It’s Thursday morning at the Sea Forest Waterway. Ireland’s first gold medal of these Games is still half an hour away, but there is already a ripple of astonishment swelling through the rowing team’s ranks.
Margaret Cremen and Aoife Casey had exited the main stage when finishing fifth in their double sculls semi-final the day before, but a superb row in the B final 24 hours later would earn them a mention in the programme’s final notes.
Both are still just 22, and it’s less than a year since they claimed gold at the European U23 Championships, but the manner in which they pushed Switzerland all the way in recording an eighth-placed ranking overall prompted excited talk of Paris in 2024.
It said a lot about where Irish rowing finds itself.
The disappointments suffered by Sanita Puspure in the single sculls and the pairing of Philip Doyle and Ronan Byrne in the double sculls had the potential to take some of the shine off the success of Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy.
One medal, even a gold, would have amounted to slim enough pickings.
Casey’s and Cremen’s efforts went some way to offsetting those shortfalls.
The other obvious bulwark to any lingering collective regret was the women’s four of Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh, and Emily Hegarty, which scooped up a bronze.
As with Australia, Irish crews have been training alongside each other in the run-up to the Games, fostering an internal competitiveness and spirit that has fuelled their efforts in Tokyo, but the high-performance unit is not one homogenous community.
The light crews are basically under the care of Dominic Casey, with the heavier guided by the NGB’s high performance director Antonio Maurogiovanni. Giuseppe De Vita also plays a key role with the fours.
The Italians’ role with the women’s four has been total, bringing eight candidates together to find the fastest crew and deciding that the quartet which ultimately won bronze was the combination to bet on as spring closed in.
“So, the process has been long and we usually start from physiological tests and then we swap them into the pairs until we find the right combination,” says De Vita. “Then we try to find the best four.”
Picking the individuals is merely the tip of the pyramid. Honing athletes to a point where they can compete for a seat, let alone an Olympic medal, is a more time-consuming affair and one that demanded everyone stay the course.
That regime covers far more than the fours.
When Maurogiovanni and the others assumed responsibility for the heavy crews, they introduced a training regime that was little short of brutal but one that the lights had been living by for some time. There was consternation in the ranks, but, ultimately, no mutiny.
“When they really believe in what they do and they believe they are going to get a medal in the Olympics, there is not much pushing,” says De Vita.
“They are happy to do it. Mostly these girls have bought into it and train with a consistency that is hard to believe now. This consistency through the years up and down has made this possible.”
Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy, and Gary O’Donovan back in Rio, have moulded the mantra that rowing is a simple enough pursuit that doesn’t need complicating. De Vita takes the opinion that the race is 90% psychological.
Both theories seem to underplay the role played by the nurturing of talent and the framework put in place to allow it bloom.
Whatever the methods, the perception of Irish rowing has changed.
“We could see the (other) coaches who come to respect us, they ask questions,” says De Vita.
“The perception is that we are a strong nation. I really believe in the pipeline this programme has started.”