Tokyo 2020: Putting faces to the names among Ireland’s rowers

The Irish women’s pair and lightweight doubles crews both progress to the semi-finals

Monika Dukarska's mother Katarzya works in the SuperValu in Killorglin owned and run by Kerry senior football manager Peter Keane. She admits she's never kicked a Gaelic football in her life, not since moving with her family from Poland to Killorglin in 2006, when she was 16, only hopes this might be a good omen for Kerry's chances in the Munster football final later on Sunday on the other side of the world. (Was it?)

“It means the world,” Dukarska says of her Tokyo experience so far. “I kind of feel like, rowing for Ireland and representing Ireland and the people that have supported me along the way, is paying them back nearly. I hope I’m making them proud. I just pour my heart and soul into all the racing because I feel like I’m really representing how I have been brought up.”

Aileen Crowley also happens to be from Killorglin, and coming from a big football family did kick around a little when she was younger, only by her own admission she was terrible. She took strongly to rowing while studying architecture in UCD, and along with Dukarska qualified the Irish women's pair for Tokyo back at the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Linz, Austria.

Together, in the sweltering heat of Tokyo’s Sea Forest Waterway on Sunday, they qualified their boat in third place through the repechage for the Olympic semi-finals, behind Greece and the USA, leaving China a long way back in fourth.


“We’ve got a bottle of ice, we’re sitting on the start line, chewing away on ice trying to stay cold,” says Crowley, undaunted it seems by her first Olympic experience. “The one nice thing about a head-wind is that it keeps you nice and cool. If it was a tail-wind you would know about it pretty quickly. The one good thing about a head-wind is that it does keep your cooler. Today didn’t feel as hot.”

Aoife Casey never felt any pressure from her father Dominic to get into rowing, despite his quietly revered status at his native Skibbereen rowing club and influence on elite Irish rowing, going back to 1979, when he himself rowed competitively. It was reflected again not long ago when he was named 2018 World Rowing Coach of the Year.

Dominic is in Tokyo too, as coach with the Irish rowers, and watched alone under a shaded section of the Waterway stand – as is his style – as his 22-year-old daughter also won her way through to the Olympic semi-final in the lightweight doubles, likewise finishing third in the repechage along with Margaret Cremen.

“Definitely, I feel really grateful that he’s here,” says Casey. “Obviously as my coach but as my dad too because it’s just support from home, and it’s a bit sad that nobody else could come out and support because of Covid. So I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to have that support close by.”

Cremen also happens to be from Cork, is also just 22, showed her real promise in rowing while studying sports studies and physical education, and last year won a European under-23 bronze medal with Casey too. They may have qualified late for Tokyo, but are just one race away from the Olympic final, finishing within a second and a half of the Swiss and Russian boats on Sunday.

Cremen, by the way, also went to the same school in Cork, Scoil Bhríde Eglantine in Douglas, as Loiuse Shanahan, who will race the 800m next week inside Tokyo's Olympic Stadium, and also Meg Ryan, who on another side of Tokyo on Sunday was competing in the women's gymnastics, her coach Eamma Hamill also going to that same school.

“There’s a good atmosphere, it’s a very sporty school so I’d say that might have contributed to it,” says Cremen.

Long before Tokyo, even coming to Tokyo, both pairs of Irish rowers have been quietly going about their business, it’s only in the here and now, in the calm and quiet reflection that comes in the time afforded to us to talk about their race experience, that it also feels like the chance to put some faces to their names, the girls in the boat who will be doing all they can to continue the remarkable growth and development of Irish rowing.

What is certain is that it’s helped develop them all in other ways too, Dukarska admitting she spoke hardly a word of English on her first day at Killorglin Intermediate School, her father Jack also now self-employed in the Kerry town.

“I found even in school, there was no opportunity to practice English, and the only sport I played was basketball,” she says, her six foot of pure athleticism evidence of that. “When I went to the Killorglin club, I was able to talk, I was able to interact with other teenagers. The rowing club was everything to me and they kind of guided me and gave me an opportunity to grow as a person and as an athlete.”