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Emily Hegarty: There was a point last year when I thought I might not make it back

February 22nd, 2024 8:30 AM

By Kieran McCarthy

Olympic bronze medal-winning rower Emily Hegarty pictured outside the club where it all began. (Photo: Anne Minihane)

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EMILY Hegarty admits there were moments last year, while marooned on dry land with a back injury, that she feared she wouldn’t get back on the water.

The Tokyo Olympic bronze medallist was forced to sit out the entire 2023 season and had to watch on as two Irish women’s heavyweight boats – the double and the pair – qualified for the Paris Games this summer.

‘There was a point last year when I thought I might not make it back,’ the Skibbereen rower admits.

‘I had little back-up plans in my head worked out, like going to join my friends in Australia, but those moments were few and far between, to be fair.  

‘I picked up a back injury around this time last year and it didn’t come right for me for a long time.

‘The more time passed, the harder it became.’

Back injuries are common in rowing, Hegarty explains, and she feels hers was a combination of training catching up and trying to juggle ‘a lot of things together’.

‘Back injuries are one of those things that can happen,’ she says but that doesn’t soften the blow or ease the frustrations, especially in an Olympic qualification year like 2023 – it’s the first opportunity to qualify boats for the Games the following summer. 

Emily Hegarty celebrates after winning a bronze medal with the Ireland women's four at the Tokyo Olympics.


The Aughadown woman (25) wants to become a two-time Olympian, having enjoyed her first Olympic experience so much – Hegarty was part of the trailblazing Irish women’s four that won bronze in Tokyo in 2021, the country’s first-ever Olympic women’s rowing medal. 

But for much of last year, her target was to get back on the water.

While Rowing Ireland crews had their focus on the 2023 World Rowing Championships last September – the first chance to qualify boats for the Games in Paris – Hegarty had stepped outside the bubble and set up camp in Dublin in an effort to get back in a boat.

‘It came to a point when everyone was going away to camps that I felt a change of environment would do me good; that’s when I went up to the Sport Ireland Institute in Abbotstown and stayed there last summer until after the world championships. It was a change of scenery and I needed that, plus I was looked after so well by the staff there,’ she says.     

‘The team was spending a lot more time abroad whereas I wasn’t in the position to get into a boat. Instead of being at home in Skibb, I wanted somewhere different. I got super treatment, intensive rehab, one-on-one sessions.’

Hegarty felt the relief when she saw progress, starting back on the rowing machine and she was back on the water in October, with Paris firmly on her mind.

‘I missed out on a season but I spent so long trying to get it right, the Olympics were only ten months away by the time I got back into a boat. The only option was to go for it. In the scheme of the whole Olympic cycle, that’s a short time. I have been doing the full programme since before Christmas and went to all the camps since I got back,’ she says.

The Irish women’s heavyweight group are currently on camp in Sabaudia in Italy ahead of the Irish selection trials in March – this is where crews will be formed for the Olympics as well as the final Olympic qualification regatta in Lucerne in May. The good news for Hegarty is that she’s in the mix.

‘There will always be a bit of managing my back but it’s holding up grand so far,’ she says.

‘I am excited. There was a time when I wasn’t sure whether I would be fighting for a seat again. It has been tough in that I am slower than I would have been when I got injured, so I really want to go for it, but I know I need to be patient too, and wait for it to come back.

‘That’s one of the big lessons I have taken from last year: to be patient, to stay in your own lane and focus on your own progress. It’s very easy to be like “I need to be back in the boat, I need to be back in the boat”, whereas it was a good learning curve in that regard, that these things take time so you are better off looking after yourself.’

Olympic medal winning rower and Quercus scholar Emily Hegarty, who graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Physiology at a Conferring Ceremony in University College Cork in 2023.


The Skibb rower is also leaning on her pre-Tokyo experience, too. In May 2021 the Irish women’s four of Hegarty, Eimear Lambe, Aifric Keogh and Fiona Murtagh came through the final Olympic qualification regatta in Lucerne to guarantee a spot at that summer’s Games – and these four trailblazers went on to create Irish rowing history by medalling. Having that experience in the bank will help in the weeks ahead of the upcoming selection trials.

‘Had I picked up this injury pre-Tokyo I don’t know would I have the same confidence heading into the Games like I have now,’ she states.

‘There is such a strong team of women training that I have the utmost confidence that we will all be getting a seat on the flight to Paris. There is not a doubt in my mind given the quality in the group.’

The Irish women’s double and pair have both qualified for the Games, but the bronze-winning four from Tokyo will go to the last-chance saloon in Lucerne in an effort to get to Paris. Potentially, that’s eight seats up for grabs.

‘I would be glad to get a seat at all. There really was a time when I thought I wouldn’t be in this position, so I’ll take whatever seat I can get!’ she says.

‘When you qualify at the world championships, it’s the boat that qualifies, so the crews are up for decision right up until the Olympics. But if you qualify through the Olympic regatta at Lucerne, the crew that qualifies that boat must race in that combination in the Olympics,’ she adds.

Hegarty’s route to Paris will become clearer after the selection trials as she’lll discover which boat, hopefully, she will take a seat in. She’s going in all guns blazing, looking to squeeze every drop she can out of this current camp in Italy, then taper down when she lands back home just before the trials. Considering how her 2023 season panned out it’s good to be talking about rowing again. 

‘I’m happy to be back,’ she says, but that competitor in her is pulling out all the stops to get to Paris.


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