One evening Sanita Puspure was standing outside the grocery store near her home in Cork. She was waiting for her husband Kaspar. It was a humdrum weekday and everybody was caught up in the routine: picking up supplies, beating the traffic. Her thoughts were miles away.
A stranger approached and handed her something. This was a week or so after she had won at the world championships. It was a box of chocolates - the Heroes brand. He just wanted to say well done and kept moving. The simplicity of the gesture caught her unawares.
"That was the nicest thing ever, it warmed my heart so much," she laughs now. It was a classic Cork acknowledgement: the sideways salute. The Puspures have lived in the county for over a decade now and are beginning to understand the complexity of being Corkonian - particularly via Latvia. When she is on the phone to her mum in Riga, she doesn't even try to explain the many-layered symbolism of her recent accolade as Cork Person of the Year.
After all, anyone in the world can potentially win a Nobel or Olympic award. But only the select few get to the nod as the ultimate Corkonian. She is almost conspicuously low key for an Irish world champion but has enjoyed the attention that has come with her late flourishing as the world’s elite.
“My circle has grown a little bit. I have been introduced to a lot of people and it is nice to get myself out there because I am always stuck in the rowing centre. I suppose I am kind of shy in my nature. If I am in the street I keep my head down. I wouldn’t be looking into everybody’s eyes and no, I’m not wearing my medals out.”
It's early March and Puspure is sitting on her couch in Ballincollig. Another early morning session at the boat club has been ticked off: the afternoon training lies ahead. She won't pretend that the constant will they-won't they questions about the Tokyo Olympics she has fielded over the past year aren't draining. Before the 2020 games were postponed, Puspure had been pencilled in as a clear favourite to take gold in the women's singles sculls after her back to back world championships in 2018 and 2019.
Like every elite athlete, she reconciled herself to the postponement and reset the clock.
“We almost copied and pasted the year because the Olympics are starting just one day earlier this year. It is getting a little bit upsetting, people asking about it. Because we know it is happening. It is going to be different. It is going to be much quieter. But the sport is going to happen. And I also think we need it because . . . nothing else is happening.
“The biggest uncertainty right now is you have to travel and go to training camps. The airports are quiet but I think the scary part is that you do your best but you still don’t know if you are going to make it. Someone might get Covid and . . . it is a bit worrying. It might be really bad for someone and fine for someone else. But once you do the work you should be there and get that peak fitness back. It is down to the work you do.
“But a different question is: someone might have it better. It doesn’t always happen the way you want.”
She knows that more than most. The years since the Rio Olympics have flown by. For casual Irish sports fans, those two weeks are remembered for the oxygen and light that the Donovan brothers sucked up after their stunning success on the water. Puspure trains with the boys and was delighted for them. It was quickly forgotten that Puspure had come to Rio with substantial medal hopes. Her experience was disastrous: a hostile face wind and choppy waters spoiled her first row and she was edged out of the semi-finals. It was miserable.
“I was so disheartened. Rio, those last few races, were hard. Even for the ‘C’ semi-final I didn’t want to be out there. But it was the Olympics and I had to try my best. On the plane on the way home I knew I couldn’t finish like this. I didn’t want to leave with such a bitter taste in my mouth. And maybe the boys doing so well played some part as well. I wanted that. I didn’t want to go home and live with 13th place forever. I wanted something better.”
The following two years seemed to clarify what it was that had made Puspure return to rowing. She got a new coach and different training regime and, critically, developed a new race plan. Her performance at the Plovdiv course in Bulgaria in 2018 was dreamlike. Unlike Rio, everything clicked. In a TV interview with RTE minutes after that race, it's clear she is trying to absorb the unexpected sensation of feeling joy after a major final.
“In a way that was the biggest fear because I’m so used to being disappointed,” she said that day.
But a year later, in the summer of 2019, she returned to Latvia before the championships in Ottensheim to visit her family. Her sister Inese was gravely ill with cancer and passed away before the championships. That time in Latvia was an intensely personal few weeks, divided between precious time with her sister and forcing herself to train. She had privately dismissed the idea of winning: just qualifying the boat for the final would be enough.
And the time perhaps gave her a chance to think about how unlikely her entire sports life had been. Puspure had no idea about rowing before she was selected for training at school in Latvia. She was 15. “And I had no idea what a boat looked like.” Curiously, when she was a child the family had lived close to the river in Riga where she learned the sport. This was the mid-1990s, a period of political and social upheaval in Latvia as it staggered to its feet in the first years of independence.
"I couldn't say we were well off. And it was tough times with jobs. We did have times when we had no food in the fridge. So you have to sort your own. But luckily we did have a garden so we always had potatoes and some vegetables to eat. And we had to fend for ourselves as kids because you wouldn't see the inside of the house. You get out in the morning and come back in the evening. I suppose it was probably the same in Ireland at that time."
It was, of course, a different century. But it was also just a few decades ago. It’s one of the reasons why she and Kaspar always tell their children that they are fortunate. “They are really lucky and absolutely spoiled,” she laughs.
