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Tokyo 2020: Irish rowing’s intense training culture has led to Olympic glory

Ireland’s medal-winning rowers have triumphed under new regime

Aifric Keogh leans against the rail at the Sea Forest Waterway Olympic rowing venue in Tokyo Bay and tells the story of training for a bronze medal.

“I don’t know what we were expecting but we definitely were not expecting what we did – a lot, a lot of volume,” she says.

It began shortly after the Rio Olympics, when the Irish coaches decided to dramatically alter training methods, change culture, push up the volumes the athletes were training and shuffle the deck wherever it needed to be shuffled. The women's four boat was one such place.

At the beginning some of the rowers were sceptical and wary of the revised thinking, others plain against the idea. They were already training hard. Now they were being asked to go harder.


Such was the resistance that they wrote a letter to the board of Rowing Ireland, which was, ironically, handed to board and high performance committee member Neville Maxwell, one of Ireland's Olympians in 2000 and 1996. In Atlanta the 26-year-old came fourth in the lightweight four, behind winners Denmark, Canada and the USA.

Years before at the 1976 Olympics Sean Drea broke the 2000m world best time in the semi-final in a time of 6:52.46. But like Maxwell's boat, he too finished fourth in the final and missed out on the medals. That was Irish rowing's Olympic narrative.

Antonio Maurogiovanni, the performance director, was the principal architect of the change and object of the rowers ire. With him was Guiseppe De Vita, who coaches the women's four and the pair, a group in which Sanita Puspure and lightweight coach Dominic Casey also work. They are the three primary figures in the sport in Ireland with a number of other coaches also feeding into the system.

Leap of faith

The athletes were asked to take a leap of faith and move into a rowing programme in which, they were told, it would be more demanding on their bodies and their time. But it would take them to a level where they could compete for medals at world championships and Olympic Games.

At the beginning their refusal to buy in was a problem but Maurogiovanni persevered. With official support and persistence, a new regime was born. Everything the athletes did in training was set against world best times and every session was measured, even the relatively lighter workouts.

The system also had to be repeatable, so that the sport would not fall off a cliff when the principal talent decided to retire. The idea was to have a constant supply of Olympic-grade material like Fintan McCarthy and the women’s four, coming through a highly geared, functional rowing system.

“I think a lot of our parents kind of got a shock as to the volume we were doing,” says Keogh. “They’d come out to check on us like: ‘Are you still there? ‘Are you still working?’ We were coming home, having a bite to eat and heading off again. We are definitely much fitter.”

That fitness showed in dramatic fashion this week in Keogh’s boat, when the young quartet dug within themselves to overtake the Chinese. Once that was achieved they attacked the British boat and, dredging up the last ounces of energy, crawled past the Brits over the final 200m.

The British boat had sat in the bronze-medal position for most of the 2000m race, with the Irish speed at the tail end costing the British programme an Olympic medal. As Irish rowing explains it, it wasn’t the Irish crew getting faster at the finish, but maintaining their tempo at the same rate as it was in the earlier splits. The other boats tired and slowed down and the Irish crew did not.

It was also pointed out that the same women’s four boat had qualified for the Olympics in May at the Lucerne Regatta. They were then able to hold their condition and form and peak again at the end of July.

Best combination

De Vita agrees that it wasn’t always easy for the athletes to adjust and with the four women there was the additional complexity of finding the best combination and exactly where each of them fitted in the boat.

“In the beginning it wasn’t very easy but, fortunately, these girls bought into it. In the beginning they struggled,” says de Vita. “I wouldn’t say struggled physically because the body needs to adapt to the new regime.

“When Antonio Maurogiovanni, as high performance director, stepped in with a different programme, a different system, brought in the coaches and trusted me with this, we brought up the volume of training, basically, and the competition.

“We really believed in the team, athletes training together rather than training alone. When they really believe in what they do and they believe they are going to get a medal in the Olympics, there is not much pushing.

“They are happy to do it. I think mostly these girls have bought into it and train with a consistency that is hard to believe now.”

At Inniscarra Lake, in Co Cork, the Irish club has built an environment that thinks excellence and lives excellence, and they now have more Olympic medallists among them than ever.

That is a priceless commodity. The rowers are living and breathing alongside athletes who have beaten the world. It is not anymore a whimsical concept or inflated aspiration but cold reality and a why-not-me attitude.

"I joined the team early 2020," says bronze-medal winner Fiona Hegarty. "I was actually working full-time and I started the trialling process. I knew going into it that I would have to move to Cork if I was committing to it and I was in a place where I wasn't ready to make the move.

“We went to a training camp in Malaga that January and Antonio asked me to commit to it full-time and I knew there and then it was a now-or-never situation. Within two weeks I had left my job, packed my bags and moved. I knew I had to do it or regret it for the rest of my life.”

The training and commitment also dovetails with a ruthless selection process. Paul O’Donovan’s brother, Gary, was dropped from the double sculls seat for Fintan McCarthy. McCarthy’s numbers were better. The Rio silver medallist went as a reserve and McCarthy pulled the boat with Paul to gold.

For the women’s boat more than four rowers were in contention, so they started a process of finding the best combination. It was not just about brawn and strength or Gary O’Donovan’s vintage phrase from Rio – “pulling like a dog” – but who could best maximize the different roles.

“So the process has been long and we usually start from physiological tests and then we swap them into the pairs until we find the right combination and then we try to find the best four,” says de Vita.

The matrix

“We go through a process called the matrix. We swap them and we know in the end who is going to be the fastest four. The process is quite analytical. Sometimes we are surprised ourselves about the combination. Some just click like this one. From the first stroke it was very good.”

Keogh explains just how complex and different the functions are that they carry out. There is an aspect of multi-tasking depending on what seat they have been give, with each task requiring a different skill set.

“Emily [Hegarty], she sets the rhythm and no matter what, she is going to give a consistent rhythm,” says Keogh. “Eimear [Lambe] is in front of me. She’s calling tactics and I’m in the bow seat steering the boat. I’m an extra voice to help Emer out when she is running out of gas. It’s about finding out over time which position, trying it out and finding out what clicks and works best.

“There is far more going on in the boat than people realise. One of my shoes in the boat is on the rudder and that’s what controls the direction of the boat. Emily has a GPS in front of her and she’s watching the whole time, tracking her numbers and making sure we are on pace. Everyone has a complicated role and makes it look easy. I suppose people don’t understand the complexity of it all.”

For now and over the next three years to Paris, they are hoping for a spike in interest and commitment. The O’Donovan brothers and Sanita Puspure have done more than anyone to grow the sport and the mindset within it. Now a gold medal and four more women with bronze medals will add to that intellectual capital at Inniscarra. Rowing is in a good place.

“I saw that [talent] at the beginning,” says de Vita of the women’s four. “That pushed me also to do this for them. It’s all about them. I hope this is going to do what happed four years ago with the O’Donovan brothers. We hope it is going to push all the young rowers and girls to believe in Ireland everything is possible.”

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times