,” he says. “That’s the time when you win the race by hard training and getting fit.”

Kemp gradually regained his form as the spring season unfolded. "It was still a great season. It was my first time at Cal racing so it was a huge learning curve,” he says.

Kemp hopes the pandemic will wane and his 2021 spring season can unfold without incident.

“This is the time in which no one knows what will happen. All we can do is train for the possibility, and by the looks of things we will be racing,” he says. “We have to train for that outcome and make sure we’re just as fit as if it was a normal season."

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo

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