Tokyo 2020: Ireland women’s four rowers power home to win bronze

Keogh, Lambe, Murtagh and Hegarty win Ireland’s first medal of the Tokyo 2020 Games

The team - Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty - won the first Olympic medal for the Irish in Tokyo 2020, and a first for Irish women’s rowing. Video: Reuters

 

The Irish women’s four rowers of Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty left it nervously late and finished incredibly strongly to win a magnificent bronze medal down at Tokyo Sea Forest Waterway on Wednesday morning after a suitably thrilling race.

A first Olympic medal for the Irish in Tokyo, a first for Irish women’s rowing, with the promise of more to come soon too.

The race was delayed by 24 hours due to the typhoon warning, and conditions  were still not 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.

However, that only seemed to spur the Irish crew on, as the young quartet dug within themselves and then some to overtake China first, before inside the last 200 metres crawling past 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, and just under a second ahead of Britain, with China also closing fast.

That medal-winning performance helps bring Ireland’s outright Olympic medal tally to 32, still across just six sports. The Tokyo rowing medal comes just five years after Ireland won a first medal in rowing, and it is also bronze medal number 13 won in all.

For Hegarty (25), the latest off the production line of Irish rowing known as Skibbereen, part of 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.”

Tokyo 2020

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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.”

The Irish four only qualified late in May, and only Keogh had quietly predicted big things, admitting the Irish team had sent out their better boat to Tokyo in advance – even before they had actually qualified.

“We knew we could win a medal – it was just about whether we could pull it off,” said Keogh (28), from Na Forbacha in Galway. “We knew every crew . . . 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.

“It was a bit touch and go. Throughout the race I was like ‘we could be fourth, fifth’. Eimear makes the strategy calls, and I tell us where we are in the field. I was looking out and I was like ‘Oh god’ in my head –we were slipping back but we said to ourselves if that happens we go early, and in the last 1km we backed ourselves,” Keogh said.

Lambe, from Cabra in Dublin, was suitably delighted. “It’s a bit surreal, to be honest,” said Lambe, whose sister Claire rowed for Ireland in Rio in 2016.

“It’s something for the future, and hopefully this will be the first of many, and 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. Even though we were down we knew to back ourselves.

“We’re in shock. 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. (Claire) was an inspiration when I was growing up – I knew it was possible when I saw her come here and be the first Irish women’s crew to make a final,” said Lambe.

“This is pretty cool. Everyone gets on and we all know how to back each other, we make it easy for ourselves. . . . I don’t think it’d be possible without such a strong unit, putting up the training and the long hours.”

World champions Australia set an Olympic best time of 6:15.37 in winning, just 0.34 seconds ahead of the Netherlands. The Aussie team, made up of Lucy Stephan, Rosemary Popa, Jessica Morrison and Annabelle McIntyre, looked as if they would saunter to victory before a spirited Dutch team rallied.

Ireland may have left it nervously late too, but in ways that incredible strong finish made the performance all the better.

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
Club: NUIG
The 6’1’’ 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
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 made it back for the World Championships and it has been an upward curve since then.

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