After the Olympics Aifric Keogh didn’t have a straight answer, no matter how the question was put. Tokyo had represented the water’s end in her mind for so long that she struggled to think of it another way. At the far side of the Olympic tunnel was this terminus, and a platform on which to alight. The doors opened. Go.
The women’s four had won bronze, the first Irish female crew to reach the podium at the Olympics. Keogh was the oldest athlete in the boat: five years older than Eimear Lambe and Emily Hegarty, four years older than Fiona Murtagh. By the middle of the next racing season she would be 30. She knew what it had taken to get there once: all kinds of everything. “I worried,” she said about the possibility of another Olympic cycle, “that I wouldn’t have the fight in me.”
For every athlete the Olympics reaches a sudden ending followed by a slow release. There is no option to microwave the process and serve it fast on a plate. Keogh had committed to a masters in business administration, an intensive one-year course in Trinity, and that would be her bridge into the world beyond.
But while the feelings from Tokyo were still hot, she didn’t burn the boat. Her thoughts needed to settle, at room temperature. “You don’t wake up one day and say, ‘That’s my decision.’ It’s a constant over-and-back battle in your head.
“It wasn’t a case of ‘Leave me alone for three months,’ or ‘Give me until January.’ I think if I said that to them a decision may have been made for me – just out of my fitness. So I started the year as a normal athlete but training in Dublin and studying. I did all the assessments that the girls were doing in Cork [at the High Performance Centre]. My plan was to stay fit and then let my decision come from what I want, rather than how I might feel physically.”
In December Keogh was interviewed on stage at a public event sponsored by the Trinity Business Alumni. The rowing journalist Liam Gorman put the questions for 35 minutes, teasing out Keogh’s career on the water, and the motives that made her. When the conversation came round to the Olympics Keogh gave an answer that had been squatting in the attic of her mind for months.
“Ultimately,” she said, “I do think we left the gold medal behind us in Tokyo.”
I went through a phase – like a lot of girls do – of, like, ‘Should I keep playing sport?’ My friends are quitting
It wasn’t a conclusion that anybody else had reached: it was a freshly baked crew, competing in a new Olympic event, and for about half of the Olympic final it looked like they might finish fifth. In the long, scrambling lunge for a bronze medal, they had emptied themselves on the water. Nothing was left.
“I remember when I said that, I was thinking, ‘Oh, that was a strong statement,’” she says now. “I suppose I’ve thought about it since. It’s not so much that we left the gold medal behind, but I just think we had the potential to be a bit more competitive. Maybe it wasn’t the colour of the medal, it was more so how we kind of handled the first half of the race and allowed the situation to develop. It might have been a bit more satisfying if we had been in contention a bit earlier and didn’t have to absolutely throw the kitchen sink at it for the last part of the race.”
So. She wasn’t finished.
“Aifric’s career has been a testament to keeping on, and a belief in herself,” said Gorman, introducing his guest on stage. In the other chair, Keogh nodded quietly. Her life in rowing has been a giant act of self-determination. There were times when she could have slipped out of the water and very few outside her circle would have noticed. She wasn’t a star, shooting through the High Performance system. She made a choice to be better at this than anybody thought she could be.
“I went through a phase – like a lot of girls do – of, like, ‘Should I keep playing sport?’ My friends are quitting. I’m going through my Leaving Cert, I really want to do well. When I was in Leaving Cert year a lot of my friends, who I started rowing with, had quit. So I was in a weird transitional phase. I felt I’d put so much into all these years [rowing in school] and the question was, ‘Do I keep going? Do I go to college and continue to row, or do I go to college and have a normal experience?’
“That summer I took time just to celebrate all the 18ths. Every weekend it was someone’s birthday. I went on a holiday after my Leaving Cert and I actually found I was quite sick of all that quite quickly. I was back training in August with NUIG, before I even got my results. I had already signed up to the club in college before I even knew if I was going to university.”
