Rowing’s rising tide at National Championships after Rio lifting all boats

The stretch of water hidden behind Farran Wood rarely looked better than it did yesterday, the lake sparkling in a blazing sun as the National Rowing Championships took place.

A view of the start line at the Irish Rowing Championships, held at the National Rowing Centre, Farran Wood, Cork. Picture: Cathal Noonan

Sarah Dineen, of Rowing Ireland, took a break from her duties to explain that while the weekend’s weather may have suited you, the casual reader, to a tee, it didn’t co-operate perfectly with the rowers.

“Saturday was the perfect example of how the weather can affect us. It was sunny but the winds picked up too much for us to continue racing, so while the schedule was due to run to seven o’clock, we had to stop at around two and run those finals today — so the schedule is pretty packed.

“Wind is the biggest factor. The rowers themselves couldn’t care less if it’s raining or snowing, they’d carry on, but today’s weather is perfect, and the crowd is good as a result.”

That crowd was notably big — masses of adults and children, in shirt-sleeves and shorts, slathered in sun cream, enjoying cold drinks and hot chips as the rowers themselves pounded their way down the course.

“It’s our largest-ever entry to date,” said Dineen. “We have over 1,000 crews here, which is a record, and that equates to about 3,000 competitors.

“When you factor in their families, coaches, clubmates, supporters, people who don’t even know about rowing but who’ve come in to take a look, then you’re talking about 8,000-9,000 people.”

A year on, more or less, from the Rio Olympics and the performances of the O’Donovan brothers, has the sport enjoying a surge in popularity because of that spell in the shop window?

Skibbereen’s Gary O’Donovan in action. Picture: Cathal Noonan

“Absolutely,” said Dineen. “It’s been a huge boost, and what I’ve noticed this year, in particular, is the number of junior scullers. The interest is certainly higher since last year’s Olympics, and that was last August, almost 12 months ago. These rowers are still competing and rowing clubs are bursting at the seams as a result.

“That’s very encouraging for us, that it wasn’t a case of the clubs getting a quick hit - they’re still booming, which is great.

“And this is the showcase for the sport, the national championships. If you’re a young rower starting off in the sport and you come to the national championships then you’ll see and meet Olympians and world-class athletes alongside club rowers and ordinary sportspeople.

“That’s bound to inspire those younger rowers in particular, especially when you see that a lot of them have stuck with the sport a year later. That shows they’ve taken inspiration from the rowers who have been in the spotlight, and this is where they all are.

“You’d overhear conversations all weekend — ‘Did you see the O’Donovans, did you see Gary’ or whatever — and more than one person has said to me that all of the athletes are so accessible, there’s no problem with taking a photograph, all of that.

Action on the water during the National Championships. Picture: Cathal Noonan

“That helps make the sport accessible to everyone — and gives the lesson to someone that if they take it up that they have a shot at making it to the very top.”

It’s not all about the Olympic medallists, either. Though the National Rowing Centre was teeming with long-legged, long-armed teenagers and adults, most of them inhaling spaghetti bolognese for lunch, there’s a less competitive outlet for those interested in getting on the water.

“There’s been a big growth in the take-up of recreational rowing,” said Dineen.

“Along with other sectors that’s seen a huge increase in interest, too. Now, the majority of rowers are serious, competitive athletes who are training and preparing themselves to reach the highest competitive level they can, but it’s a very enjoyable social sport, and recreational sport has become a bigger factor as a result.

“The knock-on effect, I suppose, is that people who take up recreational rowing bring their kids along and they get into it competitively as young people, and you spot the talent coming through and nurture that.

“Obviously the more people you have participating, the better all round.” There’s one small obstacle that hinders rowing’s development somewhat, of course. Access to the water is a given if you’re on the coast or near a river, but if you’re not.

St Michael’s Rowing Club heading for the lake at the National Rowing Championships at Farran Wood, Cork. Picture: Cathal Noonan

“Something that’s bringing more and more people into the sport the whole time is Michelle Carpenter’s Get Going Get Rowing scheme,” said Dineen.

“She’s in secondary schools getting kids interested in the sport, so if a child isn’t necessarily living near water they can be started on the ergs (ergometer) and then, if the interest is there, they can go to their nearest club and pursue it.

“The main issue is access to water, and even the clubs which are there are bursting at the seams in terms of access and boats and so on — but they’re certainly not going to turn anybody away. And as I say, clubs which might not have had a recreational section now realise that there’s a big appetite for that among people, and are addressing that demand, so people interested in rowing from that perspective will also be accommodated, certainly.”

The accommodation runs to switching sports, too, with Dineen pointing to many people’s familiarity with that staple of the gym, the ergometer or rowing machine.

“The ergometer was there for years and years and people with no interest in rowing used it for their fitness. It doesn’t give you the whole sensation of being on the water, but it does give people a certain familiarity with the sport.

NUIG celebrate winning the Women’s Intermediate 4+ final at the National Championships at Farran Wood yesterday. Picture: Cathal Noonan

“The whole increase interest has been driven by the Olympics, certainly, there’s no disputing that, and the fact that Paul and Gary (O’Donovan) have been such great ambassadors for the sport. Not everyone could have put the sport on the pedestal they have, and we see that reflected even from sportspeople looking to switch over.

“A prime example is Sinead Lynch, who was a high- performance cyclist before turning to rowing, so the switch can be done.”

If you have an appetite for pain?

“Well, that helps.”


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