Monika Dukarska is a member of Ireland’s elite rowing squad and bidding to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in the women’s pairs. From Killorglin, the 29-year-old is also a two-time World Coastal Rowing champion, has two Masters degrees, and is now doing a PhD in education.
Q. Your family moved to Ireland 13 years ago from the Polish city of Poznan, a famous stop on the international rowing circuit so, presumably, you were already a rower when you moved?
A: Not at all! I actually remember as a child, cycling or roller-blading around the lake in Poznan, it was only 15 minutes from our home. It was always our ‘go to’ place to do things but I never, ever thought I would row on that lake, it never crossed my mind. And especially not to row for Ireland there at Europeans and World Cups.
Q: How did you come to move to Ireland?
A: It was mainly economic reasons. My mother’s workplace liquidated and she knew people who had come here. She came three months before us and managed to get a permanent contract in a local shop and bring us over. She’s a brave lady!”
Q: When you moved to Kerry you had just turned 16, a very difficult time for a teenager to be uprooted. Was it tough?
A: My first day in school (Intermediate, Killorglin) was a Friday and there was a lot of tears afterwards. I said I’m not going back. In fairness people were friendly but I only had really basic English, just the words for ‘hello’, ‘my name is’ and ‘where is?’ My sister was 11 and went to primary school whereas I was a teenager, going into a place where everyone was already in groups.
Q: Did sport help you settle?
A: Absolutely. I am six foot and had played basketball before but there were some rowers in the school who said ‘you’re very tall, would you like to try rowing?’ I
The club helped me hugely and rowing really influenced my future.
Q: When you got good did you ever think about rowing for Poland?
A: I went to Poland in 2007 and 2008 for trials but then I thought ‘I started rowing in Ireland, why would I row for Poland?’ This is the country that invested in me, I live here, so I declared for Ireland and I’m a Kerry girl now.
Q: You’re very unusual in combining Olympic rowing with winning world titles at coastal rowing. How did that happen?
A: My first year on the Irish team was not until 2013 because I didn’t get my Irish passport until October 2012, so I was doing Olympic and coastal rowing with the club.
Q: They look like two completely different disciplines. Are they?
A: Yes. Olympic rowing is over 2,000m, you don’t really have to worry about the weather and the course is a straight line. Coastal rowing is 6000km, on a sort of loop and you have to be able to navigate and deal with waves and weather.
Q: Which do you prefer? If there was a choice between them at the Olympics which would you prefer to do?
A: I don’t actually know. They are thinking about introducing coastal rowing at the Olympics and are going to pilot it at youth level. Coastal rowing has that element of wildness I love, it’s just you and the elements. But it is a completely different skill-set. The distance is longer but you also have to figure out a lot during the race.
Q: You tried unsuccessfully to qualify, in a pair, for the Rio Olympics and went back to coastal rowing so what prompted your return to Olympic rowing?
A: My happiness drifted off a bit with trying to chase Olympic qualification. Things didn’t work out and people went different ways after but we have a really good team now and there were changes in Rowing Ireland too.
A world medal and Olympics was kind of unfinished business.
Q: Rowing Ireland have targeted a women’s pair and a women’s four to qualify for Tokyo 2020 and you and Aifric Keogh are currently crewing the pair but could that change?
A: Yes.You have to be on top of your game all the time. We have trials every month to show we’re doing well, as a crew and also individually. We are being monitored on a weekly basis as well so you know exactly where you’re ranked.
Q:You actually rowed together before but didn’t click. Why this year?
A: The first time they put us out on the water together last winter we had speed and I thought ‘ yes, this is gonna work.’ It just felt good. The minute we sat into the boat we said ‘yeah, we can do this.’ We have both changed since 2016 and it works now.
Q: Rowing pairs have to be perfectly in synch but how do you differ?
A: Aifric is from Galway and is very calm, patient, and very process-orientated while I would be very outcome-oriented. I would be ‘like, let’s go!’ Very impatient! Aifric’s usually calming me down and focusing me on the little details that we need to do.
Q: What do you need to do to qualify for the Olympics?
A: Make the top 11 at the World Championships in Austria in August. After that there will only be two more places available.
Q: You were due to go to the European Championships next week but have had to belatedly pull out? What happened?
Unfortunately Aifric got an infection a week and a half ago and we just ran out of time but it’s not such a big blow because it’s the beginning of the season. So instead of the Europeans, we will now go to the second and third World Cups. We had only planned originally to do the third.
Q: And that second World Cup, on June 21-23, brings you back to a familiar location?
A: Yes, my old home of Poznan, which is handy as my grandmother still lives there so I’ll definitely get to see her.
Q: Finally, is it true we’ve been mispronouncing your first name for years?
A: (Laughs) Yes. It looks like the Irish ‘Monica’ but it is actually pronounced ‘Mon-eek-a’.