Four lives, four stories, meandering their way along very different paths to the same destination – one few of us outside the cloistered world of Irish rowing had really seen coming. But those inside that tent had long whispered it quietly, conscious not to shout too loud for fear of jinxing it: There was something very special about this Irish women’s four.
Aifric Keogh, Fiona Murtagh, Emily Hegarty, Eimear Lambe – a blend of aspirational youth and expectant experience, the whole being greater than the sum of its individual parts. And now they’re truly great, names that will be etched into the annals of Irish sporting history: the first Irish athletes to stand on the podium at the Tokyo Games, the first Irishwomen ever to win an Olympic medal in rowing – a quartet who didn’t so much go where the path led as venture where there was none, leaving behind a terrifically inspirational trail.
Their names will now sit on that exclusive roll of honour with the best we’ve ever had in this realm: Sonia and Katie, Delany and O’Callaghan, Carruth and McCullough. Keogh, Murtagh, Hegarty and Lambe – names most of us knew very little about before this week, names that have offered up a sporting legacy that will echo in eternity.
Let’s start with Keogh, the eldest among them at 29, a native of Na Forbacha, Galway, and a graduate in food microbiology at UCC. She’s the vault of experience among them, a treasure chest of wisdom and expertise that is delved into when her younger teammates need a little guidance.
It’s 15 years now since she first began competitive rowing, and for several years she’s been part of the high-performance team. Previously part of the Irish women’s double earlier in this Olympic cycle, she finished sixth alongside Hegarty in the 2018 World Championships – the first ever Irish women’s pair to make a world final.
Keogh knew well what the current crew was capable of long before they rocked up to Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo. After missing most of 2019 through illness, she had joined the four later that year ahead of the World Championships where they failed to make a major impact. But they knew they had something, the seeds of a strong outfit that could grow into something special if given the right nourishment.
In 2020, they won bronze at the Europeans (with Aileen Crowley in the quartet, a spot since taken by Hegarty), and then upgraded to silver in 2021. At the Olympic qualification regatta in Lucerne in May, they booked their spot with a convincing win. That was the moment she knew.
“I think we can win a medal at the Olympics,” Keogh told the Row2k website. “I know that’s almost a scary thing to say, given we are qualifying so late, but we have been working towards this qualification for two years now.”
Murtagh had taken a very different path to the Olympic podium. Also a native of Galway, the 26-year-old started rowing in 2009 and studied science at NUIG before heading stateside, making a major impact across the water while competing for Fordham University in New York, netting two victories in the prestigious Head of Charles.
She had been knocking around the top tier of Irish rowing for several years, part of the quad that competed at the 2013 World Junior Championships – the same year she went to Fordham – and making a steady progression to the top tier as a senior.
Lambe’s story is one defined, in many ways, by those who came before her, those who lit the path. The 23-year-old Dubliner is the younger sister of Rio Olympian Claire Lambe, and she began rowing in 2012, earning her first international experience in 2014.
A student of international commerce and German at UCD, a rower who for so long existed in the shadowed slipstream of her sister, but in recent months her achievements brought a spotlight all her own.
“I think she’s getting a bit rats that people are calling her my sister now instead of me being Claire’s,” she laughed the other day in Tokyo.
Lambe had long thought of the Olympics as this faraway ideal, something for people who weren’t her.
“You always think of Usain Bolt and all these amazing superstars,” she said. “But when I saw my sister do it I was like, ‘oh, I know her, she’s normal enough. If she can do it why can’t I? Why can’t anyone?’”
Why can’t anyone? If they were to plaster a motto on the wall at the national centre in Skibbereen, perhaps it should be that, a snippet that encapsulates the mentality of those taking to the water in green this week.
After all the fourth member of the crew, Emily Hegarty, was one of those with the good fortune to grow up in what is, pound for pound, the town that is the most efficient medal factory in world rowing. Hegarty, 22, couldn’t help being aware of the sport’s tradition through her childhood.
She took up the sport in 2009 at the age of just 11, and has long been a talent earmarked for the top level. Between 2013 and 2016 she won 10 national titles. High-performance coaches sat up and took notice, welcoming her into their setup, coaxing her along the tricky path to senior success.
She won silver at the 2019 World U23 Championships and bronze in the women’s pair at the 2020 European U23s. A student in biological sciences at UCC, she split her third year to allow more time to train. The chance she had in Tokyo was a rare one, and Hegarty knew it.
“This might be the only opportunity I get to compete at an Olympics,” she told the Southern Star last year. “I need to make the most of it.”
That’s exactly what she did in recent months, years, exactly what all four of them did – lives that had to be shaped and tweaked to fit a high-performance mould, a rigorous routine of hard graft and ascetic living.
And now it has all paid off: every morning they grimaced through the dawn fog or the cold rain or the freezing winds. Every time they fell off the ergometer drenched in sweat, their muscles contracting, their stomachs churning, with the dizzying fatigue of all that was required.
Every social event they sacrificed, every time they had to say no so they could say yes to this one specific task, to offer their talents to this one specific team for the pride of their country on sport’s grandest stage.
An Olympic bronze medal. Now all of it has been worth it.