Fighting Irish

By Alan Oldham

Brandenburg. GERMANY. Ireland Coach Don MACLACHLAN with IRL W1X. Sanita PUSPURE, 2016 European Rowing Championships at the Regattastrecke Beetzsee. Photo by Peter Spurrier.

As with so many stories about elite rowing in recent years, this one starts in Rio at the 2016 Olympics.

Finishing second in the lightweight men’s double, the little-known brother combination of Gary and Paul O’Donovan not only claimed Ireland’s first-ever Olympic medal in rowing, igniting celebrations across their home country, they also captured the attention of millions around the world with their unique blend of spirited humility and quirky charm during interviews following the race.

“Are you aware of what’s been going on back home, back here?” one Irish interviewer asked in a now famous clip viewed the world over online. “It’s just been mayhem, the nation has gone rowing mad and O’Donovan mad.”

“Tis a pity we’re missing the whole thing out here,” replied Gary, while Paul added, “…a national holiday or something, and we’re missing it all.”

Before they could return home, however, the brothers had a final duty to perform in Rio: Gary carried the Irish flag at the closing ceremonies. While the story of Irish rowing is so much more than the O’Donovan Brothers, their success was certainly a transformative moment for rowing on the small island nation, a country that can truly be said to have gone—in the words of that interview—rowing mad.

Small Beginnings

The O’Donovans, while they do hail from a very small community, Lisheen, on the outskirts of a very small town— Skibbereen—on the southwest coast of Ireland’s County Cork, didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. The successes of Irish rowers on the world stage have been a collaborative process and this little region in particular has given rise to a number of current international stars.

One other hugely successful Irish duo, Shane O’Driscoll and Mark O’Donovan (no relation to Gary and Paul), also call the Skibbereen Rowing Club home. Shane was even in the same class at Lisheen National School with Gary, while Paul was in the grade above.

Driscoll and O’Donovan have had their own successes on the world stage, most notably capturing gold in the light men’s pair at the 2017 worlds in Sarasota-Bradenton, Florida. Paul O’Donovan also took gold at that same regatta, defending his world title in the lightweight single while brother Gary was out due to illness.

With the light double the only remaining option at future Olympics, however, the pair-oared champions are leaving that event to Gary and Paul. They made headlines in December by announcing plans to switch into the heavy pair for a shot at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

All four of these rowers are currently on an extended training camp in New Zealand where they are preparing for February’s New Zealand Rowing Championships. Despite my best efforts, all were unavailable for an interview before we sent this issue to press. Fortunately, one familiar Irish rowing sensation was available for a call, so I picked up the phone and gave her a ring.

From One to Many

Sanita Puspure was Ireland’s lone rower at the London 2012 Olympics, where she finished atop the C final, a result she repeated in Rio 2016. While her eyes are squarely fixed on a third and hopefully more successful Olympics in 2020, she’s seen the steady growth of Irish rowing even in the time since she got back into the sport in the late 2000s, after a break following an under-23 career rowing for her native Latvia.

“In London, I was the only one on the team, so it was great to be part of the most successful Irish Olympic team in 2016,” she tells me as I ask her what the differences were when she returned home to Ireland after each of these two Games. “After London, everything was really quiet, but after Rio, there was a huge voice around rowing because of the boys [Paul and Gary].

“It was uplifting to see what the boys can do,” she continues, but admits “for me it was a bit bittersweet, because I wanted to be part of that, but I had to stand back and watch. It kind of spurred me on as well, so I’m going to keep going for another four years.”

The real inspiration for Puspure and what has kept her going over the years is who she surrounds herself with, she says. “I’ve always been uplifted and inspired by those around me. They don’t even have to be that fast. It has been great to see numbers and interest in rowing increasing. Everyone now knows what rowing is.”

Becoming Irish

It may seem strange that a Latvian-born sculler has been such a big part of Irish rowing, but things just seemed to line up for Puspure as she found her way back to the sport. “My husband and I were very young and silly,” she says of their decision to move to Ireland in the mid 2000s, adding that they have “no regrets. We thought we would stay for one year and life just took over.”

