Ireland’s Olympic rowers close in on their holy grail

Sanita Puspure, Sinead Lynch, Claire Lambe and the O’Donovan brothers know the meaning of the word sacrifice

Rowing Ireland have three boats competing in Rio. It's a tough endurance sport requiring strength and skill. We spend a day on the water with the three women and two men that make up the squad at their County Cork training base. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Rowers are different. We always know they are out there, season after season, moving through early morning water and through the very edges of our thoughts, seldom seen or spoken about until every fourth summer comes around.

Here are Ireland’s five rowers for the 31st Olympiad. Because of Bryan O’Brien's skill as a filmographer, what they do down there in Farran Wood looks enviable and dreamy and a perfect way to start your mornings. On the water: gliding and carefree. And on one level, it is that. But make no mistake: on another level what happens in the National Rowing Centre is a daily routine of unstinting athletic commitment with the usual accompaniments of pain, exhaustion, self-denial, self-doubt and occasional moments of elation.

The five rowers aren’t here to get rich out of rowing. They aren’t here to land a lucrative commercial sponsorship deal with major firms, who gravitate towards big sports and bland campaigns. They have careers, families, other lives. They are doing this because they are devoted to it and because they discovered, at some stage, that they can’t not.

And they do it because taking part in an Olympic race fills their imagination in a way that it cannot possibly occupy the minds of the elite golfers who are giving Rio a skip. The Olympics means different things to different athletes. That’s what Rory McIlroy was driving at in July when he spoke about watching the Olympic sports that “matter”. He was talking about the sports people who frame their training schedule around the most elusive goal of all: a race or a medal that can only be won every four years.

For Irish rowers, the Games have always been the Holy Grail of ambition.

Sinead Lynch (nee Jennings) will be a few months short of her 40th birthday when she sits on the de Freitas lagoon in Rio. She has a parallel existence of high achievement and crowded days. She’s a doctor, a mother. Back in 2000, when she won bronze in the world championship lightweight singles – following that with gold a year later – Lynch might have become a household Olympic name except that her event is not included on the IOC race schedule. She had all but abandoned her ambitions of ever making it as an Olympian, having failed to earn a berth in the heavyweight sculls in 2008 and coming close to qualifying for London as part of Ireland’s 3km pursuit team in track cycling.

Her return to the boat seems almost fated: a bit of prodding from new head coach Don McLachlan was enough to encourage her to give it another go. She returned to training in June 2014, three days after Hannah, her third child, was born.

By September of 2015, she had qualified for Rio with Claire Lambe, with whom she had first been paired in a lightweight doubles boat just 10 weeks earlier.

Lynch’s perseverance probably owes something to the fact that she is married to Sam Lynch, also a doctor and also, of course, a rower whose name echoes back to a time when the sport of rowing briefly and fabulously went over ground here.

The Irish lightweight coxless fours team – Lynch, Neville Maxwell, Tony O’Connor and Derek Holland – who came within a second of a medal at Atlanta ’96 remain one of the most vivid Irish Olympic stories of all. Ultimately, Ireland’s association with Atlanta revolved around what happened in the water at the swimming pool, when the records tumbled and Ireland was briefly the epicentre of the swimming world.

The agony endured by the Irish rowers was quickly washed away in the general celebration but they were desperately close. A single tick of the minute clock meant that other medal story remained unwritten. That Irish crew was made of special stuff. They were world class, they were outspoken, and they were bright and honest. And they gave their souls to it.

The pure drama of their final is worth remembering: a lightning start had them leading outright at the 500-metre mark. The Danish and Canadian crews had moved into gold and silver positions by the halfway mark but the Irish crew was well placed to medal going into the final 500 metres. Even those of us watching at home could see they were shattered, paying the price for that over-exuberant opening burst and powerless to stop the American crew just edging in front of them as they crossed the line.

They kind of died a living death on live television that day when they lost out on a medal and then tried to articulate their emotions and get air into their lungs at the same time. People misappropriate the word “devastated” all the time in sport. Those four were then. They forced the viewers at home to think about what sport is about in an entirely new way.

