Double gold for Ireland was the climax of an historic weekend at the world championships in Bulgaria where Sanita Puspure and the O’Donovan brothers finally reached the top of the podium.
And while the feat brought ultimate satisfaction for the three athletes, the achievement has wider importance for the sport of rowing.
Ireland’s rowers have won many gold medals over the years, most notably the world championships in Switzerland in 2001. That was when Sinead Jennings won the lightweight women’s singles, Sam Lynch matched that result in the men’s event, while Gearoid Towey and Tony O’Connor took gold in the lightweight pairs.
But all three were non-Olympic boat classes, and Ireland has been chasing that elusive gold in an Olympic boat class ever since.
To win two at one regatta is not only a notable achievement in itself, it brings the very real possibility of a first Olympic gold medal for Ireland in rowing in Tokyo in two years’ time.
The weekend’s gold rush started on Saturday when, before the race even got underway, it was announced that Norway, who took Olympic bronze behind the O’Donovan in Rio two years ago, would be boating a substitute after their bowman, Kristoffer Brun, fell ill.
Instantly there was one less threat to consider after the Norwegians had taken the European title ahead of Ireland six weeks ago in Glasgow.
Instead it was the Italians, Stefano Oppo and Pietro Ruta, who were looking to deny Ireland the gold after winning their semi-final on Thursday.
In predictable fashion it was Italy who led off the blocks, with the O’Donovans lying back in the pack, in fourth after 500m and refusing to be fazed by the opposition.
After 850m the Skibbereen duo pushed on hard and destroyed the Italians within the space of 100m, but Oppo and Ruta went with them, as the two doubles broke well clear of the trailing pack.
As Belgium led the tail-enders the medallist were sorted after 1500m but Italy had one more surprise, ratcheting up the rate with 200m to go in a last-ditch attempt to deny Ireland the gold. But for Ireland this was their day, and Paul O’Donovan in the stroke seat allowed himself a little smile as he and his brother eased away to win as they liked.
We were very strong, very fit, very fast. We trained hard all year. We got two summers this year. We went down to New Zealand and Australia. People thought we went down there to party. We went down there with the priority of working hard. And that’s what we did,” said Gary O’Donovan afterwards.
Brother Paul added: “They were the best strokes we put together in all of our lives.”
“An excellent race, an exceptional race — they did absolutely everything right,” said Ireland’s High-Performance Director Antonio Maurogiovanni.
“The field was very, very tough, very hard. Considering the Belgians, considering the Italians, considering Norway, it was a very high level field. I think they perform when they need to perform,” he added.
Yesterday produced yet more drama before Puspure’s final when a strong cross-tail wind caused officials to redraw the lanes pushing the faster qualifiers towards the edge of the 2000m course.
As the six-boat final got underway it was evident that world champion Jeannine Gmelin of Switzerland was the one to watch. Puspure moved solidly out of the blocks and led Danish sculler Fie Udby Erichsen by half a length after 250m before Gmelin overhauled Erichsen at 500m.
But Puspure was already unstoppable — a push by Gmelin at 750m forced the Old Collegians sculler to respond, and by 1250m she led the world champion by two lengths. By the final stretch the race was over, and Puspure extended her lead to win by more than four lengths.
I wasn’t expecting to be in the lead — I just got off the start and kept going. I saw Jeannine got for a push so I fed off that, and found myself thinking I could win at halfway. It’s really hard not to get excited in the middle of the race but that’s what you have to do,” she said.
The Latvian-born sculler moved to Ireland more than 12 years ago in search of a better life and to further her sporting career, but it has only been since 2014 that she could be counted among the sport’s elite.
At three successive world championships she has finished fourth, while the Rio Olympic resulted in a disappointing 13th place. Small wonder then, that when the Irish tricolour was raised and Amhrán na bhFiann rang out across the lake she allowed herself to get emotional.
It was amazing — this is the first time an anthem has been played for me, ever, so I’m absolutely ecstatic, I’m really going to cherish this moment,” she said.
Ireland sent their largest ever squad to these championships, with promising results right across the board.
Despite winning their semifinal of the women’s pairs on Thursday, Aifric Keogh and Emily Hegarty found Saturday’s final a different matter. Canada led the New Zealand world champions through the first 500m and went on to take the gold ahead of the Kiwis and Spain, with Ireland trailing in sixth and last.
In yesterday’s men’s double sculls Philip Doyle and Ronan Byrne finish third in the B final behind the Netherlands and Poland to place 9th overall. Monika Dukarska and Aileen Crowely won their C final of the equivalent women’s event to place 13th , as did Denise Walsh and Aoife Casey in the C final of the lightweight women’s doubles.
Meanwhile lightweight world champions Shane O’Driscoll and Mark O’Donovan finishing 16th in the heavyweight men’s pairs. The demise of the lightweight sweep events from the Olympic programme formed the duo to move up a class, where they are racing men at last 10kg a man heavier, with predictable results so far.
Ross gaffe dominates on social media
There were red faces at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport following Sanita Puspure’s win yesterday morning in Bulgaria — a press statement issued on behalf of Minister Shane Ross addressed the new world champion by the name “Dominant Puspure”.
The title of the statement read: “Ministers congratulate Dominant on her assured dominance which led to long deserved gold”, while a congratulatory message attributed to Ross said: “Today we saw a performance of great tenacity and assurance as Dominant Puspure dominated her rivals in a brilliant single sculls final.
Puspure has long deserved this gold. The celebrations in Cork will be mighty tonight and rightly so!”
A statement from Shane Ross, congratulating Sanita Puspure on her success at the Rowing World Championships. RTE’s headline refers to “Dominant Puspure” and Ross (or his ghostwriter) apparently thinks that’s her ACTUAL NAME pic.twitter.com/LnDabZGQrq— Gavan Reilly (@gavreilly) September 16, 2018
The gaffe, which attracting widespread hilarity on social media, seemed to stem from RTÉ’s reporting of the win, its headline reading: “Dominant Puspure powers to world rowing gold for Ireland.”
The department later corrected the error in a statement congratulating the O’Donovan brothers and Puspure for their championship golds. A spokesperson for Minister Ross said he hadn’t been shown the original, erroneous statement.