Back then, rowing’s High Performance Unit wasn’t as well-resourced as it is now, or as teeming with talented athletes. Very few elite women rowers were in the system. For a while, Keogh struggled to see how she could fit.
“I saw a big leap to senior rowing and things like the World Championships, and there weren’t a huge amount of female rowers ahead of me doing that. Any of the ones that were ahead of me I kind of thought, ‘They’re so much faster than me, they’re so much better than me, I’ll never be able to close that gap.’ I suppose it was just a lack of belief. I genuinely didn’t fathom that it was possible. Maybe it stopped me, mentally.”
Then she got into a boat with Lisa Dilleen, another Galway rower. Dilleen had been part of the High Performance system before the London Olympics, but had failed to qualify for the Games. In each other, they sourced encouragement and speed.
“We ended up going to the U-23 World Championships and we came fourth. I remember crossing the line and you have this silence. There’s a minute or two in the boat where no one speaks. I remember saying to myself, ‘OK, I’m devastated, but this is definitely what I want to do.’”
Keogh started to spend more time on Inniscarra Lake, putting down roots in the coaches’ thoughts. In the system there are “priority boats,” into which more resources and attention are invested. For the 2018 World Championships Keogh and Emily Hegarty tried to qualify a boat from outside that embrace. It was the last boat selected; in Bulgaria, they became the first female Irish crew to reach a world final.
“That was unexpected. Whatever about getting to the final, winning the semi-final was the big shock. Being in a priority boat is great because you get all of the love and attention that you need but I don’t want to give the impression that you’re left out in the dark [by not being a priority boat] – you are very much supported still. But you’re in a position where you’re an underdog, and a lot of people thrive in that position.”
Keogh graduated from NUIG with a degree in microbiology and carried on to UCC to do a masters in food science. She had started in the work place when she decided to commit wholly to rowing, halfway through 2018. The following year’s sky-line was dominated by Olympic qualifiers. There was nothing else to see.
Then Keogh got sick. Everything about it was concussive: she struggled to breathe and was in such excruciating pain that she couldn’t sit down or lie down. She presented herself at accident and emergency and was discharged without an answer. Days passed before they discovered blood clots in her lungs that had travelled from her legs. For over a week, at the end of May 2019, Keogh lay on a hospital bed, counting the cost in an athlete’s currency.
“I think it was a huge threat to my overall health and at the time I probably didn’t appreciate that as much, because to me it was like, ‘I have to stop training, my plans are all up in the air. I’m working towards this [Olympic qualification], realistically, my whole life.’ It was hard to even think about my health when I was looking at the disruption that was in front of me.
“I was in such a rush to get back for the World Championships, and I was in such a rush to make sure I was in a good place for the late qualifiers, that I didn’t really process it. I think it was only when I went home for the first Covid lockdown the following spring  that I realised I was so lucky. I started to appreciate that it could have gone much worse. There’s a GB rower - I think he has three Olympic medals – and he’s paralysed because he got a clot in his spine. He’s in a wheelchair.
“I knew I was young and I knew I was fit. I had all the right cards in front of me to get back and recover. At the time it was very much, ‘Question one, do I have to retire? No. Question two, how long is it going to take me?’”
In the end, everything stopped and Keogh caught up. They didn’t qualify the boat until May of 2021, just two months before the deferred Olympics. Nobody even knew who would sit in the boat until March of that year, when all of the permutations had been interrogated in the trials.
Those trials frame every season. In rowing, the squad dynamic is different from field sports. The athletes lean on each other through the hellish training, but the crew is picked by an adversarial process; someone’s hopes will be shattered by someone close.
“In the trials,” Keogh said on the stage in Trinity, “you’re rowing against your best friends, and you want to beat them, and you want to beat them well. But then the next day, you could be rowing with them.”
When the women’s four won silver at the European Championships in Munich last month only half of the Olympic crew was in the boat; for the World Championships this week, the Tokyo four has been reunited.
In Munich they blasted off in front, pulping the play book from the Olympics, in pursuit of a different outcome. That’s what kept her. The quest continues.