Sinéad Jennings: Doctor and mother of three takes long hard row to Rio

Rower thought Olympic dreams were over, but third-place finish in France changed that

 

This was Sinéad Jennings’s not- very-easy two-step plan to qualify for the Olympics:

First comes the 12-year step, not just in one sport but two. Career, family and life in general take a back seat.But small margins and bad luck and a little politics get in the way, and the childhood dream seemingly slips away.

Then there is the second step, after becoming a qualified doctor, giving birth to three daughters, and reigniting the will for hard training. Only after defying the odds – and, indeed, the age barrier – does that childhood dream become a reality.

Jennings didn’t necessarily plan it all this way, but it’s getting her to Rio next summer, and the satisfaction couldn’t be more absolute. At 39, she won’t be the youngest member of the Team Ireland, but she may well be the most excited.

That Jennings qualified in rowing – in the women’s lightweight doubles, along with partner Claire Lamb – is one of those tales of stubborn persistence winning out over repeated resistance.

Not that she could have done it alone: one inspiring force is her husband, Sam Lynch, who rowed for Ireland at the 1996 and 2004 Olympics, and now also working as a doctor. Both their parents also play invaluable child-minding roles, particularly as Jennings intensifies her training in the Rio build-up. Having effectively spent the past 16 years striving to qualify, Jennings is not going there to simply make up the numbers.

“I suppose after missing out on the London Olympics in 2012, I thought the dream was over,” she says about her last quest to qualify (in track cycling, not rowing). “At the same time, I was still training, and I suppose it was always in the back of my mind. But I just had to prioritise other things: family and my medical career.

“But Sam has always been very supportive. He actually never gave up the dream for me, when at times maybe I did. He just kept encouraging me to get back. With Claire as my partner as well, I think he could see the potential. He wouldn’t say that unless he meant it.

“But rowing has been such a part of my life that I really missed it,” Jennings says. “The simple things, like the water running under the boat. Even when I got into cycling I would be out around Blessington lakes, and I’d always feel envious of the rowers out on the water.

Second Captains

“Having the family now does make it more difficult. But I think, as well, I appreciate the lifestyle more, my own time on the water. I actually love the training more than I ever did, but I also know I do need to back off occasionally, make sure I get the recovery, being that bit older.”

Life balance

Jennings has three daughters – Clodagh (four), Molly (three) and Hannah (17 months). So it is all about trying to manage the family and the training, having taken a career break from medicine. Since qualifying for Rio, the entire family has relocated so she can train at the National Rowing Centre in Farran Wood, west Cork (Sam works at Cork University Hospital). It’s small price to pay for fulfilling that childhood dream.

For this Letterkenny native, the first breakthrough in rowing came in 2000, when she won a World Championship bronze in the women’s lightweight singles. But that wasn’t an Olympic event, and Jennings wasn’t considered experienced enough to try out for the doubles for the Sydney Olympics later that year.

In 2001 she won World Championship gold, again in the lightweight singles, but struggled to find a suitable doubles partner who might have helped her qualify for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

So to Beijing in 2008. With her medical studies on hold, Jennings moved up to the heavyweight singles, realising that was her best chance of qualifying.

“Unfortunately politics got in the way,” she says, “and I wasn’t able to get to Olympic qualifying regatta. It was felt I was a lightweight. I still went to the 2008 World Championships, at lightweight, and won silver. At least I came out of that season with something, but after that felt like my rowing career was coming to an end.”

Not long after, Jennings was contacted by Cycling Ireland, then putting together a women’s team for the 3km pursuit in track cycling.

“They were working off the British model, bringing in athletes from different sports,” she says. “At that point I didn’t see much of a chance of finding a partner for the lightweight in rowing. I’d already been World champion, so really my only goal left was to make it to the Olympics.”

Birth break

The quest to qualify in track cycling took time to gather momentum, and Jennings took time out in 2011 to have Clodagh.

“After another winter’s training, we built up a stronger squad, gave it another go, although we were playing catch-up, trying to make it in one year.

“It came down to the last World Cup, in Kazakhstan, where we needed to finish around seventh. We were lying in fourth, when we got a puncture. We should have been allowed a restart, but they said no. They actually read the rules wrong, and next day they apologised. But the points were gone and so was our chance to qualify for London.”

Jennings took another break from sport to give birth to Molly, completed her medical studies, then began her GP training, at times working up to 100 hour weeks.

“After Molly was born, I started back doing a little running, sometimes with the buggy when the two girls were having their nap. After six weeks I ran a half marathon, in Limerick, in a decent enough time. Rowing Ireland somehow got wind of it.

“Don McLachlan, from New Zealand, had started as new head coach, and was looking to get some girls together. He came to visit me in Limerick, where we were living, and I had to tell him I was actually pregnant with our third child.

“I then had six months maternity leave, and just decided I would train properly during that time. Hanna was quite an easy pregnancy, and I was actually back training three days after she was born.”

That was the end of June 2014; Rowing Ireland was staging the first of the Rio trials in October. “I wanted to come back with a bang,” says Jennings, “and actually won by a good bit. The second trials were in December and I won that too.”

Partnering problems

Rio qualification looked a long shot: a freak rib injury, sustained when a truck door hit her in the side, also made for a difficult start to 2015, and for a while it seemed that Lamb’s partner in that lightweight double would be Denise Walsh while Jennings stuck with the singles. Then, after another trial during the summer, Lamb was paired with Jennings.

After only 10 weeks of training together, Jennings and Lamb went to the World Championships in Aiguebelette, France, in September. They initially missed a place in the final (and automatic qualification for Rio), although the B-final presented the perfect consolation.

“In that B-final, five of the six boats qualify for Rio, and we decided to go out hard, really attacked, and were leading for a good while. We were passed by the Chinese and Poles at the finish, but we held on for third. The first feeling was definitely relief, then pure joy.”

“When I came back, the initial goal was to qualify for Rio, but we’ve already moved on,” Jennings says. “We’d only been together for 10 weeks before the World Championships, and weren’t that far off. Our goal for Rio now is to aim for a medal.”

Not at all as scarcely believable as it might sound.

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