Ireland – The Land of Saints & Scullers

Double Gold – Ireland’s two Federation Medals from Plovdiv. Photo: Michelle Carpenter CEO Rowing Ireland.

20 September 2018

By Greg Denieffe

You wait 56 years for your first Olympic class gold medal to come along at a World Rowing Championships (first held in 1962) and less than 24 hours for your second. Such is life for Team Ireland and its supporters after what could be considered the country’s finest collective performance on the water and it must also be said, off the water. All the competitors were quick to praise the ‘team behind the team’.

The haul of two gold medals – in the women’s single sculls and the men’s lightweight double sculls – is the stuff of dreams (in 2001, it was three gold medals; all of them in non-Olympic events) and supporting those victories were fine performances by the women’s pair who were sixth and the men’s double sculls who were ninth; that’s four crews within the qualification placings for the Tokyo Olympic Games. The women’s double sculls and women’s lightweight double sculls (both 13th) are within striking distance of those qualification places which will be up for grabs in Linz Ottensheim, Austria, at the end of August next year. In addition, the men’s lightweight quad made the A-final, placing fifth and will certainly improve on that whilst keeping the O’Donovan Brothers honest.

Gary and Paul O’Donovan training during the World Rowing Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo: World Rowing.

Of course, it was those two Skibbereen boys who served up that first gold medal in what was a loaded LM2x event. The absence of lightweight sweep rowing in Tokyo has killed the lightweight fours event and sent those lighties with ambitions to be Olympians into the double. Worse is to come for these athletes; for what was once ‘one oar bad, two oars (sculls) good’ could easily become ‘no oars best’ with the over-powerful IOC sticking its oar in (IMO sticking it in where it is not wanted or needed) to World Rowing’s affairs.

Plovdiv produced some amazing racing, some wonderful TV shots and some problems that should not have occurred. The quarter-finals of the LM2x was the craziest racing I’ve seen since the heats of the W1x in Rio 2016. Gary and Paul O’Donovan raced their hearts out in an unfavoured lane to win their quarter-final and paid the price the following day when they could only finish third in their semi-final, a semi-final that provided all three medallists. I wasn’t worried where they came in the semi as long as they qualified because I felt that the two-day rest before the final would see a 100% recovery in time for the only race that really mattered. Apparently, the rowing course at Plovdiv has a micro-climate and using weather forecasters with local knowledge would have flagged up the strange wind pattern that caused lanes five and six to provide seven qualifiers for the semi-finals of the LM2x. Ireland and Belgium were the only two crews to qualify from the other half of the course. Both won medals, split by the high rating Italians. The classy Norwegian double would surely have taken a medal if they did not have to make a late substitution – don’t believe everything that cheeky Paul O’Donovan had to say about Norway’s misfortune in loosing Kristoffer Brun to illness.

Paul’s challenge this year was to get the word ‘buckled’ into an interview.

The Irish double was drawn in lane six for the final; Paul commented ‘you can row hard in any lane’ and row hard they did. Watch a replay of the race here and read the report in The Irish Times here. This win was a big deal, not as big as their silver medal in Rio, which inspired so many to take up the sport and remind every Irish rower what could be achieved by athletes from small nations on a tight budget.

What the O’Donovans have done for men’s rowing in Ireland, Sanita Pušpure has done for women’s. Before racing began, I felt that her gold medal in the single sculls was on the cards, but it was no gimme despite the margin of her victory in the final. Before Sunday’s final, Jeannine Gmelin had last tasted defeat in the Olympic final in 2012. This year, as reigning world champion, she raced all three World Cup Regattas, the European Championships and Henley Royal Regatta. That amounts to 22 straight wins on the international circuit over two years plus her Henley and domestic racing victories. In contrast, Pušpure raced two Cup Regattas in 2018 finishing with silver medals behind Gmelin in both WC I (Seville) by 2½ seconds and WC III (Lucerne) by ¼ second.

As luck would have it, the weather gods caused the fairness committee to redraw the final day’s racing and Pušpure ended up in lane six with Gmelin next to her in lane five. It was another dominant performance by the Irish sculler, who won her heat by 14 seconds, her A/B Semi-final by 7 seconds and the final itself by over 5 seconds. Watch the final here and read how one headline caused a government minister’s gaffe to go viral.

Sanita Pušpure, World Champion ‘This was always the goal, all I wanted was the gold and it’s finally happened.’ Photo: World Rowing.

The USA won the most medals in Plovdiv, 10 in total and in two of those they had a little help from the country formerly known as ‘The Land of Saints & Scholars’.

Andrew Campbell, Jr., picked up a bronze medal in the lightweight men’s single sculls and should he find a partner to make a fast double, he could well find himself in the hunt for a podium finish in Tokyo 2020. Things didn’t look good for Campbell when he discovered that single had been left off the trailer bringing the USA’s boats to Bulgaria from the Empacher factory in Germany. Row2K carried the story of how his quick thinking and friendships formed in Boston saved the day:

‘Pretty much as soon as I got here, Linda [his coach] and I came down to the course and discovered that my single had been left at the factory in Germany,’ he said. ‘Just an oversight loading the trailer, and after a few brief moments of panic we put together that the Irish were coming directly from a training camp, and they’re good friends of ours from past Head of the Charles Regattas.’

It’s sort of a Cambridge Boat Club, Boston Rowing Federation, Irish team mutual fan club that includes women’s single sculler Sanita Pušpure, Gary and Paul O’Donovan, Olympic silver medallist Gevvie Stone, and Campbell.

So, Campbell texted Stone, who called Pušpure, and the fix was in. ‘Linda and I texted Gevvie, and she called Sanita, who just happened to be standing next to Paul, who graciously offered up his single to my cause. He’s rowing the double here and didn’t need a single, but since they were coming here from training camp, he had it available.’

‘It really speaks to the quality of the community and what great men and women are on that Irish team. It’s a great boat, super stiff, exactly the right mold and everything, so it’s feeling pretty good.’

The one event that gets every American rowing fan excited is the eights and after missing out on home waters last year their women set down a marker by taking gold again, making it 12 wins in 13 years. On board was Irish-born Kristine O’Brien, who originates from Clane, County Kildare.

When the Irish rowers make it back to County Cork they will receive the traditional welcome of bonfires and perhaps a few people will get “buckled” celebrating two famous wins. Photo: Skibbereen Credit Union.

Ireland now has 10 world championship gold medals, five of them in the last three years:

1991       LM1x     Niall O’Toole

2001       LM1x     Sam Lynch

2001       LW1x     Sinead Jennings

2001       LM2-      Gearoid Towey & Tony O’Connor

2002       LM1x     Sam Lynch

2016       LM1x     Paul O’Donovan

2017       LM2-      Mark O’Donovan & Shane O’Driscoll

2017       LM1x     Paul O’Donovan

2018       LM2X     Paul O’Donovan & Gary O’Donovan

2018       W1x       Sanita Pušpure

If there are any supporters out there that would like to donate to Rowing Ireland’s high-performance team, please follow the link below:

Greenblades – Let’s row for gold

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct a mistake mentioned in Comment 1 – thank you, Kieran.


  1. Greg, most surprised that you mixed up the years that Niall won the LM1X (1991) and the year we won the three gold (2001)

    • You are on the ball, Kieran. Thanks for pointing out my error which Göran has now corrected.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.