When Rosscarbery’s Niamh Hayes bought her single scull rowing boat at the start of the year, never in her wildest dreams did she think she would qualify for an A final at the World Championships in Hong Kong.
SITTING at the start line of the women’s single scull A final at the World Rowing Coastal Championships in Hong Kong, I had to pinch myself. There I was, up against the best of the best female rowers in the world. Some of these women are full time rowers, elite athletes, some of whom have even qualified for next year’s Olympics in river rowing. And then there was me - someone who rows in their spare time, in between work and other commitments.
Little did I know when I invested in a single scull rowing boat 10 months ago that I would qualify for an A final and place 14th in the world.
A friend and fellow rower in my club, Galley Flash Rowing Club, was emigrating and selling his boat. After some thought, my brother, sister and I made the investment. All three of us are rowers. My earliest memories are going to regattas when my brother started the sport. Soon after my sister joined, then my mum, and then I took it up when I turned eight, while my dad has always been our biggest supporter. I rowed my first All-Ireland regatta at the age of 10. Having the opportunity to compete at a national level from such a young age, set me on the path which has now led me to the world stage.
As soon as I got my hands on the boat, I spent as much time as possible in it.
Sculling boats are quite different to the traditional coastal boats I was used to but having a little bit of experience of sculling in river boats from my college days and in coastal quads for the past number of years, I knew the basics.
Now I just had to get comfortable rowing by myself, being my own navigator and my own motivator.
I set out my goals for the year, one of them being to get myself to a standard where I could be competitive against the best female coastal scullers in Ireland.
In early September I made the long journey to Antrim for the Irish Championships. I was just seconds away from medalling and so proud of myself for being so competitive in the field, especially when the winner was a former world champion and had just qualified for next year’s Olympics.
From this competition I got my ranking for the World Rowing Coastal Championships.
Travelling to Hong Kong at a time of such political unrest was not a decision I made lightly. Indeed, it wasn’t the only thing I was going to have to contend with.
It was a self-funded trip, I was going to be rowing in unknown waters, in an unknown boat, a brand I had only used a couple of times, against some of the best rowers in the world.
But it’s not every day an opportunity like this comes up and as I always say, life is short and so experiences like this should be grabbed with both hands.
The water in Victoria Harbour was nothing like I had experienced before. As soon as I left the inner harbour, waves were coming at me from every direction. Washes from ferries, cruise ships and fishing boats were constant.
I couldn’t predict what side my boat was going to be hit at next so for the first couple of training sessions, it was all about just trying to survive and hoping that I wouldn’t fall in.
But as everyone reassured me, every rower was in the same boat - no pun intended – we all had to deal with the same conditions.
The top eight boats from my heat were to go through to the A final, so my plan was to go hard off the start and just do what I needed to stay in that top eight. And that’s exactly what I did, finishing 7th to secure my place in the A final.
I was the happiest girl in Hong Kong that day. When I bought my boat at the start of the year, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would qualify for an A final at the World Championships.
It didn’t matter what happened after that, I was already a winner in my own eyes.
The thing is with an individual sport like single sculling, you must be your own biggest supporter. You can have loads of people around you supporting you, which I did, but when you’re out on the water, the only person you have to depend on is you. Only you will get yourself through every training session, especially on cold and dark mornings and evenings, and only you will get yourself around the race course, especially when your legs are screaming at you to stop.
While the heat was 4km, the A final was done around a 6km course.
Those extra kilometres, coupled with temperatures of 30+ degrees made for a challenging race.
But I was over the moon to cross the finish line 14th in the world, even after a nasty crash with another boat which set me back a few places.
What an experience the whole thing was from start to finish.
Being in Hong Kong, seeing the protests first-hand, rowing against the best in the world and getting to represent Ireland on the world stage with over 40 other Irish athletes who all performed superbly, these are all things that I will never forget.
Now though, it's time to get back to the drawing board to set myself some new goals.