Mature Puspure now delivering spectacularly on her early promise
Sportswoman of the Year: Latvian-born 38-year-old now a real medal prospect in Tokyo
Sanita Puspure, dual world champion in the single sculls: “I find [I have] a more efficient way to move the boat, which gives you a second every 500m which is four seconds over the 2,000 metres, which is a massive margin.” Photograph: Detlev Seyb/Inpho Games in Tokyo
“A mother, a wife, a rower, 2 x Olympian, 2 x World and European Champion. Proud to be wearing green vest.”
As Twitter handles go it sums up Ireland’s first women’s rowing world champion. That Sanita Puspure won the single sculls in Plovdiv last year and successfully defended it this year in Linz moved the 37-year-old into a public consciousness that transcended a sport that maps itself according to world and Olympic cycles.
If people, even Ministers, occasionally garble the name they now know who they are talking about. The Irish woman from Cork, the former Latvian under 23 World Championship bronze medallist is now kicking down doors around the world for her adopted country.
Puspure’s first World Championship win was sticking her head above the crowded space, her husband Kaspar likening her positional shift to the top of the sport at 36-years-old to a fine wine ageing.
The successful world defence in August of this year drew in an interested public who have innocently warmed to the mystery of what makes a boat go fast in the water.
Now all are eagerly looking towards Tokyo 2020, to Puspure and great hopes that her third Olympic test will not go the way of the medal-free games of London 2012 and Rio 2016.
Hers has been a long, then sudden rise to the top. Although she had won bronze medals at the European Championships in Belgrade in 2014 and Brandenburg in 2016, she was perceived to be underachieving when it came to pressure events.
Then last year over the 2,000 metre track in Bulgaria she crashed herself into Ireland’s sporting landscape bearing a message about partner support, shared responsibility and of raising children. She had also become a revisionist in her mental and physical approach to training and competing.
“Yeah, I think a bit of a lack of self-belief, definitely,” she told the Irish Times in September. “My husband believed I could be great 10 years ago, when I just went back to training [after children]. I was like ‘what are you talking about?’
“It must have been that harsh training we started two years ago that really kind of gave the confidence – ‘oh yeah, I can actually go another level’. I think I row much better now than I did, let’s say, five years ago.”
In 2018 her World Championship time over the 200m course was 7:20.12. This year it was almost three seconds faster 7:17.14. But rowing is different from other sports and times are strongly affected by weather conditions and water temperature.
Most fast rows are set in warm water with a strong tailwind. Times are relative, not absolute, so the sport deals in world best times, not world records. In Puspure’s first heat in the Rio Olympics she rowed 9:11.45 as boats were sinking around the course.
Her final row in the ‘C’ Final was 7:27.60, which would have placed her fifth in the ‘A’ Final. Her World Championship time this year would have won the Rio gold medal by more than four seconds.
She had begun her rowing career in Latvia and in 2003 showed early promise when she placed third in the single sculls at the World under-23 Championships. The following year she took the gold medal in the double sculls at the World Student Games.
The move to Ireland came in 2006 and three years later in 2009, she won the single sculls event at the Irish Championships, repeating that success the following year. She then began competing for Ireland in World Cup events during 2010 but was not permitted to compete at the World Championships until she gained Irish nationality in 2011.
Puspure’s first single scull event at a World Cup event was in Belgrade in 2012, where she finished fifth. Then in the Olympic qualification event in Lucerne, Switzerland, she placed second to qualify for the semi-final, finishing third. A fourth place in the final gave Ireland a place in the women’s competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics for the first time.
“Like I find [I have] a more efficient way to move the boat, which gives you a second every 500 [metres], which is four seconds over the 2,000 metres, which is a massive margin,” she told the Irish Times.
“I wasn’t far off all the time. I was missing out on medals by, like, half a second. I just needed that kick up the backside, I suppose.”
A mother, a wife, a rower. And at 38-years-old a Tokyo medal prospect.