The National Rowing Centre was tranquil as the water on sun-kissed Inniscarra Lake yesterday with Ireland’s top rowers putting on a united front to launch the international regatta season and kickstart new Rowing Ireland chief executive Michelle McElligott Carpenter’s reign.
Nourishing a golden era of Irish rowing with limited funding is chief among the Limerick woman’s challenges, but a steady flow of success has belied a recent undercurrent of disquiet among the sport’s top performers.
There have been grumbles about funding and the sourcing of equipment while the departures of high performance director Morten Espersen and heavyweight coach Sean Casey in recent times didn’t meet universal approval.
And last November, the sport’s star names communicated their dissatisfaction with the methods of new high performance director Antonio Maurogiovanni, who is said to have have been eager to tweak a successful formula faster than some liked.
But yesterday at the National Rowing Centre in Cork, the high performance group spokesperson, Olympic silver medalist Paul O’Donovan, was keen to heal any wounds ahead of the first World Cup event of the season.
Italian Maurogiovanni too was on hand to put those initial concerns down to teething problems and a certain amount of culture shock.
“I think it’s always part of the process when someone comes in with new ideas and we need time to know each other. I think that was quite normal. I think it was part of the process and I think we have the kind of maturity to understand that if we work together we can make this country stronger.”
And the new CEO, who took over earlier this month after Hamish Adams left for Athletics Ireland, is determined to keep the stroke-rate synchronised between athletes and coaches.
A member of the Irish team between 1988 and 1993, she insists there are no bridges left to build with the current internationals.
“It’s been done already, you can see that today. The guys know me for years. A lot of them I’d have managed. I sat down with them all two weeks ago and immediately there’s a trust there. They’ll chat with me.
“If there’s problem and there is always going to be problems, we’ll talk about it and sort it out.”
The first selection of the season contained now familiar names. As well as Paul and Gary O’Donovan, World Champions Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll will race for the first time in Europe as heavyweights in the men’s pair.
European silver medalist Denise Walsh is joined by Margaret Cremen in a lightweight women’s double scull with the longer-term view of qualifying a boat for Tokyo. Sanita Puspure will row the women’s single scull, with Emily Hegarty and Aifric Keogh in the women’s pair and Monika Dukarska and Aileen Crowley in a women’s double scull.
Most were in Cork yesterday and that strong representation of women is a source of great pride to McElligott Carpenter, the organisation’s first female CEO and one of the first female rowing members of Shannon Rowing Club.
“Back then, of the six rowing clubs in Limerick, only one took women. Shannon were the second. There were four others in Limerick in 1988 that didn’t accept women.
With lightweight rowing having its representation eroded at Olympic level, Maurogiovanni must develop a heavyweight programme that can rival Ireland’s success at the lighter grades.
Yesterday he announced a training squad of of heavyweight athletes who will be based at the Rowing Centre in the coming months before competing at the third World Cup event in Lucerne in July. But that ambition puts further strain on purse strings.
“We’ve lots of new athletes coming on board. We need to look at them for Paris and beyond. They aren’t receiving funding and it’s hard for them having to move down to Cork,” McElligott Carpenter says.
“If we could get a sponsor to rent a house for the year to support them, it would be amazing. A place came up for rent at the other side of the lake and we were saying it would be perfect.”
She looks enviously at rival organisations such as League of Ireland champions Cork City who can attract talent from around the country by offering those kinds of incentives.
“We’re majorly depending on Sport Ireland funding and Sport Ireland would love to give us more money but they’re depending on government funding.
“I’ll be looking outside the box at how can we bring in more money, not only through sponsorship, through other areas.
“And the capital grants are coming up so we would hope to benefit from that given our success.”
A dream for her reign is another Olympic medal or two to follow the O’Donovans’ breakthrough in Rio.
“The winners in Rio, the French lightweight double, have retired. It’ll be interesting to see where the lads are.
“But look at the amount of medals New Zealand have brought home through focusing on rowing. GB too, they’ve decided to look away from the traditional sports to rowing and cycling and had huge success.
“But we need the support to do that.”
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