An Ireland crew are European rowing champions. The O’Donovan brothers, Paul and Gary, continued their startling rise in Olympic year by taking on and beating former world champions Norway, building on the momentum of the silver medal they won at the World Cup in Italy last month.
The day got even better later for Ireland in Brandenburg, Germany – even as conditions disimproved – as Sanita Puspure took a bronze medal in the women’s single sculls. Ireland finished sixth in the medals table.
The final of the lightweight double went exactly as if the O’Donovans had planned it. Favourites Norway led until the final quarter in the difficult, cross-headwind conditions. But Ireland then upped their pace remarkably, and Norway could not deal with it. They caught a crab (missed a stroke) at 1,800 metres, and the Irish powered on to win. Germany came through Norway to take second.
On Saturday, the O’Donovans had sprinted past Germany to win their semi-final. It was their first time to beat the Germans, and Paul spoke afterwards of how he was looking forward to “having a crack at” Norway.
They did more than that, and while Paul O’Donovan was keen to point out that the next World Cup regatta, in Lucerne in three weeks’ time, will have a bigger range of crews, he said this was a special day.
“It’s great. I’ve been on the podium a few times before, but that’s the first time on the middle. Just seeing the flag going up in the middle, and the national anthem playing – it’s an incredible feeling. You can’t explain it; there’s nothing like it.”
The key aim is to produce the best performance at the Olympic Games, and this regatta was a good testing ground for a crew that trains in Skibbereen and is used to going out in all sorts of conditions. “That has really paid dividends for us,” said O’Donovan. “We hear that the wind picks up out in Rio, so it could be beneficial to us out there.”
Puspure’s next challenge is the Olympic qualification regatta at Lucerne, which starts on Sunday, May 22nd. She said the bronze was “not the colour I wanted”, but to get down the course among the leaders as waves washed into her boat was an achievement in itself. “It was actually tougher than it looked. It was a bit ridiculous, to be honest.”
Magdalena Lobnig of Austria somehow found a way to master the choppy conditions and disappeared away from the other contenders. She would win by almost 17 seconds, with Elza Gulbe taking second. Gulbe passed Puspure as the Ireland sculler missed a stroke going into final 500 metres.
Double Olympic champion Ekaterina Karsten might well have capitalised and taken bronze if Puspure had stopped. But she gritted it out. It was an important moment, a key little victory, given that Karsten is set to face Puspure in Lucerne.
Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll put in a good finish to pass Germany and take fourth in the lightweight men’s pair. The gold went to Britain, represented by Sam Scrimgeour and Coleraine man Joel Cassells. Ireland had qualified for the final with a fine performance which saw them take second to Denmark in the repechage on Saturday.
Denise Walsh won the repechage of the lightweight single sculls on Saturday and also acquitted herself well in difficult conditions in the final. She was fifth through much of the race but put in a good last quarter to take fourth. Anja Noske of Germany managed the rough water best and took gold.
Sinéad Jennings and Claire Lambe, in the women’s lightweight double, finished ninth overall, third in the B final. They could only finish fifth in their semi-final on Saturday.
Their coach, Don McLachlan, said the crew had a disrupted winter – Lambe was injured – but they would improve before Rio. “I’m pretty positive,” he said.