Tokyo Preview – Part Two
The Women’s Single Sculls [Sanita Puspure]
Sanita Puspure has not had the perfect run-up to the Olympics – but then who would claim they had?
Her training was restricted this season and she missed the European Championships, where Russia’s Hanna Prakatsen took gold with a decisive win. Puspure returned for the World Cup in Lucerne, taking bronze in a race won by Prakatsen, a Russian with no record of international experience in the single who qualified for the Olympics just days before going on to take gold in the Swiss venue.
Kara Kohler, the American who looks in good form this year, took the silver, while Puspure made the podium.
A bronze medal for a woman who had won the previous two World Championships might not seem a good result, but Puspure was positive in the post-race interview, glad to be back on a podium after a tough few months.
And so it comes down to glass half-full or half-empty. On the debit side, the line-up of women’s single scullers is packed with talent, from Canada’s Carling Zeeman, who on top of her game is very fast, to Kohler, the New Zealander Emma Twigg and Austria’s Magdalena Lobnig. Former World Champion Jeannine Gmelin continues to push, but the Swiss finds it hard to get on a podium in such company.
One of these might be the woman to stake her claim just at the right time and take gold in Tokyo.
Puspure’s age (39) and her lack of love for choppy water – quite likely in Tokyo’s saltwater course – can all be brought up as reasons why this Games might not be her time to peak. If the wind and the seas are dreadful spoilsports from the start of the campaign, on Friday, July 23rd, this would not be good.
Or it could go well.
Coming in under the radar might not be a bad way to approach this Games. Lucerne could have been a lot worse. Gmelin, Lobnig and Britain’s Victoria Thornley all followed Sanita in, though the Ireland sculler was not as ready as she would have liked. In this time of flux in the world, Prakatsen is the wild card, but a few good results does not generally mean an Olympic champion has arrived.
Puspure, when on form, can blow away the rest of the field. A good start in her first race is usually a sign that Ireland’s World Champion is on it.
The Women’s Pair [Aileen Crowley, Monika Dukarska]
This might be the least predictable of the 14 rowing events at the Olympic Games.
In Ireland’s case, Monika Dukarska and Aileen Crowley, the crew which qualified the boat at the World Championships in Linz in 2019, is also that which will compete in Tokyo.
The world changed a lot since late summer 2019. For many, 2020 was a lost year. For the openweight women in the Ireland rowing squad, this was certainly not the case.
The women’s four fell short at Linz. The task of finding a four which could qualify while also retaining a good pair occupied the competing women and the management team all the way into the spring of this year, just weeks ahead of the European Championships in Varese.
The four took silver in Varese and then went on to nail a place in Tokyo at the Olympic qualifier. They had already sent their best boat to Japan and are openly talking about targeting a medal at the deferred Olympics.
For Dukarska and Crowley, a bit like the Ireland men’s double, the year was good and not so good. They could only manage sixth in Varese, but then found good form to take a silver medal at the World Cup in Lucerne in May.
And so they go to Tokyo on the back of a good result.
However, basing predictions on the regattas in Varese and Lucerne, in which China was the only major player from outside Europe, would be facile. In the likes of the lightweight men’s double, Europe is the cockpit and other nations have not been competitive in this Olympiad. With the women’s pair, the United States is always a player and New Zealand’s Kerri Growler and Grace Prendergast are the reigning World Champions from 2019. Australia and Canada completed the podium line-up at Linz.
Into this mix, a stirring story – the return to action after five years of Olympic champion Helen Glover of Britain. She partners Polly Swann in a crew which took European gold this year.
And then there are the conditions. Steering can be difficult for pairs: the Sea Forest Waterway with its wind and swell could be a course with a trick or two up its salty sleeve.
For the Ireland pair, it’s a case of get to the final – and then the predictions can be made.
The Men’s Double Sculls [Philip Doyle, Ronan Byrne]
The men’s double not only qualified for Tokyo at the World Championships in 2019 – they did it by grabbing a silver medal.
Ireland crews have become known for being formidably competitive in the final 500 metres. Philip Doyle and Ronan Byrne came within a few strokes of passing China and taking the gold in Linz.
The future looked so bright it might be golden.
And then along came a virus.
Philip Doyle spent much of 2020 in hospitals. Once the Olympic Games was kicked back a year, the logical thing to do for the trainee doctor was to throw himself into his other – very laudable – role in life.
He spent hours each day training, fitting it in around long shifts. He returned to the National Rowing Centre at the end of 2020, trialled for the double in spring, and teamed up again with Byrne at the 2021 European Championships.
The crew’s form was patchy and they finished seventh in Varese. It was not what they hoped for.
Doyle points out that they had finished all the way back in 10th at the Europeans in 2019, but once they found form they were very competitive at the end of the season.
“It takes a while for us to click. For the  Europeans, we just didn’t have that click that we were so used to, because of the time apart.”
He feels sure that the momentum is building again. They produced a good performance at the Lucerne World Cup, and took silver – again just a few strokes behind China.
Since the outstanding Sinkovic brothers, Martin and Valent, have moved out of this boat to the pair, there is no dominant crew. Britain’s John Collins and Graeme Thomas have fallen to the Irish in 2019 and this year, and the Netherlands are also contenders but not certainties for a medal. China have the advantage over Ireland, in that they have beaten them both at the most recent World Cup and the World Championships in 2019.
But if that ‘click’ happens, Doyle and Byrne could be back on a podium.