Tuesday 24 October 2017

In pursuit of dream ticket

Sinéad Jennings has switched disciplines in an effort to achieve her last sporting goal, writes John O'Brien

ON the blog she has started to chart her progress towards London, there is a hole that Sinéad Jennings wants desperately to fill. "Mother, athlete, doctor," it says by way of introduction. Mother to eight-month-old Clodagh, rower and cyclist and, like her fiancé and two-time world rowing champion Sam Lynch, a doctor with a burning desire to be the best she can be at all the things she does.

And yet there is one thing she hasn't done. A yawning gap on her sporting résumé that needles her, an itch she needs constantly to scratch. People sometimes consider her history, the places she has been and assume, mistakenly, that she has represented her country on the highest stage. "But I haven't been to the Olympics," she says with a disarming smile. "In a way I feel like a fraud."

A fraud? This fraud has been an elite athlete for close to 20 years, won a bronze medal at her first World Championships, 11 months after dipping an oar in water for the first time, claimed gold when she had another 12 months to grow stronger and develop her technique and has remained in supreme condition and kept her dreams intact despite living in a country that criminally undervalues her achievements.

No matter. She loves the life. Cradling an excited baby in her arms while hatching plans and schemes for the year ahead. Thinking about the seconds she needs to catch up with her team-mates. Or the €10,000 she has to raise to fuel her Olympic dream. Determined to enjoy the journey regardless; more anxious that she leaves nothing behind in her quest than about actually reaching her destination.

Three times the Games have come and passed her by. Sydney came too quickly. Athens passed in a blur. And Beijing? Best to forget about Beijing, perhaps. If she'd have made 2008, she thinks, she might have called it quits and settled down to family life and her career. She says this with no great sense of conviction, though. Maybe the first taste would merely have sharpened her appetite for more.

"Ever since I was no age I wanted to go to the Olympics," she says. "Once or twice I thought it might happen but it didn't work out for one reason or another. I chased it so hard I just find it difficult to let go now. I don't want to let it get the better of me. If I don't make it in the end then grand, but it won't be for want of trying anyway."

As an expression of her desire words won't do, however. Think instead of the tears that cascaded down her cheeks last Monday when Sam dropped her at the ferry terminal, on her way to a training camp in Newport to prepare for the European Championships at the end of the month. A young, doting mother wrenching herself away from her baby for three long, tortuous weeks.

That's how much it means.

* * * * *

Sometimes he gets angry on her behalf. Because Sinéad won't do it herself and, as Sam figures it, somebody has to. It isn't that she is a pushover or that she keeps a life-time of pain bottled up inside, just that she has an extraordinary capacity to channel the hurt and release it from her system, like an in-built human extractor fan. She is like no athlete he has ever known.

Man, it's tough, though. A few years back they bumped into Sonia O'Sullivan at a function and he remembers thinking how cool it was that the country's only two female world champions should come face to face until it dawned on him that O'Sullivan had no idea who Jennings was or what she did. Yet, in all the years he has known her, he has never once seen her get worked up about such things.

"Sinéad never gets bitter," he says. "I've seen her being treated terribly by people and still she'd never say a bad word about them. She doesn't see the point. She hates negativity. Some athletes will get angry and use it as a kind of motivation. She won't do that. Things will upset her at the time but she won't hold onto it. She doesn't bother with stuff she can't control."

Jennings tells of the time she was a member of St Andrews Boat Club in Edinburgh and part of a lightweight novice four looking forward to the Scottish championships. Her coach, Hamish Burrell, insisted she withdraw, however, as he deemed it incompatible with the plans he'd laid out for her. Telling the girls she had to quit was the hardest thing she'd ever had to do. The selfishness of high-performance sport wasn't something that came naturally.

She'd arrived in Edinburgh after completing her degree in pharmacy at the University of Sunderland. She had started rowing on a whim after meeting a group of rowers while on holiday in New Jersey and, although a novice, Burrell saw an athlete who had the potential for greatness. His main athlete, Katharine Grainger, had moved to London and he was on the look-out for another project.

She remembers their first meeting in 1999. "He asked me what do you want to do this year? I said I'd love to win the novice championships. He said, that's it? I said well I might enter the senior championships as well. That's it? If that goes well, maybe I'll enter the Irish championships. He kept pushing and pushing. Maybe I'll go to a World Cup. You don't want to win a medal? What about the Olympics? By the time we'd finished, I was going to win an Olympic medal."

Convincing the Ireland selectors was a different story. The first international regatta of 2000 was in Duisberg and, although she had beaten every other Irish rower at the national trials, they suggested she go back to Scotland and represent her club. The policy in Scotland, though, was that rowers only represented their country so she rolled up in Duisberg and raced under the British flag.

"It was a little bit weird," she says. "I remember looking up at the board and it said Sinéad Jennings GBR. My mum and dad were there and they were shocked. My mum was like, 'oh my God, if you win they're going to play God Save the Queen'. But luckily they only played a fanfare. I'm not sure I'd ever have lived it down."

The British tried to entice her with a generous lottery grant, but she couldn't accept. Instead, she worked hard with Burrell and, less than a year after taking up the sport, she claimed bronze at the 2000 World Championships in Zagreb. Burrell worked out that she'd need to improve by 14 seconds to win gold at Lucerne the following year and, even now, she looks back almost incredulously at how perfectly his plan fell into place.

