European Championships preview: O’Donovan and McCarthy lead Irish challenge in Munich

The question now is not if Irish medals shall be won, it is how many?

For those who remember the first time a major international rowing regatta was staged in Munich, 50 years ago this month as part of the 1972 Olympics, the Irish presence was thin in name only not in nature.

It was here, at the man-made venue at Oberschleissheim, 6km north of Olympiapark, that Seán Drea was the sole Irish rowing representative, finishing seventh in the single sculls.

Four years later in Montreal, after breaking the 2,000m world record in the semi-final with a time of 6:52.46, Drea finished fourth after fading in the third quarter.

One small step away from an Olympic medal for the Carlow-born Drea, still one giant leap for Irish rowing.


Roll on the decades: over the coming four days, the 2022 European Rowing Championships is one of nine Olympic sports also staging their continental championships in the host city, the question now is not if Irish medals shall be won, it is how many?

There will be 22 medal events over four days (including four para-rowing events) all eight Irish crews selected will be in action in Thursday’s opening qualifying session, the strong presence in name and nature this time a further reflection of Irish rowing’s status in elite sport. A reflection too perhaps of being the best funded at high-performance level.

Chief among them are Olympic champions in the lightweight double sculls Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy, plus four women’s crews who helped win medals at the World Cup II in Poznan last month, the four, pair, and double.

There’s a new women’s eight also entered who will race provided there are no clashes on Sunday’s final timetable.

Now 28, O’Donovan will likely extend his status as one of the most decorated sportsman in Irish sporting history: Olympic gold and Olympic silver, four World Championship titles, two European Championship golds and two silver, and not forgetting the Henley regatta he won with McCarthy not long after Tokyo, a prize he jested was possibly the bigger deal anyway.

Since then O’Donovan has only been back on the water once, winning the lightweight single at the Lucerne World Cup III last month, his wild man hair now down hanging over this shoulders with thick beard even more unkept. He only rejoined the Irish squad after Lucerne, motivated as ever not by the winning of the medals but by being the best he can be — as in the best lightweight in the world.

“It’s always nice to win medals,” he said in Tokyo. “But I just think ... D’you know, I’m not rowing to get a big collection of medals. I’m just rowing because I enjoy it ...

“It’s like from my experience of winning World Championships and even the last Olympics silver medal, there’s almost a ceiling on how happy you can be for winning medals.”

Much of his time since Tokyo has been directed at his medical studies at Cork University Hospital: McCarthy also raced in the single sculls this season, also picking up a medal at the World Rowing Cups, and while unquestioned favourites to defend the European title won in Varese last year, they can expect competition from Olympic bronze medallists Pietro Ruta and Stefano Oppo from Italy.

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In the women’s Pair (W2-), Emily Hegarty and Fiona Murtagh, who won bronze in the women’s four in Tokyo last year, also won bronze at World Rowing Cup II this season. In the women’s double sculls (W2x), Sanita Purpure and Zoe Hyde won silver in the same Rowing Cup and will fancy their podium chances too.

Eimear Lambe, Tara Hanlon, Aifric Keogh and Natalie Long now make up the women’s four (W4-), the Tokyo experience of Lambe and Keogh sure to tell, though Britain won gold at both World Cups they attended.

Lydia Heaphy and Margaret Cremen have also already medalled in the World Cup of the lightweight women’s double sculls (LW2x). Leah O’Regan (Cox), Lambe, Hegarty. Murtagh, Keogh, Puspure, Hanlon, Natalie Long and Zoe Hyde are selected in the women’s eight (W8+).

Aoife Casey is back in the lightweight women’s single sculls (LW1x), while first on the water on Thursday morning are Katie O’Brien and Steven McGowen in the Para-2 mixed double sculls (PR2 Mix2x). They just missed out on the podium in Poznan, although Katie O’Brien did win gold in the PR2 single scull at that regatta, setting a new world best time in the same race.

There is Irish interest among some of the other nine sports — namely athletics, rowing, cycling, gymnastics, triathlon, beach volleyball, canoe sprint, sport climbing and table tennis.

In track cycling, the women’s team pursuit is also in qualifying on Thursday (3.46pm Irish time), the team consisting of Lara Gillespie, Alice Sharpe, Mia Griffin, Kelly Murphy, Emily Kay and Orla Walsh. In BMX Freestyle (4.0pm), former motocross ride Ryan Henderson from East Belfast will also mark Ireland’s international debut in the event.

In gymnastics, Rhys McClenaghan will also look to repeat his European title won in Glasgow in 2018: first in action there (11:20 -1:30 Irish time) is the women’s team in qualifying — Emma Slevin, Emily Moorhead, Bláthnaid Higgins, Halle Hilton and Kate Molloy. The European Athletics Championships get under way on Monday back in Olympiapark.

Irish rowing qualifying schedule — Day 1 (all times Irish)

08.24: Para-2 mixed double sculls

8.45: women’s pair

9.10: women’s double sculls

9:50: women’s single sculls

10:15: women’s four

11:30: lightweight women’s double sculls

11:45: lightweight men’s double sculls

12:30: women’s eight

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics