While Paul and Gary got a fantastic result it was completely down to the lads themselves. It wasn’t down to a system so that success wasn’t repeatable.
I finished with rowing after the 2000 Olympics and only came back into the sport four years ago. Myself and Mike Heskin (head of sport at NUIG) were initially invited onto the board of Rowing Ireland as directors and then to contribute to High Performance where, to be honest, there were huge issues after Rio.
We’d only a couple of Olympic-class athletes — Sanita and the men’s lightweight double — and there were moves to get lightweights out of the Games. So we had to focus on heavyweight rowing, something Irish rowing had never done before.
We said we’d start from scratch, build up a heavyweight men’s and women’s programme, appointed Antonio Maurogiovanni as our new high-performance director and gave Dominic (Casey) the lightweight programme and they have worked really well as a team since then.
Given this was a huge cultural shift, things didn’t run smoothly from the outset.
People weren’t initially happy with Antonio.
The rowers didn’t like his style at first and said ‘we want rid of him’. They wrote a letter to the board which was handed straight to me because it was my decision to appoint him. I sat down with them to find out their issues but ultimately said ‘look, this is the plan and we’re going with it.’
This was about changing our culture.
Antonio was actually coached by Thor Nilsen when he was in an Italian Olympic eight. Dominic was also greatly influenced by Thor (when he was our national coach) so they’re cut from the same cloth.
Every training session is worked off world best times.
Even if you’re working ‘low rate’, you row hard and everything is measured. It’s very tough training and that’s what caused the initial reaction.
But I knew we were doing the right thing. Antonio knows you’ve got to train hard but he’s also 100% for the athletes. He can see their vulnerability and wants to protect them, and he’s got results. We now have heavyweight men’s and women’s boats that win medals.
Most athletes get slower through a race and then try and put in a faster split to finish.
What Paul and Fintan do is they row the same splits (pace) the whole way. It’s not that they get faster and faster, it’s that everyone else gets slower.
No one in the world likes racing Irish crews now because this is the system. They go at a certain tempo and maintain it the whole way. Gone are the days when an Irish boat was regarded as ‘soft’.
Paul is one of the best rowers in the world and mentored Fintan brilliantly and for Fintan to come into that boat and take the place of an Olympic silver medallist is immense.
To see them become Olympic champions was fantastic but, for me winning a women’s heavyweight Olympic medal in three and a half years is the most amazing thing.
They all saw how hard Sanita (coached by David McGowan) trained. When she won two World and European titles back-to-back they thought, ‘I could do that’. I loved how they raced, even before Tokyo.
Their whole group has a really great attitude, they have a great buzz about them. They went through a tough phase too when hard selection decisions were made but they got on with it.
There’s a really great culture there now, right down to U23s and Juniors.
The National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra is also a factor. It’s an environment where they train and live together and it’s built a culture and a belief now that they can be world champions.
We’re now in a situation where any Irish crew goes on the water thinking they’re the best in the world. That kind of assurance is not generated by emotion or the country supporting you. That’s great but real self-confidence is built by hard work, great culture,and results.
I was just so happy for the lightweight lads but my head also went back to Gary and I felt so low for Sanita.
All our female rowers use her as their benchmark. When they saw they were close to her in training they went ‘we must be good!’ She has led that whole group. She has been the beacon for all of them and whatever she decides to do next we will support her.
Paul and Gary broke an Olympic barrier for us, they created that pathway and self-belief for Irish rowers and so has Sanita.
- Neville Maxwell finished fourth, in a lightweight four, at the 1996 Olympics. He is now chair of Rowing Ireland’s High-Performance Committee.