Sport

Trailblazer Emily is back on the water

August 20th, 2021 6:00 PM

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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Olympic bronze medallist Emily Hegarty will be in action at the Irish Rowing Championships this weekend

BY KIERAN McCARTHY

LIFE moves fast. Just ask Emily Hegarty. Like the water she rows on, she never stops. There will be time soon enough to reflect on her Tokyo experience and her first Olympic Games, but before that there’s work to do.

The 2021 Irish Rowing Championships are on at the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra this weekend, from Friday to Sunday, and Olympic bronze medallist Hegarty is back on the water.

While Skibbereen Rowing Club is her home club and where her rowing story was started and scripted, she will race in UCC Rowing Club colours this weekend.

The 23-year-old Biological Sciences student is a Quercus Sports Scholar at UCC and its benefits are many and varied.

‘I am in the pair, the four and the eight this weekend, so all the sweep events,’ Hegarty explains, teaming up in some boats with fellow Skibb Olympians, Aoife Casey and Lydia Heaphy, who will also represent the Cork college at the championships.

‘I am really, really lucky I am on a Quercus scholarship. Michelle Power and Elaine O’Mahony look after us and are really good to us. I think there were seven of us on Quercus scholarships who were at the Games in Tokyo so it is a massively successful programme.

‘They look after us in terms of getting the balance between college and sport right and that we get the best out of both.’

Hegarty is looking forward to getting back on the college campus, too, next month as life returns to its new normal after the heroics of the Irish women’s four at the Olympics.

Winning Ireland’s first-ever women’s Olympic rowing medal secures the names of Emily, Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe and Fiona Murtagh in the history books as trailblazers.

More so, their success and their bronze medals – real, tangible, physical evidence of what is possible – can inspire the next generation to follow in their footsteps. The glass ceiling has been broken: Irish women rowers can win Olympic medals.

‘It’s still all setting in,’ Hegarty told the Star Sport Podcast.

‘The fact it’s a women’s boat, the fact it’s a heavyweight boat and the fact it’s a big boat as well; it’s a big crew boat, it’s not one individual or two individuals. I think it’s very promising for younger rowers coming up to see that there are opportunities across the board in every boat class and category.

‘It’s exciting and it’s also encouraging for those coming up who are looking to make the team over the next few years.’

Young girls now have four ready-made role models in Hegarty, Keogh, Lambe and Murtagh to aspire to be like, just like the Skibb rower looked up to Orla Hayes and Denise Walsh when she was coming up through the ranks in Skibbereen RC. They made an impact on Hegarty.

‘When I started first, Orla and Denise were the bee's knees, you wanted to row like them and you wanted to train like them,’ she explained.

‘They definitely were my inspiration in my first few years of rowing. They were so good to us as youngsters – they coached us, took us out on boats. They were so, so good to us and we were very lucky to have them early on when we started out.’

Now Hegarty is a role model for up-and-coming rowers in the club. She’s the first woman from this club to win an Olympic rowing medal. She’s also the first heavyweight Olympic rower from Skibbereen RC, as well. In a club known for the exploits of its lightweights, Hegarty is showing that another path exists, too. That’s important. There’s more to come from her as well. She just turned 23 at the start of August. An Olympic medal is not the destination, it’s part of her journey, just like the Tokyo Olympics were. These Games, her first, left an impression.

‘I thought it was unreal. Because it was my first Olympics Game I don’t know any different. I haven’t had the previous experience of an Olympics, having the freedom to go to any event you want to or the freedom to go out to the city, I didn’t have that but I didn’t miss it either,’ Hegarty said.

‘Obviously I would have loved to go out and see Tokyo for myself but at the same time you are so privileged to be there at all.

With the way things have been the past 18 months, potentially these Games might not have happened so we definitely realised how lucky we are and we enjoyed every moment, regardless of restrictions that were in place.’

When she thinks of Tokyo, she’ll think of the greatest day in her rowing career: Wednesday, August 28th.

That morning Hegarty rowed her way onto the Olympic podium with the Ireland women’s four and became the first West Cork woman to ever win an Olympic medal; another first for the Aughadown woman.

That she did it alongside three women whose company she enjoys makes it even more special. The bond between Hegarty, Keogh, Lambe and Murtagh has been strengthened by this experience.

‘We are really lucky that we all get on so well,’ she said.

‘In a sport like rowing, you are together day-in, day-out, and within a year you experience so many highs and lows. I feel that they are highs and lows that you don’t get outside of sport, that you wouldn’t experience with your friends. It’s an interesting bond you make with your crew-mate and we are lucky that we get on so well.’

For months ahead of the Games, going right back to last Christmas, and well before they qualified for the Olympics in May, Hegarty’s circle was small. She couldn’t risk getting Covid.

‘We reached a stage in the year where we knew that if we contracted Covid, that was end-game really, that was the dream gone,’ Hegarty explained. It meant she existed in a bubble before and during the Games.

In Tokyo her focus was on getting the job done on the Sea Forest Waterway course so she was blissfully unaware of the Olympic mania that swept Skibbereen as the Irish women’s four progressed from the heats to the A final.

She avoided her phone, too, after racing. It’s only when she landed home in West Cork on Sunday, August 1st, with her Olympic bronze medal, that she saw how invested everyone locally, and nationally, was in their success.

That first night back home, her mom, Mary, chauffeured Hegarty and Olympic gold medallist Fintan McCarthy around Skibbereen town for an impromptu drive-through.

Both Olympic heroes sat in the back with their medals, and locals poured out of homes, shops and pubs to welcome back their local heroes.

‘It was really nice and it was a really great way to see people again for the first time. It was lovely. I was surprised by the amount of people who did come out to see to see us,’ Hegarty says.

She’ll be the focus of plenty of attention, too, at the Irish Rowing Championships this weekend as she gets back on the water. That’s the immediate target, but the long-term goal will be the Paris Games in 2024, three years away.

‘It’s hard for it not to be the target, especially with this shorter cycle. I’ll keep training and I’ll stay in Cork for the next three years.

If it happens, it happens. I’ll give it my best shot to be there, definitely,’ she said. She’s had a taste for the Olympics and loved it, and she wants more. But right now, it’s the championships this weekend. Back to work on the water.

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