By Robert Treharne Jones
So near and yet so far was the story for Denise Walsh and Aoife Casey at the World Championships yesterday in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where they missed a semi-final place by the narrowest of margins.
Walsh, 24, and Casey, 19, have only been together in the boat for a matter of weeks, having raced together internationally for the first time at the European Championships in Glasgow.
It was always a tall order to place a crew with this experience into the world championships, but Rowing Ireland is keen to build its talent base as they look ahead to Tokyo 2020.
In yesterday’s repechage of the lightweight double sculls, where just two would qualify for the next round, Walsh and Casey lined up on the start alongside Switzerland and Japan, who had both recorded faster times in Sunday’s heat.
Walsh and Casey burned off the blocks at 50 strokes a minute, the highest rate of the field, but it was Spain’s Rocio Lao Sanchez and Natalia Miguel Gomez who led the early stages before falling back under pressure.
At the first 500m timing marker the Swiss duo, Patricia Merz and Frederique Rol, led the pack and never relinquished the lead, while second place alternated between Yamaryo Natsumi and Oishi Ayami of Japan and Austria’s Louisa Altenhuber and Laura Arndorfer.
Ireland whipped the rate back up to 40 strokes a minute inside the last 150m but Switzerland and Japan held them off, with Ireland third.
The other repechage was won by Great Britain’s U23 world champions, Anna Thornton and Charlotte Hodgkins-Byrne, ahead of Canada’s Katherine Haber and Jennifer Casson. Walsh and Casey became the first of Ireland’s casualties at the championships, and the best position they can now hope for is 13th overall in the competition.
Their coach, Dominic Casey, Aoife’s father, explained his crew’s reaction after the race.
The lightweight double sculls is an intensely competitive event, and margins can often be counted in hundredths of a second.
“They lost a bit off the start but attacked well down the course. It was a reasonable time,” added Casey.
In the long-term plan to qualify the lightweight double for Tokyo, Casey has just four athletes at his disposal, including Skibbereen’s Lydia Heaphy and Margaret Cremen of Lee RC, who contested the U23 world championships in Poland two months ago.
Casey was reluctant to admit who might stand the best chance of being in the boat in two years’ time.
But he denied any problem with coaching his own daughter, which can be an area fraught with difficulty for both coach and athlete alike.
“I treat everyone the same – I couldn’t be hard on anyone” he laughed.
Today’s racing programme sees Ireland’s best medal hopes, Gary and Paul O’Donovan, race their quarter-final of the lightweight doubles.
Here they will line up alongside Are Strandli and Kristoffer Brun, the Norwegian former world champions who beat them to gold six weeks ago in Glasgow.
Also in action are Aileen Crowley and Monika Dukarska, who get their second chance to qualify the women’s double, while Ronan Byrne and Philip Doyle race their quarter-final of the men’s event.