Puspure’s season of sacrifices results in a golden high

Her success – and that of the O’Donovans – crown a great year for Irish rowing

Sanita Puspure celebrates winning the gold medal in the  single sculls final at the 2018 World Rowing Championships in  Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photograph: Detlev Seyb/Inpho

Sanita Puspure celebrates winning the gold medal in the single sculls final at the 2018 World Rowing Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photograph: Detlev Seyb/Inpho

 

Rowers who wish to compete for Ireland in 2019 are holding off on the mince pies. They must submit ergometer (rowing machine) scores this weekend. The tests are really hard, from juniors all the way up.

Work is the basis of rowing – the sport grew from it – and it has been the key to Ireland’s stunningly successful year.

Under high performance director Antonio Maurogiovanni, crews were also narrowly focused on nailing the big one: the World Rowing Championships in September in Bulgaria.

The attitude to the European Rowing Championships in Scotland told you everything. Paul and Gary O’Donovan, though they had pushed hard to take part, took silver in the lightweight double and were relaxed about it; single sculler Santa Puspure did not go.

The gamble paid off magnificently. On two sparkling days for Irish sport, the O’Donovans won the first gold medal in an Olympic event at a World Rowing Championships.

The final was a brilliant advertisement for lightweight rowing, an embattled class on the Olympic programme post Tokyo 2020. Ireland and Italy fought it out in front of Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee. If he cuts it he cannot but say he saw the best of it.

The following day, Puspure, who had never medalled before at this level (she has two European medals), took gold. She was joined in an A Final by the pair of Emily Hegarty and Aifric Keogh.

Puspure’s club, Old Collegians, has just announced that they will present an award in her name at the Irish Championships. The move is fitting.

Inspired by the internationals, girls and boys stream into clubs, and the Irish Championships was another record-breaker, with Commercial and Skibbereen the top men’s and women’s eights. Almost lost in the brightness of a starry season was Jack Dorney’s win in the Men’s Youth Singles at the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston in October.

Despite unpredictable weather, home waters were busy.

Rowing Ireland pushed itself to the limit to stage the Irish Championships, the Home International Regatta and the Coupe de la Jeunesse on successive weekends in July.

The National Rowing Centre is a wonderful resource, but its limitations (and the finite resource of volunteers) was on show for the Coupe. The Irish Times coverage of the event and the World Under-23 Championships run opposite it in Poland – Ireland took gold and silver medals – was compiled at a filling station in Ballincollig rather than the NRC. The station had rock-solid wifi and a dependable phone signal.

If just one story is to sum up 2018 it is Puspure’s. A season of sacrifices built to the golden place on the most elevated podium of the year. Behind this lay stories, some known, some not.

Trained hard

The Latvian-born competitor has been in the elite of single sculling for years. She has been a driven, diligent trainer but lacked belief. And the top medals did not come her way.

With the arrival of a new high performance director, she had a decision to make. In her mid-30s she would have to take on a new, extremely tough programme. With the help of coach Dave McKenzie McGowan, she embraced it.

She trained hard, worried less, ate more. The results began to validate her effort. Previously a critic of regimes, she moved into the centre. She would not abandon her Latvian heritage, but she was Irish now. She was embraced by her team-mates, who put in the hard hours alongside her.

Puspure had another driver. Alongside her – chosen – struggle, her sister, Inese, waged a battle with cancer. She was diagnosed late in 2017, and took on rounds of chemotherapy. Sanita dedicated herself to body-sapping ergometer and water rowing.

“At the time when she first got chemotherapy and I knew how sick she was feeling I couldn’t feel sorry for myself because she was worse off,” said Sanita.

This Christmas, the two sisters are together in Latvia.

“She’s a real fighter,” Sanita says.

As the year comes to an end, this column offers sincere sympathy to those who have suffered bereavement in 2018. The recent deaths of Tony Keane of Carrick on Shannon and Galway’s Terry O’Brien leave the sport poorer. They, and so many unsung heroines and heroes on the shore, produce wonders.

May they rest in peace.

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