Peaks prove gold-capped for Lynch


ROWING: Liam Gorman on a year in which Sam Lynch reinforced his dominance of the domestic and international scenes

It was Sam Lynch's year. He retained his world title as a lightweight single sculler, was short-listed by the world governing body FISA as male rower or crew of the year - he lost out to multiple Olympians Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell - and, in a year of change in the sport in this country, he saw his long-term coach, Thor Nilsen, return as, effectively, chief coach of the national team.

It is difficult to think of another Irish athlete as dominant in his or her discipline as Lynch, other than, perhaps, Brian O'Driscoll.

However, when asked immediately after his world title win in Seville in September if he knew any other Irish athlete who had retained a world title, Lynch had an answer. "Duxie Walsh," he suggested, expressing admiration for the peerless Kilkenny handballer.

Lynch is like that. Even before he won in Seville he would have considered the different angles. He thinks about every detail of what he does. Still only in his mid 20s and part of a new, confident generation, he knows he is the best in the world at what he does and is comfortable with that.

He could go on next season to a third successive world title, but has eschewed this option: with his eye on adding Olympic medals to his World Championship gold he has set himself the task of being part of a lightweight double scull in 2003 - and, if all goes well, in Athens in 2004.

There are real risks in this strategy. Sinéad Jennings was one of the stories of 2001 when she won the women's lightweight singles title. She bravely opted for the lightweight double in 2002, teaming up with Heather Boyle, but Jennings encountered one setback after another and ended up failing to make the double final in Seville.

Jennings's plight was closely linked to one of the other big stories of the year in Irish rowing. The man who had guided her to the high point in 2001, Hamish Burrell, took over as head coach to the national squad in April but was gone by October.

The quiet-spoken, gentlemanly Scot said in a statement at the time that being asked to repeatedly relocate his base because the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra was still not complete led to his departure, but support among the athletes was also lacking.

Jennings, who suffered a knee injury in the run-up to Seville to compound a neck condition which had troubled her during the season, was also not ad idem with her former mentor by the end of his short reign.

Burrell's exit presaged two other big changes: Richard Parr, a Canadian who has recently been working in New Zealand, will soon take over as Performance Director, and will effectively be team manager in the way rugby teams have a manager, while Nilsen will take charge of the broad coaching strategy.

While the post has yet to be filled on a long-term basis, Tony O'Connor has slipped smoothly into the role of assistant coach to Nilsen. The most experienced of the international athletes, he has long been articulate in his criticism of the structures within which the athletes worked, arguing that as professionals the athletes deserved professional coaching and management.

O'Connor's own season had ended on a low. He suffered illness on the eve of the final of the lightweight pairs in Seville and, without telling his partner Gearóid Towey, took to the water hoping the crew could somehow find enough to defend their title.

It was not to be: the Irish finished last and O'Connor collapsed at the end and had to receive medical treatment. It may have been his last race as an Irish international.

As the 33-year-old exits, a number of younger talents have been staking their claims. At the national championships in Blessington, Eugene Coakley, 10 years younger than O'Connor, won both lightweight and open single sculls titles. A qualified civil engineer, he is rowing full-time this year.

A product of Dominic Casey's Skibbereen conveyor belt, Coakley was quick to give the coach credit, and while a composite backboned by NUIG won the senior eights title, Skibbereen were the dominant club at the event.

The men's double drew huge attention when Niall O'Toole teamed up with Sam Lynch. They won the title, of course and were also part of a winning quadruple scull.

It was, after all, Lynch's year.

Hits and misses

Sam Lynch successfully defends his lightweight single sculls title at the World Championships in Seville. As we knew he would.

Siobhán Jacob wins the final of the women's single scull at the National Championships after a perfect tactical performance

The men's lightweight four win their B final at the World Championships in Seville, beating 2001 champions Austria

Eugene Coakley takes on the heavyweights and wins the men's single sculls title at the National Championships

The IARU and the Sports Council jointly grasp the nettle and appoint

a full-time team manager

Hamish Burrell resigns as head coach in October after a stint which had lasted only half a year

Tony O'Connor collapses after the lightweight pairs final at the World Championships and admits he probably should not have competed because of illness

The National Championships are switched to Blessington after a mix-up which left the water levels too low at the National Rowing Centre in Cork

Neptune fail to win a single senior or intermediate title at the National Championships

Sinéad Jennings, fighting hard to overcome a neck condition, twists her knee off the water in the run-up to the World Championships