AS the national media invaded Skibbereen Rowing Club HQ before lunch-time on Monday, August 29th, 2016, they drifted in and out of the old handball room in the club.
It’s the first room on the right inside the main door, normally used as a stretching room or physical training room (it also held the stations earlier this year) but on this manic Monday morning, it was base camp – home to teas, coffees and journos from around the country.
They were all here for the imminent press conference with Skibb’s returning Olympic silver medallists, Gary and Paul O’Donovan – but the smell of steak and spuds’ pizzas, just delivered from Jeff’s Pizzeria in Skibb, was too good to walk away from.
Handing out the pizzas that day in the old handball room was Denise Walsh, in her Gary & Paul’s Crew yellow t-shirt, along with her mother, Mary. Her father, Tony, club chairman and local postman, was around too.
Denise had finished just outside the medals, in fourth, in the single sculls at the European Rowing Championships that May, but she wasn’t on the radar of any of the journalists searching for different and new angles on Skibbereen Rowing Club and Gary Paul.
To them, Denise was just another friendly face.
They didn’t realise they were chatting to, at the time, one of Ireland’s top female scullers.
These days, Denise is the story. The 24-year-old from Munig north near Lough Hyne outside Skibb, is, according to former international rower and RTÉ rowing analyst Neville Maxwell after she won silver at the European Rowing Championships in May, the sculler that every Irish female lightweight rower in Ireland wants to beat.
She’s Ireland’s top women’s lightweight sculler and an ideal ambassador for women’s rowing, an example of what hard work, commitment and talent can achieve.
She’s energetic, bubbly, will always greet you with a smile but, at the same time, also very modest.
You’ll hear plenty of soundbites and catchphrases from Gary, Paul, Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll, but Denise is more measured. She’s the calm one, bringing order to the madness. A lot of her work might go on behind the scenes but that doesn’t mean it’s not noticed.
Skibbereen RC got new club gear earlier this year, sponsored by Skibbereen Credit Union, and working in the background and away from the spotlight, pulling the entire project together was Denise. The logistics were immense but she took care of it all. No fuss. Job done.
She’s more comfortable doing her talking on the water – and her silver successes at World Cup I in Belgrade and at the Europeans in the Czech Republic earlier this year saw her medal internationally for the first time.
Each was a confidence booster for a rower who admits she’s a lot happier this year than in previous years.
‘I enjoy the scull more this year,’ she explained, before flying out to Florida on Monday.
‘Last year I didn’t like it and that probably showed in results.
‘You need to be happy in the boat, enjoying it, and I am this year.’
It’s time to go back to 2015 now.
She started off that year in the women’s lightweight double alongside Claire Lambe. That’s an Olympic-class boat. The lightweight single isn’t. Denise and Claire had been selected for the double after the lightweight trials in February that year. They raced at the Piediluco International Regatta in Italy ahead of the Europeans in Poland that May where they finished sixth in the A final.
The 2016 Olympics in Rio was their target. They’d even set up a gofundme account to help with their training costs.
But then Denise, 22 at the time, was rocked when her place in the boat was taken by Sinead Jennings.
Claire and Sinead were in the double for World Cup III that July and qualified for the Olympics at the world championships in Aiguebelette, France a couple of months later.
Denise could just watch on.
She raced in those worlds in France, too, in a single scull, finishing second in the C final.
‘That wasn’t enjoyable,’ she said of her second experience of the world senior championships. The year before, 2014, was her first world seniors when Denise and Claire finished second in the C final.
This weekend Denise will race in her third world senior championships as a stronger, faster and better rower than what we’ve seen before.
‘This is a huge confidence boost for Denise after her disappointment over the last few years and the system that was there,’ explained Neville Maxwell after Denise won silver at the Europeans in May.
‘She didn’t make it to the Olympics, she wasn’t happy with it, but to come out there and win a medal at the Europeans is massive for her confidence.
‘She has improved hugely, she’s faster on the water and I think mentally she is a lot stronger now.’
There are a few reasons Denise has enjoyed her best season yet. And why she’s a lot happier on the water this year than in the past. A new approach has reaped its rewards.
Dominic Casey – the man who has shaped Skibbereen RC and who guided Gary and Paul to Olympic silver last year – went in as a full-time Rowing Ireland High Performance Coach last December, overseeing the lightweight group for the next Olympic cycle.
That group includes Denise, Gary, Paul, Mark and Shane. She’s comfortable in that gang.
She has known Dominic for years, and he knows how to bring the best out of her. He lets her train at home in Skibbereen this year instead of at the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra.
It’s a welcome change of scenery.
‘Dominic has been great,’ she said.
‘It’s been a bit more flexible this year and I’ve been able to train more at home in Skibb than before.
‘I am able to train more to my own schedule,
‘Dominic doesn’t have a set training schedule where I need to be here at a certain time to do a certain thing. He works it around what’s flexible for you.
‘I’m involved in the Get Going Get Rowing schools’ programme in West Cork and with training being more flexible I don’t have to get up at a crazy hour to go training before helping with the programme.
‘Training from home too means I’ve more time in the double with Aoife (Casey, Dominic’s daughter) when I’m training so we can do that for a while and then go back into the single as well then. It’s good to have the change-up.’
Dominic’s attention to detail also helps.
‘He focuses a lot of video analysis – and that’s been a big help,’ she said.
‘I am able to work on certain parts of my technique that need tweaking and then I can look back on previous videos of myself rowing to compare the then and the now.
‘We’re all open with each other too so I can ask any of the lads what they think, if there are areas to work on.
‘I feel I am more consistent in my races now than I was before.’
She’s also that bit older and wiser, and tougher; that mental fortitude that Neville Maxwell touched on.
As for what the world championships in Florida hold for Denise, she’s not sure until the racing begins. She’s coming off the back of a hard training camp in Banyoles in Spain so she’s waiting to see how she will ‘bounce back’.
But she has a clearer picture of what she wants from the future: to form a double that will work towards the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The single is her ticket into the double. And she is laying down a marker this year. Claire Lambe and Sinead Jennings have a fight on their hands if they want to get back into the double. Denise is in prime position for a place right now.
‘I feel like I need to build the base for the double going forward,’ she said.
‘The faster I am, the better it is for the boat.’
And she’s certainly faster this year. Her performances and medals prove that.
Maybe in three years’ time, if some (or all) of Skibb’s famous five make it to the Tokyo Olympics, when there’s a homecoming presser at the clubhouse, Denise will be front and centre instead of helping in the background.
Now that’s a good angle for those journalists...