The return to rowing also came unexpectedly, she recalls. “At first it was, ‘I’ll just try a few times a week to lose some weight after having kids.’ Then in the space of a few months, it completely changed our lives. We were going to the boathouse five times a week. I think I did my first test six weeks after delivering the baby No. 2.”

Before she could start rowing though, she recalls the culture shock of the Irish club system. “It was very different, but you slowly introduce yourself to the system,” she says. “I didn’t understand at first that you had to share the boat—you had to share! That was part of the motivation to go out to the river more often, I didn’t want to share the boat.”

After back-to-back victories in the senior sculls at the Irish national championships in 2009-10, her Irish citizenship was finally granted in time for qualification for the London Games.

Despite only becoming Irish in 2011, Sanita herself has been an inspiration for many young women in Irish rowing. In 2012, she became the first female sculler to represent Ireland at an Olympics since 1980 and she joined a growing list of role models that have paved the way for greater female involvement in the sport in the country, where approximately 60 percent of rowers are currently men.

That ratio was mirrored at the 2017 worlds in Sarasota-Bradenton, says Michelle Carpenter, Rowing Ireland’s manager of development and women in sport. “We had six men and four women compete,” she says.

Carpenter explains how women’s rowing in Ireland has been gathering momentum since the mid 1990’s. “We have come a long way from when I started rowing in 1987 and had to row in secret for six months before being allowed into the club on a year trial.”

I ask about the so-called “O’Donovan effect” and how that translates to women’s participation in Irish rowing. Carpenter sees the brothers’ success as a major benefit that has generated numerous opportunities for raising more awareness among women. “Lots of kids are aware of the O’Donovan Brothers,” she notes. “Their success and personalities have helped in the media, but it would be so nice to see Denise [Walsh, sixth in the light women’s single at last year’s worlds and Sanita Puspure [fourth] and the women’s pair of Aileen Crowley and Aifric Keogh, who were eighth in Sarasota-Bradenton, get more rewards for their success.”

More recognition is surely not far off, as the success of Irish women’s rowing is only growing with a new generation of up-and-comers emerging onto the international rowing stage. The strength of crews such as Aoife Casey and Margaret Cremen, who captured Ireland’s first ever medal at the 2017 European junior championships last summer in the double, are proof that there is much more in store.

A new national initiative called “Get Going, Get Rowing” may also help attract more women into the sport. This is “a specific women-in-sport program,” explains Carpenter, “that brings rowing to schools and gets students rowing through a fun and active program on the rowing machine and incorporates the Olympic Values Education program.”

“Last year we had 25,000 individual students rowing as part of this program,” she says. And it appears to be working. “In a recent case study in Carlow Rowing Club, 95 percent of junior girls came from the program. Our regattas have over 50 percent female participants. Yes, it is working.”

Lessons from the Past

With women’s participation on the rise and increasing numbers of Irish athletes stepping onto the medal stand than ever before, it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t always the case. One figure who looms large in elite Irish rowing is Niall O’Toole. I caught up with O’Toole in January to learn how things had changed since his time on the international scene—from becoming the first Irish rower to win a world title, capturing gold in the light men’s single in Vienna in 1991, through to his final Olympic appearance in Athens 2004 in the sixth-place Irish lightweight men’s four.

“It’s incredible,” says O’Toole about the O’Donovan’s performance in Rio. “I literally cried when they were on. We’ve always had good people in a small system, remote from Europe, but in the past, we always [underperformed]. We’re so proud of them, my heart just beats when these guys are on television. It is a massive gift to Ireland, to the rowing community.”

He is, however, honest about a twinge of conflicted emotion. “For me,” says O’Toole, “for someone who has [worked incredibly hard] to have what they have, it is tinged with a sense of jealousy. You have to be gracious, but being a three-time Olympian, it is like, My God. Why couldn’t we get there? We just weren’t ready then. Now it is great and I love these guys.”

