Seminal moment for Irish women’s rowing as formidable foursome claim bronze

Keogh, Lambe, Murtagh and Hegarty produce big finish to secure Ireland’s first medal

They were more or less 200 metres from the finishing line when suddenly those fateful words from Aifric Keogh started racing around in my head. God knows what else must have been racing around in the heads of the four Irish women inside the boat, an Olympic medal now within near reach, yet still so far from decided.

Because one of the last things Keogh had told us, in an interview before departing for Tokyo, was this was their best boat, their fastest boat, the boat they knew so well, and the one they had sent out to Tokyo well in advance of even qualifying. Because if it came down to this, an Olympic medal within near reach, Irish sporting history in the making, there would be absolutely nothing left behind.

Which is exactly how things turned out – Keogh's foresight and experience, set perfectly against her younger crew members Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty, making the difference as they overhauled the British boat to win that Olympic bronze, a first medal for Ireland at these Tokyo Games, only the second ever for Irish rowing, and more significantly, perhaps, a major breakthrough and seminal moment for Irish women's rowing.

Before Tokyo, only one Irish women's crew had made an Olympic final, Claire Lambe and Sinéad Lynch in the lightweight double five years ago in Rio. Just four years before that, Sanita Puspure became the first Irish women's rower at any Olympics, and if that was the start of something big it's about to get a whole lot bigger.


For Lambe there's a special connection here already, the 23-year-old from Cabra being the younger sister of Claire, and who could suitably joke now about the pace at which she has overtaken her sister's achievements.

“It’s amazing,” said Lambe. “I think she’s getting a bit rats that people are calling her my sister now instead of me being Claire’s but it’s cool. Hopefully it gives the young girls coming up now a bit of hope that this is completely possible. If we can do it anyone can.

“We knew we had a chance going into it, but we had a bit of a rocky start so we definitely didn’t make it easy for ourselves, but we just didn’t give up. We knew we’re a very aerobic crew so the second km would be our strongest. Even though we were down we knew to back ourselves. It’s a bit surreal, to be honest. It’s something for the future and hopefully this will be the first of many.”

Hopefully indeed; truth is their journey to Tokyo was short and sweet and long and hard in equal measure. All four only came together in the same boat for the first time six months ago, earning their roles during the national trials in March. Despite winning a silver medal at the European Championships in April, they didn’t qualify for Tokyo until the last chance saloon that was the Lucerne Regatta in May.

This was a fairytale of sorts in other ways too. For Keogh, who hails from Furbo in Galway not far from Moycullen, home of her 25-year-old teammate Murtagh, any talk of an Olympic medal might well have be laughed at six months ago, only she believed and was deadly serious when asked about it during that pre-Tokyo interview.

“If one boat wins a medal I see no reason why we all can’t,” Keogh said, the 28 -year-old who began her rowing at school at Coláiste Iognáid, now the most experienced of the women’s four.

“We’re all so competitive and performing very closely, percentage wise, at the moment that I think that is everyone’s ambition and dream.”

Tricky conditions

With that medal now around her neck – Covid-19 restrictions meaning the Irish four ended up presenting the medals to each other, in pairs, Keogh was again buoyant.

“We knew we could win a medal, it was just about whether we could pull it off. We knew every crew in the boat was also capable of winning a medal and it was just about who got down the course as well as they could in position. Especially in these conditions, very tricky conditions, a lot of favourites are missing out on medals.”

Of all the factors that kept that dream alive and got them to the line ahead of the British boat in the last 100 metres, belief was paramount.

Delayed by 24 hours due the typhoon warning, conditions still weren't ideal, with a tricky tailwind to handle, and in truth the pressure was soon mounting. The Irish did not get a great start, sitting fourth at the halfway mark and then briefly dropping into fifth place behind China, with only Poland behind them at that stage.

Only that seemed to spur them on, as they dug within themselves and then some to overtake China first, before by those last metres edging past Great Britain, who had been in that bronze medal position for much of the 2,000m race.

As expected the hotly-fancied Australians took the win, just holding off the Dutch boat which claimed silver, with the Irish women just over five seconds behind in bronze, just under a second ahead of Britain in the lane next to them, China also closing fast.

For Hegarty, the 25-year-old and latest off the winning production line of Irish rowing known as Skibbereen, part the thrill of the race was in the enjoyment of it all.

“We could never experience anything like this again,” she said. “So it’s a case of enjoying it, living in it, it’s once in a lifetime.”

Murtagh agreed entirely: “We definitely didn’t make it easy but Eimear made the call and we just all backed ourselves, backed each other, stayed really loose and just went for it.”

Their medal-winning performance helps bring Ireland’s outright Olympic tally to 32, still across just six sports, just five years after Ireland won a first ever medal in rowing, this also being bronze medal number 13 won in all.

Two other Irish women's crews missed out on their final, only they will be back: the women's double sculls duo of Aoife Casey and Margaret Cremen finished a close fifth in their semi-final.

Likewise for Aileen Crowley and Monika Dukarska in their women's pair semi-final, who also finished fifth in another highly competitive race won by outsiders Greece ahead of Great Britain and Canada, with favourites there Australia also missing out on the final in fourth.

Ireland’s four bronze medalists

Emily Hegarty

Age: 23

Titles: World U23 Championships 2019 silver

Club: UCC Rowing Club

Another from the prolific school, she was raised on a farm in Moonagh, Aughadown in Co Cork. She said she couldn’t catch or kick a ball so started rowing in 2009 on the now famous Ilen River, where the rowing club is situated. Currently a student studying Biological Sciences in UCC, highlights include winning silver medal at the 2019 World U23 Rowing Championships.

Fiona Murtagh

Age: 25

Titles: European silver 2021, European bronze 2020,

Club: NUIG

The 6ft 1in athlete started rowing in 2009 and after school in the Dominican College, Galway studied Science in NUIG for one year before transferring to Fordham University in New York. As well as the European medals, highlights include winning the Head of Charles (a prestigious rowing regatta on the Charles River in Boston) two years in a row.

Eimear Lambe

Age: 23

Titles: European silver 2021, European bronze 2020, world U-23 silver 2019

Club: Old Collegians Boat Club

From Cabra in Dublin, she started rowing in 2012 and studied Commerce (International) with German in UCD. Early promise was evident, and she represented Ireland in the Youth Olympics in China. Before success at U-23 level with a world silver medal in 2019. More recently, silver and bronze senior European medals came her way.

Aifric Keogh

Age: 28

Titles: European silver 2021, European bronze 2020

Club: UCC Rowing Club

The most experienced of the crew, she started rowing in 2006 and has been a member of the High-Performance team for several years. Hometown is Na Forbacha, but she studied Food Microbiology in UCC. Illness caused her to miss most of 2019 but she made it back for the World Championships and it has been an upward curve since then.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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