KIERAN McCARTHY looks at how Skibb’s top rowers performed at the opening world cup
TWO Skibbereen postmen delivered more than just post on Monday morning.
They delivered smiles that outshone the warm summer sun that nestled above their home town, and Tony Walsh and Christy O’Donovan had two good reasons to walk with their chests puffed out – their daughter and son had rowed to medals at the World Cup regatta in Belgrade the day before.
Tony’s daughter Denise won a silver medal in the women’s lightweight single sculls, while Christy’s son Mark along with Shane O’Driscoll went one better, winning gold in the men’s lightweight pair.
This terrific trio outshone their more famous Skibbereen Rowing Club oarsmen, Gary and Paul O’Donovan, who had to settle for fourth place in the men’s lightweight double A final, just outside the medals.
It’s no mean feat that Denise, Mark and Shane have left Gary and Paul in the shadows, and the trio deserves to dominate the headlines this week.
Because of Gary and Paul’s European, Olympic and world success last year, they have a profile that few Irish sportspeople have and they are the pin-up boys of Irish and international rowing – and they are there on merit for what they achieved.
Those two alone have perked the nation’s interest in rowing.
But the Lisheen lads are always the first to shine a light on Skibbereen Rowing Club and all its rowers, and while they’ll be disappointed with their fourth place, they’ll be delighted for Denise, Mark and Shane because they know the background stories better than anyone else.
When Gary and Paul won European gold in Brandenburg last summer, nobody took notice that Mark and Shane finished fourth in the men’s pair A final, behind Great Britain, Denmark and Spain. Or that at the same championships Denise finished fourth in the women’s lightweight single sculls A final, outside the medal places and behind Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands.
When Paul raced his way to gold in the lightweight single sculls at the world championships in Rotterdam, Mark and Shane finished fourth in the A final of the men’s lightweight pair, again outside the medals, behind France, Denmark and Great Britain.
Now, Denise, Mark and Shane are in the medals and the spotlight – and it’s what they deserve.
Skibbereen’s famous five Irish rowers flew from Belgrade to Varese in northern Italy on Monday morning where they will spend the next two weeks there at a training camp in the run-up to the European Rowing Championships in the Czech Republic, which run from May 26-28th.
Mark O’Donovan, fresh from winning that gold medal the previous day, ran into a problem. A man who loves his coffee more than most came prepared. Well, sort of.
He brought a coffee machine with him to Varese but he noticed a problem soon after setting up camp: he didn’t have the adaptor needed to plug it into the wall.
‘I’ll tap it into the mains,’ he laughed, ‘We’ll kick-start her alright.’
Before solving that puzzle, his plan was to find the nearest flat white to celebrate the gold medal success from the previous day – a win that Shane is keen to build on these weeks in Varese ahead of the European championship.
They want momentum.
‘We are always trying to improve, that’s the name of the game,’ Shane said.
‘We want to keep the momentum we built up last weekend going now for the next few weeks in the training camp and into the Europeans. We’ll see where we are after that.
‘We always try our best and it was good enough in Belgrade but who knows what will happen at the Europeans. We don’t know what to expect there, we’ll have to see who’s racing when the entry list is out because in the year after an Olympics there can be lots of changes to boats so we have to wait and see.’
Denise Walsh is another who is hoping to keep her momentum going from Belgrade into the Czech Republic – and she should get a big boost from her silver medal heroics.
She won her heat on Friday, finishing 0.71 of a second ahead of Poland’s Joanna Dorociak, after a terrific finish that saw her overtake Dorociak and Pauline Delacroix of Switzerland to put the Skibb woman straight into Sunday’s A final.
On a wet and miserable Sunday morning in Serbia, Denise came up trumps when coming from fifth place at the 500m and halfway marks to move into fourth with 500 metres left before making her move and upping her rate to finish in second, in 7:56.240, behind Switzerland and ahead of Poland.
‘In the race, I focused on giving a bit of reserve toward the end and focusing on the sprint. I didn’t realise how close everyone was to me, especially Patricia (of Poland). Now I’m focusing on the European championships in the single,’ said the talented Skibb star who was previously in the Irish lightweight double with Claire Lambe, but lost her place to Sinead Jennings, and it was this duo that then raced in last year’s Olympics.
Denise has a point to prove this year, she wants to get into the double and she’s had an ideal start to her international season. A good Europeans will strengthen her case for the double.
Everyone is a rowing expert these days, if social media is the yard-stick we use to measure degrees of expertise – but luckily, common sense still has a role to play.
Gary and Paul are now big news, and rightly so after what they achieved last year, but we need to be realistic here and use perspective.
This World Cup event was the first major international of the season, and while Gary and Paul won their heat and semi-final before finishing fourth in the A final, that’s not a disaster by any stretch.
Yes, they’ll be disappointed that they couldn’t kick on in the final 500 metres after they got themselves back in contention, moving from sixth to third, but this is early in the season – and the world championships in Florida (the serious business) isn’t until the end of September. That’s what they’ll aim to peak for.
They haven’t rowed as much together in recent months as they would have liked – Paul’s been very busy in college in Dublin (had exams last week), Gary’s based in Cork – but that will change with the training camp these weeks.
Also, lest people forget, after they won the European gold last May, they finished fourth at the next two World Cup regattas – in Lucerne and Poznan – before the Olympics. Expect to see an improved Gary and Paul at the Europeans later this month when they defend their lightweight double title.
What was also interesting in Belgrade is that Mark and Shane raced in a heat of the men’s heavyweight pair last Friday, finishing fourth, less than three seconds behind Spain in third, to go into the repechage, which they opted against competing in.
Mark and Shane are lightweight rowers but the decision at the FISA Extraordinary Congress in February to remove the men’s lightweight four from the Olympic schedule has denied the duo of a possible ticket to the 2020 Olympics.
Now there is only one lightweight Olympic boat – the lightweight double sculls that Gary and Paul are sitting in.
(The men’s lightweight pair that Mark and Shane race in is not an Olympic boat).
The options are simple: try and force their way into the lightweight double at some stage by outperforming either Gary or Paul, or both. Or possibly move to heavyweight.
Mark told us in March that the jump from lightweight to heavyweight is ‘a real live option’.
They tested the waters in Belgrade.
‘We tried the heavyweight pair and that was quite promising, we were in the mix there,’ Shane said.
A decision will be made at some point this year about what direction to take. But right now for Skibb’s five Irish rowers it’s all about the Europeans and their own personal missions – Gary and Paul have a point to prove and a title to defend, Mark and Shane want to continue their impressive progress from these last few months, and Denise wants to get into the double. Interesting times for the fantastic five, as Mark, flat white in hand, offers his take: ‘There’s a fella in Skibbereen who said that you’re only as good as your last race so we’ve that in our minds now.’