“First over the fence gets most bruised,” he laughs. O’Toole’s bruises were certainly earned the hard way since he broke onto the international rowing scene racing with the Irish junior men’s eight en route to a fourth-place showing in the B final in Cologne at the 1987 junior worlds. Looking back, he says he wouldn’t change any of it.

“When I started rowing in Ireland, there was nobody training full time,” he recalls. “There was no paid coach, no sports science.” O’Toole quickly moved into the single, where he finished fifth in the B final in Milan at the 1988 junior worlds. The next year he raced up so he could compete as a lightweight and finished third in the B final of the lightweight men’s single at the 1989 world championships. O’Toole’s first international win was at the 1990 Match des Seniors (a predecessor to today’s under-23 worlds), where he won the lightweight single and went on to finish sixth at that year’s worlds.  The next year, he was a world champion, but getting there had taken him far from Ireland.

“There were no peers,” he says. “It was a pretty lonely place.”  In the end, it was the people he reached out to that made the difference. O’Toole found a ready and eager international cadre of supporters to help him set a new bar for Irish rowers. Coaches like Great Britain’s Ray Sims and Norway’s Thor Nilsen among many others were instrumental in providing him with the feedback and competitive training environment he needed to keep improving.

“As an Irish person, you don’t threaten many people,” he says, “and since I had no one to train with I used to go to these other national squads and say, ‘Can I train with you for a couple of weeks?’ They fed me, housed me, all these squads took me in. I even learned Italian. I think that is quintessentially rowing, where people from smaller countries help each other out.”

While that spirit of international cooperation seems alive and well given the New Zealand trip for the Irish men’s team, there have been some significant changes since O’Toole’s time that he hopes can help carry forward what began all those years ago and sustain the recent successes well into the future.

“Irish rowing is certainly more structured, more strategic, better equipped,” he points out. “We probably have one of the best rowing centers on the planet with the National Rowing Centre in Cork. We’ve got our technology, our support structures right the way through the sport. We’ve got our carding system and rowing is absolutely one of the biggest funded sports in Ireland at the moment.”

“We have more money, more resources, and amazing facilities. And I think we have a vision for where we want to go,” he says. “I don’t think we always get it right, but we know where we want to go in future. It is night and day, a completely different sport from when I started.”

The only concern O’Toole has is that the sport stays true to the community roots that have allowed athletes like himself and more recently the O’Donovans to emerge from even the smallest communities in Ireland.

“Successful Irish rowing is always going to be based on individuals,” he says. “The majority of our success always has been based locally. Not based on strategy or structure. Ireland is never going to be a big complicated system, we’re just too small. It is about motivated people working closely together.”

An understanding of the central importance of individual athletes in what Ireland has been building up is echoed by Sanita Puspure, who notes that “we are a small team and not used to a big team philosophy. If someone breaks down, there is no one to replace them.”

Regardless of the path ahead—a direction that will become clearer with the impending hiring of a new high-performance coach—the attitude of Puspure and others is one of perseverance in any and all situations. “As athletes, we know that all we need to do is put our heads down and do the work.”

An Inspired Future

“It’s the ‘I can’ attitude,” concludes Michelle Carpenter. “The O’Donovans’ Olympic medal has brought amazing positivity to Irish rowing. I have a 15-year-old daughter myself and all she wants now to do is go to Paris 2024 or Los Angeles 2028. When you see people that you are in the same regatta with or from the same club, it makes you think, ‘I could do that, too.’ The most important tool is resilience and hard work, which means really anyone can do it.”

“Irish people are uniquely placed for being good at this sport,” adds O’Toole. “We are some of the toughest on the planet and I think that’s why we punch above our weight.”

Back at the small Lisheen National School, the young, enthusiastic students and staff composed a song soon after Rio in honor of the school’s most famous graduates. The song speaks to the tremendous sense of belief that has filled Irish hearts across the nation, a new self-confidence that will shape the years ahead as the shamrock green of Irish oars carries a new generation of international rowers to even greater heights.