Walsh ready to steer her own course

Hav­ing missed out on Rio, Sk­ib­bereen rower has her on the dou­bles boat for Tokyo

The Irish Times - - Sports Thursday - Amy O’Con­nor

Denise Walsh is a lit­tle cau­tious when we meet. The Cork rower is in Dublin hav­ing been an­nounced as one of eight ath­letes to be awarded an IOC Olympic Sol­i­dar­ity Schol­ar­ship to aid with her prepa­ra­tions for Tokyo. She has a day of in­ter­views and roundta­bles ahead of her. In fact, she’ll be on the Six One News that evening talk­ing about what the fund­ing means to her.

She’s eas­ing her­self into the day of press she has ahead of her and when asked her first question, she re­sponds, “Do I just . . . ?” and ges­tures to­wards my phone, which is record­ing our in­ter­view. Just talk, I tell her.

Once she starts talk­ing, there’s no stop­ping her. Like her team-mates from Sk­ib­bereen Row­ing Club, most no­tably the O’Dono­van brothers, Walsh is quick-wit­ted and an­i­mated, a self-pro­fessed chat­ter­box.

“Maybe it’s west Cork,” she posits. “My dad is the post­man at home, too, and he just yaps on to ev­ery­one.”

Walsh started row­ing at the age of 13 hav­ing been in­tro­duced to the sport via a schools row­ing pro­gramme ad­min­is­tered by Sk­ib­bereen Row­ing Club. A six-week stint soon turned into a reg­u­lar pas­time. By the age of 16, she was com­pet­ing se­ri­ously and soon rep­re­sent­ing Ire­land. She com­peted in high-pro­file in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions like the Youth Olympics and Euro­pean U23s be­fore even­tu­ally mak­ing the se­nior team.

She went on to study eco­nom­ics and ge­og­ra­phy in UCC. Upon com­plet­ing her de­gree, she com­mit­ted to row­ing full time and set her sights on be­ing se­lected for Rio 2016. She formed a part­ner­ship with Claire Lambe and the pair worked in tan­dem to get se­lected for the light­weight dou­ble.

In 2015, the duo set up a GoFundMe with the aim of rais­ing money to fund a forth­com­ing train­ing camp.

“Our ul­ti­mate aim is to be se­lected for and then qual­ify for the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016,” they wrote. “We would be mak­ing his­tory as Ire­land’s first fe­male light­weight row­ers at an Olympic Games.”

A few months later, how­ever, Walsh was pipped in the tri­als by Sinéad Lynch, who went on to take her place in the light­weight dou­ble. (Lynch and Lambe went on to qual­ify for Rio and fin­ished sixth in the light­weight dou­ble sculls fi­nal.)

Bit­ter­sweet

Her Olympic dreams were dashed and she was forced to look on as her Sk­ib­bereen club­mates tri­umphed in Rio, all the while wish­ing she was there.

“It was re­ally cool ob­vi­ously, yeah,” she says, speak­ing of see­ing Gary and Paul O’Dono­van win an Olympic sil­ver medal. “I wanted to be there my­self. It re­ally spurs you on.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence may have been bit­ter­sweet, but it has led to Walsh en­joy­ing her most suc­cess­ful year to date.

This sum­mer, she won sil­ver in the light­weight sin­gle at the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships, her first in­ter­na­tional medal. She also reached the fi­nals of the World Row­ing Cham­pi­onships in Florida, an im­pres­sive achieve­ment in and of it­self even if Walsh her­self feels she could have per­formed bet­ter.

“I was dis­ap­pointed with the Worlds. I should have medalled and I just didn’t. It didn’t hap­pen on the day.”

That Walsh would set high stan­dards for her­self and strive for ex­cel­lence should come as no sur­prise. Since last year, Sk­ib­bereen has be­come syn­ony­mous with row­ing, pro­duc­ing Olympic medal­lists in the form of the O’Dono­van brothers and world cham­pi­ons in the shape of Shane O’Driscoll and Mark O’Dono­van.

The club’s coach Dominic Casey, who guided the O’Dono­vans to vic­tory, was appointed to a full-time coach­ing role in Row­ing Ire­land and now over­sees the light­weight pro­gramme. That kind of suc­cess is con­ta­gious, par­tic­u­larly when the club is as cen­tral to your life as Sk­ib­bereen Row­ing Club is to Walsh’s.

“My dad’s the chair­man of Sk­ib­bereen Row­ing Club. My sis­ter rows as well and my mom does the bak­ing and stuff,” she laughs. Out­side of her own row­ing ca­reer, Walsh is ex­tremely hands-on be­hind the scenes. For in­stance, The South­ern Star re­ported this year that Walsh was re­spon­si­ble for or­gan­is­ing Sk­ib­bereen RC’s new club gear, spon­sored by the local Credit Union. A far cry from the task of win­ning medals, per­haps, but one that needs to be done. She also serves as, among other things, the club’s re­gatta sec­re­tary.

Un­der­state­ment

“So we hold the big­gest re­gatta in Ire­land in April of ev­ery year, so I’m re­gatta sec­re­tary for that and I or­gan­ise that. I do all the en­tries for all the events, mem­ber­ships of the club . . .” she ex­plains, be­fore delivering the un­der­state­ment of the cen­tury: “I help out a lot in the club, yeah. I’m quite in­volved.” Ad­di­tion­ally, she works as a com­mu­nity coach with Get Go­ing, Get Row­ing, a Row­ing Ire­land ini­tia­tive aimed at en­cour­ag­ing stu­dents to try their hand at the sport. Be­tween train­ing, work and vol­un­teer­ing with the club, Walsh has a full plate, but you get the sense that she wouldn’t have it any other way, such is her love for the sport and her com­mu­nity. Look­ing ahead to Tokyo, she is hell-bent on not ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a re­peat of Rio. Once again, she is hop­ing to get se­lected for the light­weight dou­ble. (The light­weight sin­gle at which she has ex­celled this year is not an Olympic event.) Only this time, she’s de­ter­mined to en­sure that she’s in charge of her own des­tiny. “I feel like I’m way more mo­ti­vated and fo­cused on my­self. I’m mak­ing sure that I’m the top one in the boat. I’m try­ing to teach as much as I can to the younger girls but I need to look out for my­self too and I think it re­ally worked last year be­cause I was way more en­joy­ing it.

“I was like, ‘I need to be faster and if I’m as fast as I can be, then some­one else will want to be in the dou­ble with me and it won’t be me try­ing to get into the boat.’ I don’t want to be in that po­si­tion.” Most of all, though, she’s look­ing for­ward to es­cap­ing the soli­tude of train­ing by her­self and hav­ing a light­weight dou­bles part­ner to talk to. “I’m very chatty. It was re­ally good for me for the year to train by my­self, but I’m ex­cited to talk to some­one else.” It must be a west Cork thing.

‘‘ I’m very chatty. It was re­ally good for me for the year to train by my­self, but I’m ex­cited to talk to some­one else

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DETLEV SEYB/INPHO

Ire­land’s Denise Walsh after win­ning her sin­gle sculls semi-fi­nal in this year’s world cham­pi­onships in Sara­sota, Florida.

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