Ian Gaughran: 'Rowing with a world champion: will I sink or swim training to race on the water?'
'Pulling like a dog: How a tough rowing challenge will get me from the couch to the regatta'
"Would you fancy getting into a boat and rowing with world champion Sanita Puspure and Olympic hopefuls Aifric Keogh and Monika Dukarska?"
That was the question put to me when Kinetica was being launched as the new main sponsor of Rowing Ireland, as the team gears up for the Olympic Games next summer.
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Despite the fact that the extent of my rowing experience to this point was the bank of machines at my gym, passing up the opportunity to row with legit world-class athletes on the River Liffey for a morning was too good to pass up.
It was an incredible experience and, having spoken to Sanita, Monika, Aifric and Michelle Carpenter, Rowing Ireland's CEO, a seed was planted: what if?
As the team headed off to Lucerne for the European Championships, where Sanita would add another gold to her collection, the wheels were beginning to turn on what had the potential to being a unique challenge to feature in Herald Health.
Instantly bitten by the bug from going hammer and tongs up the Liffey at Neptune Rowing Club from a perch directly behind Sanita, it begged a question: how long would it take for me to be good enough to row in a race — an actual race?
Rowing Ireland's Stephen King liked the sound of it: it would be like a 'couch to 5k', but a 'couch to regatta'.
"When we met at our sponsorship launch with Kinetica, we could see the eagerness to jump in a boat and we were delighted to collaborate on this challenge and help you compete at one of our upcoming regattas," Stephen said. "This will be a great opportunity for Rowing Ireland to showcase the hard work and dedication that goes into rowing to a wider audience.
"Whether it’s someone first getting into a boat or an athlete further along the pathway and competing at an international regatta, every athlete puts in an incredible amount of time and dedication to training throughout the year.
"The support from fellow rowers, coaches, clubs, friends and family is what makes Irish rowing as successful as it has been over the years."
Logistically, the challenge was a go. Eunan Dolan, captain of Neptune Rowing Club, would take on the mantle of being our coach (Stephen and I) and we are very much getting the hang of things — but there would be a couple of rude awakenings from the get-go.
Remember 2016, when Ireland went O’Donovan mad as Cork brothers Gary and Paul took home a silver medal from the Rio Games? The pair becoming household names after their hilarious interviews post-race that suggested they didn’t take themselves too seriously.
Paul told RTE after the Olympic semi-final: "It isn't too complex really. A to B as fast as you can go and hope for the best. Close the eyes and pull like a dog."
"Don’t be fooled," Eunan told us on our first morning of training. "Those boys do an awful lot more than pull like dogs. It is A to B as fast as you can, but there’s plenty of mechanics involved.
"You're going to need the strength of a weightlifter and the poise of a ballerina."
Having neither, help was most definitely required. Enter Westpark Fitness and trainer Prabhat Singh — if I am going to build up to having the strength of a weightlifter, I am going to have to put in the hard yards in the gym, as well as finding my river legs on the boat.
With regards to strength training, Prabhat has broken the workout into two days, focusing on power, endurance and core strength.
Everything burns on the rest days in between sessions, but already the results are showing and the numbers have dropped on my 10km session on the Concept 2 rower in the gym.
What certainly helps is the range of facilities and classes at my disposal in Westpark, including the all-purpose 'Rig Circuit' class, where over 800 calories are burned during an hour-long all-body workout. Ever-evolving, the gym has become a vital part of my training to build up the necessary power to succeed in this challenge, and it is no surprise that membership numbers continue to grow.
Aligned with the work in my strength and conditioning sessions, Eunan has completely changed my rowing stroke on the machines, with a knock-on effect in the boat. Before, it was a vain attempt to pull like said dog.Now, there’s a rhythm to each stroke and mechanics behind it, with great success.
Ultimately, the proof of success will be demonstrated in how the race pans out at the conclusion of the challenge, but there’s so much more to it than winning a race.
Guilty of looking past rowing as a hobby, pastime or a sport, I was stunned as to how enjoyable it was to be out on the Liffey at Islandbridge with just your mind and body controlling a small, lightweight boat — and a very real danger of tipping into the river, being a beginner and all.
As Rowing Ireland CEO Michelle explains, rowing is very much for everyone and she is really pushing to attract newcomers to the sport.
"We want everyone to have the opportunity to get involved," she explains. "Be it at a club level or recreational, rowing is very much for everyone. Be they nine or 89 years old, it is perfect to take up as it’s a non-impact sport and is fantastic for mind and body.
"Me personally, I've been rowing since I was 13 and I call it my yoga these days."
I can very much echo those sentiments as there truly is something so peaceful and rewarding about being out on a fine day with just the sound of your oars stroking through the water; something soothing, despite the burn of your legs, forearms and blistering hands.
Rowing Ireland have a number of initiatives constantly on the go, from their 'Get Going, Get Rowing' scheme in schools, to the new Greenblades project.
Grace Healy will be one of the first to come through the Get Going, Get Rowing programme. The Dominican College, Griffith Avenue student will represent Ireland in the Coupe De La Jeunesse in Italy this summer.
North Dublin wouldn’t be known as a rowing stronghold, not by a long shot, but Grace is evidence of the scheme’s success.
"Grace has worked so hard and is testament to the programme as she will represent Ireland in August — she's the first one from Get Going, Get Rowing," Michelle adds.
"We don’t want rowing to be an elite sport, we want it to be for everyone, from all backgrounds, be they from Moyross in Limerick or Foxrock in Dublin. We're building our community, and through the success of the likes of Gary, Paul and Sanita, we can see such strong growth."
They may be our elite-level performers, but the O’Donovans, Sanita, Monika and Aifric have taken the hard, long road to get to where they are. Aifric provided an insight into what is required at the level she and Monika ply their trade. There is no hiding place in high performance, as she explained: “We’re full-time athletes, we train six days a week and usually have Sunday off, so every morning, we’re at the gym at 7.30am, get warmed up and then we’re out on the boat for two and a half hours.
"For example, we'd have 40 two-minute intervals in a session, where we’d go full-out for those two minutes and have maybe 15 seconds in between. And if you're behind, you're going flat out to catch up, and so the coaches can see that you're working.
"We'd do weights three times a week too, on top of our training. The weight session would be our third session on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, for example. That’s where our nutrition comes in. Calorie-wise, we’d need to take in 4,000 to 5,000 calories per day — it can feel like a bit of a chore. There would be a couple of max-effort sessions per week where there would be some vomiting, but not always."
Aifric rows in a pair with Monika Dukarska, who echoes the former’s sentiments on the sacrifices made to compete at elite level. Trust is crucial when it comes to pairs events, something the pair have in spades.
"Aifric would read the race, as she's behind me. She would make the calls, like 'loose' or 'hands', and my responsibility would be steering and rhythm," says Monika. "Then, she makes the decision when to go. If the race is getting away from us or we need to step on the gas, she makes the call and I trust her and we go."
I haven't quite found the level of race-reading just yet, but it seems certain to become imperative on this journey over the next few months. For now, it’s the basics, rhythm, flow and timing — the rest will come.
"Race day will soon be upon us and Herald Health will be updated regularly until the conclusion."