It must be hard sometimes being the best lightweight doubles sculls crew anywhere in the world. Especially when those doubts start setting in. Who will finish second? Who will finish third?
Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy might never admit to seeing things that way, even if their latest gold medal show contained all such familiar hallmarks: unbothered with their rivals, unpanicked by their position, moving from last to first in the second quarter of the race and further perfecting their knack of peaking at exactly the right time and place.
Then, of course, making mischievously light of it all afterwards.
For the other 12 Irish crews on the water in Racice over the last eight days, things were a little trickier. In helping bring the overall Irish medal tally to four, the women’s doubles and lightweight doubles both won bronze, drowning in lactate while mainlining adrenaline, exploring new depths of pain and suffering to ensure they didn’t end up fourth in their finals.
Together they added to the gold medal also won by Katie O’Brien in the Para women’s single sculls on Friday, her bold effort of going out hard to fend off the faster qualifier, the Australian Kathryn Ross, paying sweet dividend. Without her added willpower O’Brien’s story might well have ended differently.
Still, there will be some debate whether four medals — leaving Ireland seventh-best on the overall medal table — represents a successful return, especially given one of the other big hopes, the women’s four, ended up sixth in their final.
There was some magnificent spirit shown elsewhere on the water, especially by the young Irish men’s four, and now more than ever the rising tide that is Irish rowing is lifting more and more boats. Still, there will be lessons learned, particularly around crew selections.
After being broken up for the European Championships last month, the women’s lightweight double of Margaret Cremen and Aoife Casey were reunited in their final on Saturday, winning a brilliant battle for the bronze medal. Victory ultimately went to the well-fancied British crew of Emily Craig and Imogen Grant, who won gold ahead of the USA, finishing in 6:54.78, and then came Cremen and Casey in third, both aged 23 and winning their first World Championship medals.
They were sitting in third ahead of the French crew at the 1,000m mark, before the French got their bow in front, and held on to that advantage at the 1,500m mark. However, the Irish then cranked up their strike in the last quarter. With Cremen in the stroke seat, Casey in the bow, the duo pulled clear into third by the line, just over two seconds ahead of the French, 7:00.68 to 7:02.98.
“I don’t even remember the last 10 strokes,” said Casey. “The lightweight double scull is so competitive, we are so pleased. At Europeans we came 4th, so we came here and had nothing to lose. Everybody in that race was so fast, we executed our race plan, we’re so pleased. Those last few strokes were the longest of my life. I really can’t believe it, it’s unbelievable.”
Cremen also pointed to their experience it such close finishes: “We always say the races were like battles, you have to be more mentally strong than physically strong. We knew from the semi-final that hope was all we needed, and the hope took us home.”
Sanita Puspure and Zoe Hyde rounded off Irish interest on Sunday with a similarly thrilling bronze medal performance, after being locked in battle with the Austrian doubles crew as the finish line fast approached.
That also brought Puspure’s World Championship medal tally to three, having won two previous gold medals in the single sculls, back in 2018 and 2019. The now 40-year-old moved to the doubles to partner Hyde for the first time this season, a decision which ultimately helped revive her career after the disappointment of Tokyo last year.
The final was dominated by the Romanian crew, Ancuta Bodnar and Simona Radis, who added the World title to the European title won last month, finishing some four seconds ahead of the Dutch crew.
The battle for bronze became increasingly tense and exciting as the line approached, the Austrian crew of sisters Katharina and Magdalena Lobnig ever so slightly behind in third at the 1,500m mark. Still, with Puspure in the bow seat and Hyde in the strike, the Irish crew had enough in reserve, finishing stronger again to nail third in 6:52.81, the Austrians coming fourth in 6:54.62.
“A new experience for me, new challenges and I’ve been enjoying it so far,” said Puspure, this crew now looking well capable of making it as far as Paris.
It just wasn’t to be for the women’s four, reunited again after their Olympic bronze medal win in Tokyo last summer, who struggled to go with the pace in their final.
In qualification, the quartet of Emily Hegarty, Fiona Murtagh, Eimear Lambe and Aifric Keogh looked well capable of making the podium, Hegarty and Murtagh back in the boat after Natalie Long and Tara Hanlon had sat in during the European Championships, where they finished second behind Great Britain.
With victory here going to the dominant British again, ahead of the Netherlands and Australia, there are fresh questions now about that boat combination.
In the B Final of the women’s pair on Saturday, Long and Hanlon finished second behind the local Czech crew, placing them eighth best overall.
In the B Final of the men’s four, Ireland were just .08 of a second behind the German crew, the Irish crew of John Kearney, Ross Corrigan, Nathan Timoney and Jack Dorney all making their senior debuts in Racice. Clearly a boat on the rise.