After winning back-to-back world rowing titles Sanita Puspure returned home to Ballincollig on Monday to discover that her car, lying idle for five weeks, had a dead battery and wouldn’t start.
Given the magnitude of her personal suffering this summer, such blips will be seen as forever more be little more than molehills in the future.
She won the European title in June and looked as ‘dominant’ as ever when powering down the home straight in Ottensheim, Austria last Sunday to retain her world single sculls title — but behind those victories was a deep family tragedy.
Only yesterday did she open up fully about the tragic circumstances that disrupted her preparations, yet also immeasurably increased the value of what changed just how much her latest global gold means to her.
When she pulled out of her only planned World Cup after Europeans this summer it was reportedly for injury, but Puspure revealed: “Actually, I didn’t have any injuries — that was made up.
“After Europeans, I went over to see my sister (Inese) who has been battling with cancer since 2017. She was getting worse rapidly so I went over for a few days, then came home for a little bit and then was in Latvia for three weeks. She passed away the same week the World Cup was on.”
Puspure struggled deeply with “very mixed emotions”.
“I thought I should be at home training but, at the same time, I wanted to spend some quality time with my sister, because I knew she was going to pass away soon.
“It was really hard being so conflicted and not knowing what to do. Because of that, this medal has a very high value,” she said. “We (her family) just needed something nice to happen.”
Puspure said she didn’t contemplate pulling out of her title defence, because Olympic qualification was also at stake.
“There were times when I thought if I just qualify (for Tokyo 2020) I’ll be fine. But then a few hours later I’d be ‘no I won’t be fine, I don’t want to just qualify. I want to repeat what I did last year or even just get on a podium.’ ”
They say no one but rowers themselves truly understand the physical pain they endure when clocking up distances of over 200km per week on the water.
In between that awful daily vigil in Latvia, Puspure still managed to train, twice daily, on an indoor rowing machine.
She even roped in an old training partner who was coming back after having a baby to keep her company “which she was regretting at times,” she smiled ruefully.
“I didn’t miss too much,” she insisted. “I didn’t train as high-intensity as the rest of the team, but I tried to do the best I could. What suffered the most was probably recovery, because I had none.”
Later she sharpened up for Worlds with Rowing Ireland’s elite three-week training camp in Italy, but the mental toll on her must have been unimaginable.
Constant contact with her sports psychologist Kate Kirby helped, she said, as did getting back training with her team-mates.
“Those three weeks I was away in Latvia I really, really missed them — just someone to do the work with you and also the mental support.
“If you are down, they can say a few words to you, or remind you how it can be, and it’s vice versa. We support each other as much as we can.”
Husband Kaspars was again her rock and he and their children Patrick and Daniela travelled to Austria last weekend to witness her latest and possibly most remarkable victory ever.
Defying such emotional turmoil to win back-to-back world titles so convincingly has confirmed Puspure’s status as the best female sculler in the world right now.
She still constantly battles with self-doubt, but says they disappear once she is on the water.
Was it harder to retain her world title than win her first?
“In a way, yes. You could think: ‘Oh, was it a one-year wonder?’ I did good work over the winter, but mentally it was harder. Everyone is looking at you, you’re the one to beat so you’re like: ‘Oh, stop now’, but that’s what it was. You just try to ignore it as best you can.”
One added bonus was that qualifying spot for Tokyo 2020, giving her 10 months to concentrate totally on the Olympics, a luxury she didn’t have when she qualified much later for her Olympic debut in London and again in Rio.
The 37-year-old won bronze at World Juniors 20 years ago for her native Latvia, but quit the sport for seven years, only returning to it in 2010, four years after moving to Ireland with her family.
European bronze medals in 2014 and 2016 were followed by a fourth at the 2017 World Championships and she attributes her current dominance to Irish rowing’s tough training programme in Inniscarra, especially for the last two years.
She credits nutritionist Sharon Madigan too, who has her eating far more than before.
“She’s making sure we’re fuelling properly for the loads we’re doing. I used to get ill quite a lot while training whereas now I [just] occasionally get a head cold and the training is way more consistent.”
One other possible bonus from her second world title is that she may pick up more financial support ahead of Tokyo, though rowing’s relatively low profile means she hasn’t yet attracted the same sort of commercial spin-offs as other world champions.
She is an ambassador for recruitment company Indeed — who also sponsor the Irish Olympic team — but hasn’t yet got a sponsored vehicle so Kaspars drives the family’s “good car” and she has the back-up.
But, after the personal turmoil and loss of the last two years and especially this summer, that’s the kind of small stuff she will no longer sweat.