00:00 Saturday 16 June 2012  Written by KIERAN McCARTHY

Still living life in the fast lane

EVEN now it can still rankle him, as he watches crews glide past on the River Thames in London.

'That's not how you do it," he mumbles under his breath, as a crew struggles past him, rowing badly, their technique not what it should be. It almost hurts him to watch.

But the man looking on is not just any spectator voicing his opinion, he is a former Olympic rower who has been there, done that and has the tee-shirt to prove it.

You see, Eugene Coakley is still a rowing perfectionist, even though four years have passed since his last international race for Ireland, when he and his brother Richard finished ninth at the '08 World Rowing Championships.

Now living in Putney, London, with his wife Zoe - who works as a concert manager with the BBC Proms - the Skibbereen native is right smack bang in the middle of London's rowing community. And that's not a coincidence.

'It was an obvious choice to move to Putney where all the rowing clubs are based, not because I wanted to go back rowing but because I just like living by the river where I can watch crews pass by,' Coakley explained.

Another advantage of his new surrounds in London is that the road cycling event in this summer's Olympic Games passes his house. So while he doesn't have tickets to go to any event, Coakley will still be enveloped in the Olympic atmosphere that will cover the city like a blanket.

'The buzz and feeling around London will be electric for those few weeks, you can even sense it now that something big is on way,' he said.

Athens' Olympics

As spectacular as it may be, it still won't compare, for Coakley, to the summer of '04 and the Athens' Olympics.

The 33-year-old, now working for a sports clothing company, has to almost take a step back when he realises that eight years have passed since he was a member of the Irish lightweight coxless four crew - along with Paul Griffin, Richard Archibald and Gearoid Towey - that finished sixth at those Olympics.

'Although I went to the Sydney Olympics as a substitute I felt I was only on holidays as I took no part in the event,' the Skibbereen Rowing Club legend recalled.

'Four years later when I was racing in Athens I didn't really dwell on the fact that I was at the Olympics as I guess I had to just get on with my job.

'It's funny now how, eight years on, I look back with a greater sense of pride and emotion at the fact that I am an Olympian. The whole experience of the Olympics is just hard to describe but it truly is the greatest sporting show on earth.

'Our coach used to say that the year of the Olympics there are no aliens who come down from space to race us but rather it is exactly the same people we have always been racing.

'That's true about the competitors but the vast difference is that the whole world watches the Olympics and the media shines a light on sports which they care little about between Olympic cycles.'

That Irish crew that became Coakley's second family was a truly gifted combination of Ireland's top rowers, and on form they felt unbeatable.

'It was a great feeling lining up at the start of a race against quality opposition knowing that all of the training had brought us to the point where we believed we could beat anyone who we raced,' Coakley recalled.

'I think our best year was in '06 when we won the World Cup series - silver in Munich, gold in Poznan and gold in Lucerne - and then went on to win a bronze medal at the World Championships in the same rowing course where the Olympic rowing will take place in less than 50 days.

'We grew up together over the years of endless training both in Ireland and abroad at training camps and we had such a belief in each other that it made us more than just the sum of the parts.'

First strokes

But before talk turns to Coakley's international retirement in '08, it's time to retrace his first strokes into the world of rowing, back in '93 when a group of four friends, including 14-year-old Eugene, went along to Skibereen Rowing Club to seek an alternative to football; ironically his family home is a stone's throw from O'Donovan Rossa's pitch.

'I remember launching a four-man boat one afternoon on the Ilen River with my friends thinking 'this rowing craic is pretty cool' but never in my wildest dreams did I think 11 years later I would be launching a four-man boat on a man-made lake in Athens for the final of the 2004 Olympic Games,' Coakley said.

It could all have been so different if Coakley had decided to pack rowing in but Dominic Casey, of Skibbereen Rowing Cub, has different ideas. The rest, as they say, is history.

Casey helped forge Coakley's successful partnership with James Lupton, which went on to win many national championships in the double scull, while '97 was a turning point for the development of Skibbereen Rowing Club as it won the men's junior 18 eight for the first time since it was founded in 1970.

Combining college in UCC, where he studied Civil Engineering, and rowing was tough. But he did it, and reaped the rewards in 2000, winning a bronze medal at the U23 World Championships in Denmark and also being selected as a sub for the Irish men's four at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

After what Coakley describes as '10,000 hours of blood sweat and tears put in rowing, running and lifting weights' he made it at the very top, and rowed alongside Skibbereen's Tim Harnedy for a while. There were plenty of good days and enough not-so-good days too, with the latter prominent when he missed out on the Beijing Olympics in '08.

'I can look back with greater clarity now as to why I lost my place in the boat for Beijing only two months earlier,' Coakley admitted.

'It comes down to the fact that I had lost the hunger and love of rowing after a bad year in '07 plus the culmination of being tired both mentally and physically as years of the sport had caught up with me.'

Final race

That his final international race for Ireland was with his younger brother Richard - who competed at the Beijing Olympics and finished tenth - was fitting;

He agreed: 'It was a nice way for me to retire from rowing with my last race for Ireland with Richard in a pair at the World Rowing Championships in '08 in Austria.'

Since then he hasn't really had itchy feet to return to rowing, not even as he watches, from his house in Putney, crew after crew power past on a daily basis.

'The thing I miss most since I retired is competitive action but I don't miss the training load that has to be completed in order to be competitive,' he said.

'I have found a new sport which I enjoy doing but there is no way I will ever contemplate doing 10,000 hours running training to improve on my first marathon time in Dublin in 2010 (2hrs 55min).

'I do enjoy running and I am enjoying it doing it on my terms of running when I feel like it rather than following a strict training program.'

And now the rower has become the coach, as Coakley has recently start to coach rowing in an English school, where the rowing programmes are well supported with two full-time and two part-time paid rowing coaches in his school.

Indeed, Ireland could learn a lot from England's approach to the sport, according to Coakley.

'I would certainly say I was part of a golden era in Irish rowing as there was some incredible talent around with so many world medallists in the squad of 12 people.

'The only sad thing is that we were not able to secure an Olympic medal which would have transformed the sport so much and been a big positive going forward,' Coakley said.

'It was an accidental choice that I found rowing which is completely different to the programme which is followed in other countries where people are targeted at a young age and directed towards sports.

'In Great Britain a programme called rowing giants, targeting big people, was developed over six years ago and many of these people who might not have otherwise considered rowing will be winning medals in the Olympics in two months' time.'

As for this year's Olympics, Coakley expects Ireland's boxers to come up trump, yet again, but he did warn about heightening expectations

'The hopes of any Irish medals will rest on the boxers who have always proven their worth,' he said.

'But I think many in the media show their ignorance of high-level sport when they build up athletes' profiles to such an extent, with a prime example that they have given the impression that Katie Taylor merely has to fly to London to collect her gold medal.'

So Eugene Coakley will be in the centre of the Olympic spectacular that will dominate the sporting summer, post Euro 2012, and while he doesn't harbour any major regrets, the Skibbereen man will take comfort from the fact that he was there, he was, and still is, an Olympian.

That's what separates him from those aspiring rowers on the River Thames. They want what Coakley had. And he knows he had it.

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