Inevitably, progress became slower after that. She gave up her job in Edinburgh in 2002 to return home when the national centre was completed in Inniscarra. Burrell followed her as head coach but couldn't settle in Ireland and left after six months. Her woes were compounded by a troublesome neck injury. For the first time in her career, she found herself treading water.

One problem loomed above all others. The lightweight single was her optimum event, but it offered no Olympic outlet. So they paired her with Heather Boyle in an attempt to qualify a woman's double for Athens in 2004. Despite Boyle's struggles to make the weight, they approached the last 100m of the final qualifying race in Lucerne with an Olympic place within their grasp, only to see it snatched away in the dying strokes. Heartbreak.

She tried to banish the memory at the World Championships in Austria where she looked booked for another gold in the lightweight single until she struck a stray buoy with the finishing line in sight and, by the time she'd righted herself, three rivals had swept past to deprive her of even a medal. "When I came back I got a standing ovation," she recalls. "Because they'd seen what happened and were disappointed for me. I just thought, well, at least I'd got my technique back anyway."

Her ambition for Beijing was to try and qualify as a heavyweight single but that brought her into conflict with Harald Jahrling, the tough German who had been brought in as national coach. Jahrling stubbornly insisted on sticking with the double and, even when she believed she had earned the right to row as a single at trials, the selectors changed their minds again while she was recovering from a rib injury. "I'll never forget that phone call," she says. "It was the weekend of Lucerne. I was running in a BUPA race in the Phoenix Park. I was given the option of trying out for the double or else quit rowing. I was told to make a decision. I said, 'well, I'll have to think about it'. I talked to Sam. He said, 'well, you don't want to throw your career away'. I wasn't happy but I went with it."

Alongside Boyle she finished fifth in the 2005 World Championships, the best ever performance by an Irish women's double. But Boyle's weight issues resurfaced and, the following year, she partnered Niamh Ní Cheallachair to a bronze medal at a World Cup race in Poznan. By then it was clear to Jennings that the depth of talent didn't exist in Irish women's rowing to support the idea of an Olympic pair.

She thinks of the energy she wasted fighting a battle she couldn't win. In a similar predicament, Seán Jacob had taken the nuclear step of seeking a High Court injunction to force the Union to send him to the final Olympic qualifier in Poland. He lost and it was the end of her own waning hopes too. She went to the World Championships in Austria and raced brilliantly to finish second, knowing a second gold medal was within her compass.

"I had a great race but I'd wasted so much mental energy trying to get to the qualifiers. I know I couldn't have done much more on the day. But all that time I wasted on phone calls and fighting my case, if only I'd been able to put it into my training. I lost the final by so little it had to have made a difference."

* * * * *

AS it turned out, rowing's loss was cycling's gain. Cycling Ireland had first approached her after the 2008 Olympics and spoke of their plans for London. They were looking for proven athletes in other sports to partake in a 'talent transfer' scheme and rowing was a good recruiting ground. The breadth of their ambition impressed her. And, being honest, cycling offered a more plausible route to fulfilling her Olympic dream.

Not that it was entirely a new departure. When she was 11 her father Michael, consumed by Stephen Roche's Tour de France victory, had arrived home wielding a bicycle and, together, they pedalled the roads of Donegal, honing their competitive edge in charity races and fun excursions that turned into private duels. At school, she became an accomplished triathlete, good enough to finish 15th in the European Junior Championships, only let down by her poor freestyle swimming technique.

In time rowing would claim her, but it was no great penance to return to cycling. She loves the set-up. While she was away giving birth, Cycling Ireland lost its high-performance director and a huge slice of its funding and the women's track pursuit team now exists outside the system, part of pro-team Cunga, but she likes it that way anyway. More freedom to do things their own way.

At the start eight girls signed up and now they are three: Jennings, Ciara Horne and another rower, Caroline Ryan. Ireland doesn't have a rich history of producing great track cyclists, but that spurs her on too. They have the European Championships, four World Cups and the World Championships next April to make the cut and she figures they'll need a top six finish in all of them to nail an Olympic spot.

Tough but not impossible. "It's realistic," she says. "Our big weakness is the fact that there's just three of us. You need three to race. So we need to be very careful about getting sick or injured. There's no margin for error. But it's only a short season, so hopefully we'll be able to keep it all together."

A short season, perhaps, but time away from Clodagh will feel like an eternity. Holland this month. Kazakhstan next month. Colombia in December. Beijing in January. London in February. The World Championships in Melbourne in April. Marrying Sam on New Year's Eve would have broken the season up nicely, but that plan has been shelved now, sacrificed for the short-term dream of getting to London.

She copes. A two-year career break helps and the support of Sam and her family is incalculable. She has spoken to other athletes who have given birth and they told her it would take up to nine months for her form to return and a year before the anticipated improvement kicked in. Every day she feels the strength returning to her legs and the power she has been producing on the cranks bears the truth of their words.

At the national track championships two weeks ago, she trailed Ryan and Horne by five seconds in the critical 3k time-trial. That meant that they had improved while she'd been away and that she'd have to work even harder to catch up. Perfect. "It makes a nice change," she says. "In rowing it was always finding somebody up to it, worrying about what they were doing. Here it's up to me to get there."

She remembers the words Burrell used to say to her when they were out on the water, pushing her to adopt an attitude that was commensurate with her talent.

"No excuses," he'd say. "It's all in your own hands." Different sport, same principle. Just how Sinéad Jennings has always wanted it.

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