Rio 2016: Jennings and Lambe impress to book semi-final berth

‘We’ll have one more training session, maybe improve our start, because that didn’t go 100 per cent today’

When you have spent 16 years trying to qualify for the Olympics, what's another 24 hours?

Nothing. So it's no wonder it made no difference to Sinéad Jennings and her lightweight doubles partner Claire Lambe, who guaranteed their place in tomorrow's semi-final with a second place finish in their opening heat at Rio's rowing lagoon.

Originally scheduled for Sunday, only for the high winds to defer the day’s rowing for 24 hours, the Irish women did exactly what they needed to do: nothing more, nothing less, although Jennings in particular found herself wrestling with some stomach butterflies as the starting gun approached.

Lifetime dream

For the 39-year-old mother of three, who had ambitions of qualifying for the last three Olympics, only to fall short for a variety of reasons, this was effectively a lifetime dream being realised. So there had to be some special moments of appreciation for the Donegal native.


"The first day, coming in here, was just incredible," said Jennings, standing in the warm sunshine at the Rodrigo de Feitas Lagoon, surrounded on all sides by those trademark Rio mountains. "I remember I was looking down at the water, for the first time, then looking up and seeing Christ the Redeemer, over the skyscrapers and the mountains and I thought, 'Wow'.

Hanging around

“Then we had that 24-hour delay, which was a little bit annoying, because we’d actually weighed in, for no reason at all. It wasn’t too big of a distraction. It was nice to have gone through the weigh-in process, and all that, before. Then when we got back to the village, on Sunday, we still had to do a bit of training, because we hadn’t really trained. So there was very little hanging around.

“But today, we did get a good draw. So there was an awful lot to lose if we didn’t come through it. So it was lovely just to get out there, to start off the job.”

Which is what they did, taking a close second behind the South African pair, who nailed the win in 7:07.37, with Jennings and Lambe clocking 7:10.91: there was then a 13.42 seconds wait before the Brazilian crew took third.

For Lambe, the 26-year-old from Dublin who had ambitions of qualifying for London four years ago, the delay was a minor distraction too. “Coming out on the bus on Sunday, I turned around and said to Sinéad, ‘Well, today is the day we’re going to become Olympians. And then on the bus back, I had to say, ‘Okay, tomorrow is the day we become Olympians’.

“But you just couldn’t have got down from A to B yesterday. It was so rough. Today was much better.”

Indeed it was. The spectacular setting revealing itself in all its wonder as the clouds cleared and the Rio sun broke through: not that it was completely calm out on the water, the 2km stretch getting particularly choppy around midway."The South Africans got a really good start," said Jennings, whose husband is Sam Lynch, a two-time Olympian.

“So we had two options, to chase after them, or wait, and then the water got a bit rough, so if we chased after them, and something happened, that would be terrible. So we just consolidated second.”

The semi-finals will be straightforward: the top three boats in the two races progressing to the final. It won’t be easy but on this performance it’s certainly possible.

Feeling good

“I definitely think there’s a lot more in the tank,” said Lambe. “But we’re saving it for the semi-final. We’ll need it there. I was making calls about where the South Africans were. At one point I thought they were coming back, and we could close out, but then they pulled out again, so I called that to Sinéad, and we just held it. But we felt good.

“We’ll have one more training session, maybe improve our start, because that didn’t go 100 per cent today.”

In the meantime it's back to the bubble that is the Athletes Village. Jennings and Lambe are sharing an apartment with boxer Katie Taylor, badminton player Chloe Magee and rower Sanita Puspure.

“The food hall is massive,” said Jennings, who typically has to cook for her three daughters Clodagh (four), Molly (three) and Hannah (two). “It seats 5,000 people and there is so much choice of food . . . the first few days . . . it’s quite stressful.

“But we’re getting on top of that, and starting to enjoy it.”

As well she might. It’s only taken her 16 years, after all.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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