How Ireland's Olympic medal-winning four came together: A mix of science and gut instinct

The bronze medal won by Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh, and Emily Hegarty was fashioned from a long and ultimately successful search for the perfect combination in that women’s four
How Ireland's Olympic medal-winning four came together: A mix of science and gut instinct

Ireland's Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh, and Emily Hegarty celebrate with their bronze medals. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

All questions tend to be soft pitches when you’ve just won a gold medal.

When Jessica Morrison sat on the stage in the rowing venue’s media centre after yesterday’s win in the final of the women’s four, she was asked just where everything had gone right for an Australian team that had also picked up another gold and two bronze medals to boot on the one day.

The 29-year old smiled and explained how the national rowing programme had been centralised after Rio in 2016 when they had won just three in total; how all the crews now trained together; and how they pushed and dragged one another to bigger and better things. Change the nouns and the accent and it could have passed muster in an Irish context.

Ireland’s 16 rowers have been talking about team spirit and internal dynamics all week and the bronze medal won in that same race by Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh, and Emily Hegarty was fashioned from a long and ultimately successful search for the perfect combination in that women’s four.

Go back to the European Championships in Poland in October of last year and it was Aileen Crowley rather than Hegarty sitting alongside them as they claimed third place in the final. Crowley was on duty in the women’s pair here in Tokyo. Her partner Monika Dukarska was another of the live candidates for the bigger boat.

There was no shortage of talent. Finding the right combination was the key.

Choosing the right mix for an elite crew sounds like a balancing act between science and gut instinct but, of all the possible permutations, none of the boat’s eventual occupants were expecting it to be the one that came in so impressively behind the Australians and the Netherlands at the Sea Forest Waterway yesterday.

“We (first) sat in a boat together on a Saturday in March,” said Keogh when asked when and how the ingredients all came together. “I think they put this combination out the day after our erg tests. We had a few potential line-ups in the four. This actually wasn’t one, at all.

“When we got the text to see if this was the combination for the morning we were all a bit, ‘oh’. The second we sat in it felt really easy? You know? In a good way. We were the first line-up to trial together and we did quite well. I think we’ve been building ever since then.”

Lambe explains their initial surprise in terms that would sail over most heads, explaining how the boat is a buffer rig and needed two stroke siders in the middle. Bottom line is this wasn’t a cocktail they had tried before but it produced a hell of a kick.

They were up and rowing.

The national trials in March confirmed them as the people in possession, a silver at the European Championships followed, and then they booked their place at the Games with a dominant run at the final qualifying regatta in Lucerne in April.

They had found the formula late in the day but no-one had ever panicked.

Lambe knew the abilities of the rowers around her and she trusted that Antonio Mauriovanni, Rowing Ireland’s high-performance director, and Giuseppe De Vita, who had coached her since she was in her late teens in college, would come up with the answer to a question that was more of a tease than a problem.

Looking back now makes it all seem so … seamless.

“We’re in a very intense training programme and an intense environment,” said Keogh who uttered a ‘no comment’ when asked if she was contemplating stepping away after this. “It’s very competitive. Obviously, with that there’s going to be good days and very bad days.

“But usually on the bad days we always pick ourselves up and remind ourselves what we’re rowing for and we just try and push through. We’ve been lucky that it’s paid off for us. Every time we’ve come out, we’ve managed to pull off a performance of some sort.”

Luck and hard work: it’s a good partnership and one that usually goes hand in glove but there’s no doubting that it’s the latter of those that has played the more significant part in bringing them to the pinnacle of their sport.

When Maurogivanni took over he introduced a punishing training programme that had already been adopted by the lightweight branch under Dominic Casey and, after some early doubts and pushback, the entire squad got on board and committed to what one rowing team member described this week as an “insane” level of work.

“See the thing is, you see the results and it’s crazy how much your body can adapt,” Lambe explained. “At the start, going into it, I was sceptical and said, ‘this is too hard, you can’t row well when you’re as tired as you are’ but obviously then when you start to see results, your body adapts. Clearly it works.”

The proof of it all was laid bare this week: with their eye-opening performance in the semi-finals when pushing the Aussies so hard for so long, and then in yesterday’s final when they made light of a difficult start to take stock, adapt, and launch a surging run maybe a minute earlier than planned and pip Team GB on the line.

“It wasn’t our best race but I think we always said we want to be the best on our worst day too,” said Keogh. “I think we pulled it off too.”

The chapter that follows may see them less assured. Olympic medallists are still a rare breed in Ireland. This is Ireland’s first of the Games and a first ever for our female rowers. There was a first glimpse of their newly-earned fame yesterday when ferried from media interview to photoshoot and back again.

It’s been a whirlwind four months. A very different storm awaits them at home.

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