It’s maybe a year since Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh, and Emily Hegarty began to gel as a women’s four. Maybe. This morning, they franked a superb run of form by claiming a bronze medal under a burning sun.
It is Ireland’s first podium place of these Games but surely not the last with this very venue likely to see further joy for this world-class rowing operation when Sanita Puspure and the dup of Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy take to the waters in the women’s single sculls and men’s lightweight double sculls respectively.
But that is for later.
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This is the moment to luxuriate in the achievement of a group of women who only really confirmed their collective slot in the boat national trials in March, claimed a silver at the Europeans weeks later, and then booked their places here in Japan with a superb effort at the regatta in Lucerne.
They had already gambled at that point. Logistics demanded that a boat be sent to Tokyo even before Lucerne and they decided that their best boat should be waiting for them if and when they arrived at the big show. It couldn’t have worked out better if they had scripted it themselves.
“We knew we could win a medal, it was just about whether we could pull it off,” Keogh told RTÉ. “We knew every crew in the boat was also capable of winning a medal and it was just about who got down the course as well as they could in position. It was a bit touch and go.
“Throughout the race, I was like, ‘we could be fourth, fifth.’ Eimear makes the strategy calls and I tell us where we are in the field. I was looking out and I was like, ‘Oh god’.
“In my head, we were slipping back but we said to ourselves if that happens we go early and the last 1k we backed ourselves. Everyone else knows out here that in the last K we just start to go and you could kind of hear it, left and right they were like, ‘don’t let them, don’t let them’.”
They came home in 6:20.46 but those weren’t the important numbers. More pertinent was the fact that they crossed the finishing line 1.06 seconds ahead of Team GB in fourth after a storming second-half to the race.
They had started steady but was it slow too? It was impossible to tell if this was part of the plan or just a start they didn’t want but the manner in which they finished behind the runaway pair of the Netherlands and Australia was emphatic.
“We definitely didn’t make it easy,” said Murtagh of a difficult start that mirrored an issue they had when claiming second at those Europeans three months ago, “but Eimear made the call and we just all backed ourselves, backed each other, stayed really loose, and just went for it.”
This is Ireland’s second medal in rowing after the silver claimed by Paul and Gary O’Donovan in the men’s lightweight double in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and the first for a female crew, which was noted by Lambe.
Her older sister Claire had been part of a double sculls crew along with Sinead Lynch that was the first female boat to make an Olympic final when they competed in Brazil five years ago. On the shoulders of giants and all that…
“It’s a bit surreal, to be honest,” said the younger sister. “It’s something for the future and hopefully this will be the first of many and hopefully it gives the young girls coming up now a bit of hope that this is completely possible. If we can do it anyone can.
“I feel like everyone else’s strategy was to put as much distance as possible between us at the start as they could, which they did, but we knew we’re a very aerobic crew so the second K would be our strongest. Even though we were down we knew to back ourselves.”
It is only the nation’s 51st medal across 22 Olympiads. What’s rare is beautiful but this should be just the start here.