Denise Walsh determined to make it to Tokyo after record year

Rower who missed out on Rio has made sure she will be ‘top one’ in her doubles boat


Denise Walsh is a little cautious when we meet. The Cork rower is in Dublin having been announced as one of eight athletes to be awarded an IOC Olympic Solidarity Scholarship to aid with her preparations for Tokyo. She has a day of interviews and roundtables ahead of her. In fact, she’ll be on the Six One News that evening talking about what the funding means to her.

She’s easing herself into the day of press she has ahead of her and when asked her first question, she responds, “Do I just…?” and gestures towards my phone, which is recording our interview. Just talk, I tell her. Once she starts talking, there’s no stopping her. Like her team-mates from Skibbereen Rowing Club, most notably the O’Donovan brothers, Walsh is quick-witted and animated, a self-professed chatterbox. “Maybe it’s west Cork,” she posits. “My dad is the postman at home, too, and he just yaps on to everyone.”

Walsh started rowing at the age of 13 having been introduced to the sport via a schools rowing programme administered by Skibbereen Rowing Club. A six-week stint soon turned into a regular pastime. By the age of 16, she was competing seriously and soon representing Ireland. She competed in high-profile international competitions like the Youth Olympics and European U23s before eventually making the senior team.

She went on to study economics and geography in UCC. Upon completing her degree, she committed to rowing full time and set her sights on being selected for Rio 2016. She formed a partnership with Claire Lambe and the pair worked in tandem to get selected for the lightweight double.

Pipped in trials

In 2015, the duo set up a GoFundMe with the aim of raising money to fund a forthcoming training camp. “Our ultimate aim is to be selected for and then qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016,” they wrote. “We would be making history as Ireland’s first female lightweight rowers at an Olympic Games.”

A few months later, however, Walsh was pipped in the trials by Sinéad Lynch, who went on to take her place in the lightweight double. (Lynch and Lambe went on to qualify for Rio and finished sixth in the lightweight double sculls final.) Her Olympic dreams were dashed and she was forced to look on as her Skibbereen clubmates triumphed in Rio, all the while wishing she was there.

“It was really cool obviously, yeah,” she says, speaking of seeing Gary and Paul O’Donovan win an Olympic silver medal. “I wanted to be there myself. It really spurs you on.”

The experience may have been bittersweet, but it has led to Walsh enjoying her most successful year to date. This summer, she won silver in the lightweight single at the European Championships, her first international medal. She also reached the finals of the World Rowing Championships in Florida, an impressive achievement in and of itself even if Walsh herself feels she could have performed better.

“I was disappointed with the Worlds. I should have medalled and I just didn’t. It didn’t happen on the day.”

That Walsh would set high standards for herself and strive for excellence should come as no surprise. Since last year, Skibbereen has become synonymous with rowing, producing Olympic medallists in the form of the O’Donovan brothers and world champions in the shape of Shane O’Driscoll and Mark O’Donovan. The club’s coach Dominic Casey, who guided the O’Donovans to victory, was appointed to a full-time coaching role in Rowing Ireland and now oversees the lightweight programme. That kind of success is contagious, particularly when the club is as central to your life as Skibbereen Rowing Club is to Walsh’s.

Understatement of the century

“My dad’s the chairman of Skibbereen Rowing Club. My sister rows as well and my mom does the baking and stuff,” she laughs. Outside of her own rowing career, Walsh is extremely hands-on behind the scenes. For instance, The Southern Star reported this year that Walsh was responsible for organising Skibbereen RC’s new club gear, sponsored by the local Credit Union. A far cry from the task of winning medals, perhaps, but one that needs to be done. She also serves as, among other things, the club’s regatta secretary.

“So we hold the biggest regatta in Ireland in April of every year, so I’m regatta secretary for that and I organise that. I do all the entries for all the events, memberships of the club…” she explains, before delivering the understatement of the century: “I help out a lot in the club, yeah. I’m quite involved.”

Additionally, she works as a community coach with Get Going, Get Rowing, a Rowing Ireland initiative aimed at encouraging students to try their hand at the sport. Between training, work and volunteering with the club, Walsh has a full plate, but you get the sense that she wouldn’t have it any other way, such is her love for the sport and her community.

Looking ahead to Tokyo, she is hell-bent on not experiencing a repeat of Rio. Once again, she is hoping to get selected for the lightweight double. (The lightweight single at which she has excelled this year is not an Olympic event.) Only this time, she’s determined to ensure that she’s in charge of her own destiny.

“I feel like I’m way more motivated and focused on myself. I’m making sure that I’m the top one in the boat. I’m trying to teach as much as I can to the younger girls but I need to look out for myself too and I think it really worked last year because I was way more enjoying it.

“I was like, ‘I need to be faster and if I’m as fast as I can be, then someone else will want to be in the double with me and it won’t be me trying to get into the boat.’ I don’t want to be in that position.”

Most of all, though, she’s looking forward to escaping the solitude of training by herself and having a lightweight doubles partner to talk to. “I’m very chatty. It was really good for me for the year to train by myself, but I’m excited to talk to someone else.”

It must be a west Cork thing.

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