Patrick is 12 and Daniella 11. Sanita was pregnant with Daniela when she was struck by the wish to return to rowing. It was 2008 and they were in Dublin. She had almost forgotten about the sport: it belonged to her teenage years and to Latvia. The story has become part of her lore. They were bringing friends to the zoo and missed a turn. Suddenly, she saw rowers on the water on Islandbridge. It's not as if she had some kind of vision of Olympic glory. It was more a nagging feeling that she needed to be back in a boat.
“For some peace and quiet maybe.”
But she is serious about the idea that if she didn’t happen on the water that day, then she would now be going through life without ever thinking about rowing.
“I’m a hundred per cent sure if I hadn’t seen boats there I would never have gone back. Because it never even crossed my mind. I was busy - a toddler running around the house, another baby on the way. So that day, it was innocent enough. It was all just: get in the boat for social. Be on the boat alone and for peace and quiet. And it picked up fast from there. I wanted more and more. That competitive nature started creeping out.”
A decade is a long time when it comes to quiet, unstinting dedication. Rowing is one of those fascinating sports in which the best pursue their craft and those times almost entirely unnoticed: the world is watching Match of the Day. Eight months after her first row in Ireland, Puspure set a personal best.
Old fires burned within. Kaspar encouraged her to see how far she could go. When they met, she was set for scholarship in the University of Southern California. They were serious and she said she wouldn't go if he couldn't get a visa to move with her. His application was turned down. She told USC not to expect her.
“No regrets! Probably the best decision I ever made.”
They married, moved to Ireland. She saw that row boat on the water. And almost instinctively, she was a rower again. Within eight months she had set a new personal best. It was clear she was above leisure rowing status. But it wasn’t easy. Getting better ate up so much of her time. Funding was fairly basic. They had two young children. The decision to abandon the life they were making in Dublin and set up in Cork was not easy.
“In the beginning I think it was hard for him to accept how much this elite sport takes away from your family. I don’t think he had that realisation in the beginning and we did have a few fights about it. And I said you wanted me to try this. And it is only fair that it took time to accept everything like being away from home.
“It got easier after I qualified for London. By no means was I the best athlete in the world at that stage but it was a proud moment for us as a family. But he has been a huge support. Even domestically there were things he had to do so I could compete. And he didn’t want to move to Cork at first because we knew nobody here. And he made that sacrifice. So it has been quite a rocky road but I’m glad we did it because our lives are very different now.”
The benefits of having a mum who is an Olympic rower are plain to see. Patrick and Daniella have been to London and Rio and were in Ottensheim on the sunny day when she defended her world champion status. They’ve always made those big events a family adventure. Knowing they can’t be in Tokyo is the big adjustment for Puspure. But that big glossy fortnight is just the show.
The day-to-day demands of elite rowing are all encompassing. For instance, she has this Sunday off. But most Sundays involve triple training sessions. During the week, she trains in the morning, rests for a few hours and then is back at the club in the afternoon. Food preparation is a mammoth task in its own right. Her children are reaching that age when they are intensely involved in their own world and dynamic. So the day to day duties of being a mother and an Olympian can be relentless.
“It is difficult but it is doable,” she says. “There are days when I feel really guilty that I am not there for my children all the time. But then I think the working moms aren’t there either. I might excel at rowing but I am by no means the best mom in the world. I don’t have time to take care of my children the same way that moms at home would and sometimes I feel . . . not sorry for my kids but regret that I will never be that mom who takes really good care of her children.
“Where you just hold the fort at home to make everything flawless and easy for everybody else. It is not the case for my children - they have to pull their weight sometimes and make their own food . . . and sometimes they see when I am really tired I get cuckoo! So I have outbursts . . . If something is not cleaned up in the kitchen I’ll have a big bash-out and they will have to help me to clean it up . . . because I think they should. And maybe if I wasn’t an athlete I might have a bit more patience to be a bit more composed and . . . nicer sometimes.
“All things come with a price. And I do hope from all this they will learn something as well . . . they might not like me very much on some days when I am really tired. But I do hope they learn too that they do have to look after themselves and can’t rely on other people all the time. But that is only to make myself feel better! And yeah, there are days when I wish I was there for them all the time.”
They love Ballincollig. It’s perfect: close to town, close to training and basically in the countryside. She’s noticed how much the traffic has built up over her years driving to the training centre.
“It is all the Dublin people moving to Cork now they know it is the real capital. But it is getting busier. I think I am getting older and want to be closer to nature as well and the countryside and plenty of green grass.”
Her children play basketball and Gaelic sports but haven’t begun rowing yet. She is not sure if they will. “They have plenty of time if they want to. Sure I only started when I was 15.”
Twenty-five years later she has become the best in the world at her class.
Given the rarity of Irish world champions, she has maintained a remarkably low-key presence. That may change later this year. After the delays and uncertainties, the reality of the Tokyo Olympics will suddenly be upon the world by the summer. It won’t be the usual mass carnival of humanity but it will be remembered as a unique Olympics. That thought alone keeps Sanita Puspure grounded through these endless days of lockdown and the solitary hours on the water.
“It’s going to come very fast,” she says brightly. “It’s coming, people, it’s coming.”
Team Ireland partner, Indeed, have released an inspirational video with ambassador Sanita Puspure as part of their #TalentUnleashed series ahead of going for gold at the Tokyo Olympics. You can watch the full video on Indeed Ireland YouTube.