Fancy helping an Olympian to achieve their dream? Then read on

Fancy helping an Olympian to achieve their dream? Then read on
Michelle Carpenter, CEO, Rowing Ireland: ‘Normally it takes €1m per boat to win an Olympic medal, and we’re not going to Tokyo for the fun of it, we’re there very much to win medals.’ Picture: Denis Minihane

The victories may already be receding into the background, but for Michelle Carpenter, the hard work is only beginning.

Four World Championship medals and qualifying four boats for the Tokyo Olympics next year mean the Rowing Ireland chief executive has a full in-tray. Still, there must be something of an afterglow at Headquarters?

“Absolutely,” says Carpenter.

“Last year we would have suggested we might qualify five boats, and we were very close to the five, we were unlucky with the lane changes in the women’s four, but I’m confident we’ll do that next year at Lucerne.

“We’re coming down from the afterglow and we’re wondering just how we’re going to do it (in terms of funding), as a sport which can’t fill big stadia and doesn’t have a massive sponsor on board.

“Normally it takes €1 million per boat to win an Olympic medal, and we’re not going to Tokyo for the fun of it, we’re there very much to win medals.”

This is an ongoing challenge for the rowing fraternity.

As Carpenter puts it, they don’t have a venue where they can charge 80,000 punters an entry fee, and the economics can be difficult.

“Our High-Performance budget is €600,000, and we’re very grateful for that, Sport Ireland are very good to us and look after us very well.

“But New Zealand would be a similar-sized country to us and they have a €3 million budget. We’re second in the world in Olympic boat ranking.

“We beat the Brits at the World Championship in medals, we beat the Germans and the Chinese, and we’re doing that on a shoestring.

“We’ve had different initiatives over the years, with Green Blades, our crowdfunding site for developing athletes — you can’t forget those athletes coming up either.

“You saw Croke Park full again last weekend for the All-Ireland replay but we don’t have that option. We’re very grateful to Kinetica for their support but relatively speaking we’re still struggling. It’s an expensive sport as well, and the Government has been good to us too, but it’s not good to be totally reliant on them.”

Because of all those challenges Rowing Ireland are open to commercial discussions with partners ahead of next year’s Olympics.

From her office in the Sports Ireland Campus she can see how uneven the playing field can be.

“There’s never a day that’s the same. I came from the participation side, Get Going Get Rowing, so I’m learning how challenging the High-Performance side is, to get it right.

“We’re probably victims of our own success in a way — in fairness Sport Ireland gave us an increase last year but it goes very quickly. Balancing it all and getting it working is a challenge, but medals and qualification make it worthwhile.

“I’m a year in the job now and it’s been brilliant to have Kinetica on board — we’ll be talking to them again about the coverage they’ve gotten.

“But as I walked into the Sports Ireland Campus today I saw a vehicle transporter arrive here with Nissan cars — I think they’re for the FAI, though I’m not sure — while we’re struggling.

“It’s heartbreaking because we have a lot to offer, and it’s not a fantasy, but a reality. We’re second in the world so what a journey it would be for a partner to come on board ahead of, and on, our trip to the Olympics.

“In particular it’s heartbreaking for the athletes in particular. We released a video of Fintan (McCarthy) who trains 15, 16 times a week. Very few athletes in Ireland train that often, and he only received a small amount of carding last year, maybe €3,000.

“We don’t want our sport to become elitist. We’re on the crest of a wave and yes, Paul and Gary (O’Donovan) and Sanita (Puspure) are all well looked after by Sport Ireland, but we need to look at the Fintan McCarthys, the Tara Hanlons, they’re all there as well. The girls in the four have an average age of 21 and you can’t expect their parents to continually support them.

“We do our best for them but we need to do more. When they come down to Cork to train they’ll have to be put up in accommodation, and last year we mooted the idea of renting a house for them for a year through a sponsor, somewhere around Coachford, which would be ideal for them.

“Some of them live downstairs in the National Rowing Centre, and that’s not ideal.

“Can you imagine supporting the girls in the four, for instance, with rental accommodation for a year, as a company or philanthropist being able to say, ‘I supported them on their journey to Tokyo’? Paying for accommodation is tangible — and isn’t massive money, either, but would be hugely helpful to them, and would link a company to them.

“With High-Performance sport you can really link it to business — a lot of people mightn’t realise that it’s the boat which is qualified for the Olympics, not the people, so you have six people trying to get places in it. So that’s analogous to business, there are a lot of lessons there to be learned.”

It’s not just the senior rowers, adds Carpenter.

“We’ve juniors going to Tokyo and it’s costing their parents between €1800 and €2000 to support them, as a part-contribution — we pay a whack of it but they contribute as well.

“That’s why we launched Green Blades, in the hope it’d support these developmental athletes. The U23s are in university, so their parents have to pay their fees — and to pay for their food, and it costs a lot to feed a rower. After Tokyo who knows, we may have retirements but we need to keep the pipeline going — we have the programme in place and we know who can do it.

“The number of people at the World Championships who admired our programme — the German High Performance Director was just one, ‘I love your programme’. We also have Get Going Get Rowing, a programme which has engaged with 30,000 schoolchildren, so it’s all working together.

“We work with the Irish universities as well, and you may notice that a lot of the student age athletes don’t go to college in the US any more despite being offered scholarships. We try to keep them in the system here.”

You can see the results.

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