Friday 23 August 2019

Late bloomer Puspure could secure Ireland's first female Olympic rowing medal

Sanita Puspure. Photo: Sportsfile
Sanita Puspure. Photo: Sportsfile

Seán McGoldrick

Ireland's prospects of securing a first ever female Olympic medal in rowing has been boosted by the late blossoming of Sanita Puspure into a world-class oarswoman. Just three years ago the Latvian-born sculler looked on the point of quitting. As she reflected on her exit from the Rio Olympics she was in tears.

After finishing second in her heat to comfortably advance, she found herself in the same quarter-final as the eventual gold medallist, Kim Brennan from Australia and the Chinese rower Duan Jingli, who went home with a bronze.

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Puspure needed to finish third to advance but missed out by 0.55 of a second. "I just felt everything was against me, even though I had finished second in my heat," she says.

By the end of the Games though, she had come to terms with her disappointment. She won the C final, leaving her ranked 13th overall. Any thoughts of quitting were put on hold.

Within two years she was world champion. She is now the current World and European champion, although the true worth of her recent successes will probably only emerge at this year's world championships in Sarasota, Florida, in September.

While the Olympic champion Kim Brennan has retired, all the other top-ranked single scullers are likely to be there as the first nine finishers will qualify for the Tokyo Games. Newly appointed as a brand ambassador for Kinetica, Puspure's career has been a series of happy coincidences. She grew up in Riga. During PE class one day the teacher sought 12 volunteers for a new project.

"The teacher ended up picking all my friends so then I decided I wanted to be involved, even though I thought it was for kayaking rather than rowing," recalls the 37-year-old.

She represented her native country at the world junior rowing championships and later won a bronze medal at world under 23 level. Ultimately life intervened. Together with her husband Kaspar, Sanita came to Ireland in 2006 when she was 24. "We had no kids at the time and we decided to travel abroad for a bit of adventure. Actually we were planning to go to the UK but in the end we opted for Ireland because I had an uncle here who offered us accommodation."

Initially, rowing wasn't on the agenda as Sanita gave birth to her first child Patrick. She was pregnant with her daughter Daniela when the family decided to visit Dublin Zoo one afternoon.

"We missed the turn for the zoo and ended up driving along the road where all the rowing clubs are located. Until then I didn't know where the rowing took place in Ireland."

Sanita joined Commercial Rowing Club soon afterwards. In 2011 Puspure became an Irish citizen and was cleared to row for her adopted country. The family moved to Ballincollig on the outskirts of Cork city to enable her to train alongside other international rowers at the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra. While Sanita pursued her rowing career, her husband went back to college in UCC and he is now a qualified secondary school teacher.

It was a consultation with Sharon Madigan, Head of Performance Nutrition at the Institute of Sport, which ultimately changed the direction of her career in late 2017. Her racing form was poor and she was constantly falling ill. "I started paying more attention to what I was eating. It turned out I wasn't eating enough. Basically I had to up my calorie intake. I was quite sceptical at first because it meant I was putting on a little bit of weight. But I did have more energy.

"I ended up eating four dinners a day rather than one, which is quite difficult because it involved a lot of cooking. Occasionally if you have to go to the chipper you have to go. It is better to have some fuel than none at all. I make sure I eat well and get the main nutrients, but the odd slice of pizza or a few doughnuts won't kill you."

Puspure's plans to compete in a number of continental regattas next month but the next big test comes in September at the world championships where the first priority will be secure a place at the Tokyo Olympics.

But another gold medal wouldn't go astray either.

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