The appeal of rowing is two-pronged. From a distance, the race is a glorious panorama of water and athletic synchronicity. It appears effortless, as it must for the crew to maintain their technique. Old Nietzsche was right about this much: “When one rows, it is not the rowing which moves the ship. Rowing is only a magical ceremony by means of which one compels a demon to move the ship.” The same is true in the doubles or fours.

Rowing’s cause was probably helped by the fact that Britain’s Steve Redgrave stood perched over the sport for five Olympic cycles, a balding, hulking, amicable Olympic god in sunglasses and singlet. Gold after gold, he kept rowing high on the media agenda. It has slipped in profile since then, particularly in Ireland.

These five are here not just because of their talent but because they have refused to entertain all the obstacles that should have prevented them from continuing.

Take Claire Lambe. The Dublin woman is 26 and is a qualified engineer. After her three daily training sessions in Cork, she finds time to commit to her part-time job at Jospa, a wave-energy convertor company. Once Rio is done, she will further her studies at Cambridge University, which will involve her taking out another loan. Balancing money is nothing new: Lambe had to use gofundme.com to raise money just to compete because the penurious Irish grants system was nothing like enough.

Sinead Lynch and Lamb believe they can make it to the final in Rio, where, as Lynch says, there is likely to be a two-second spread from first place to sixth: their belief is that if they can make it onto that start-list, then it is anyone’s race. Anything is possible.

The O’Donovan brothers, Paul and Gary, will form the lightweight double sculls and are fiercely independent-minded, driven, spiky and fearless. They speak in a deadpan Skibbereen brogue; they occasionally finish one another’s sentences. They are brothers but: “We are not in the boat because we are brothers. We are in the boat because we are the fastest scullers in the country.”

And they are the real deal: European champions and posting times which have marked them out as contenders among their peers. They are a young, dangerously uninhibited crew with barrels of ability and attitude.

Sanita Puspure moved from Latvia to Ireland in 2006. At London 2012 – the summer of Katie – she quietly made it to the last eight of the single sculls. It went almost unnoticed that she was Ireland’s only representative in the rowing event that year. Where medal hopes were once pinned to rowing, now all the fascination revolved around the boxing ring.

Irish rowing began to make adjustments after London, beginning with the appointment of Morten Espersen as high-performance director and the recruitment of Hamish Adams, the former rugby player and coach and Munster rugby officer, as their CEO. For the past three years, Espersen has been sending young and relatively inexperienced crews to major international regattas so his athletes could test themselves against the best. Puspure was always a leading candidate to go to Rio but the progression of the O’Donovans and the ease with which Lynch and Lambe formed an understanding gives Ireland a deeper representation this time around.

Funding, as ever, remains an issue. In addition to the €400,000 received from Sport Ireland, Rowing Ireland had to generate a further €350,000 to cover costs last year. It is less than it takes to fund most intercounty GAA teams.

And there is no point in making comparisons between the sacrifices needed for rowing and other sports. There is a savage insistence at the heart of rowing – the repetitions, the constant need to build aerobic fitness, to hone technique, to become stronger, become lighter, to become faster. It is day after day into season after season and regattas which may merit some kind of public recognition if the rowers do well. But for the most part, it is a private and constant kind of sporting pursuit with no guarantees of anything except exhaustion and aching limbs.

What keeps them going in those hours when they are so wrecked they can hardly lift themselves out of the boat, on those mornings when they probably hated the beautiful backdrop in Cork, is the realisation that this thing they have been chasing down, Rio, with all its Olympic connotations and possibilities, will one day represent a specific time in their lives. They will move on. They will eventually become something other than – or something as well as – rowers.

But for now, it comes absolutely first.

In early July, the five completed their last session at Farran Wood before moving on to training camp at Banyoles in Catalonia and finally to Brazil. So in the days ahead, three crews will compete for what would be Ireland’s first ever medal placing in Olympic rowing.

As ever, it won’t be easy. But, then, if they were interested in easy, they’d have left those boats behind a long time ago.

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