Ireland’s two world champion crews of 2019 are the Afloat Rowers of the Year. Sanita Puspure defended her title in the women’s single sculls, while Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy proved themselves the best lightweight double in the world.
Paul O’Donovan’s fortitude, ambition, self-belief and professionalism make him the best male rower to come out of Ireland and one of the greatest sportsmen. Teamed up with his brother, Gary O’Donovan, he led the country to its first Olympic rowing medal in 2016, and the two went on to win World Championship gold in the lightweight double in 2018.
The year 2019 was different. Gary broke a bone in his wrist early in the year and took months to recover. The competition for the doubles spot with Paul O’Donovan was hot: the picture above shows the winning triallists, Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan just after they crossed the line and secured the coveted gig. They competed in the final World Cup in Rotterdam: in an amazing race with Germany they were beaten for the gold by three hundredths of a second despite having stopped while Paul flipped Fintan’s errant stroke coach back into the boat.
The World Championship final was – astoundingly – even more dramatic. Paul O’Donovan scoffs at those who say his crews start slowly. The statistics generally back him up. But in Linz-Ottensheim, Paul and Fintan were two and a half seconds down on the field (just over a length) at 500 metres. Italy and Germany looked strong and in command ahead of them. Could the men in green come back and still be there at the end? Even knowing the outcome, the video is a thriller. Through the second quarter, the Ireland unit outpaces every other crew; by 1300 metres they have shot into the lead; they build on that advantage to win by the margin by which they were behind 1500 metres before. As Paul and Fintan chatted to media after the race, Italy’s Pietro Ruta – he of the flowing beard – lay sprawled and virtually motionless in the media area. Silver was his, but his crew had yielded to the all-conquering Irish.
The World Championships saw the Ireland women’s pair of Monika Dukarska and Aileen Crowley qualify the boat for the Olympics, the men’s double of Phil Doyle and Ronan Byrne sweep to silver, while Katie O’Brien took the bronze medal in the PR2 pararowing final.
Sanita Puspure topped it all. A year in which her competition was curtailed as she spent time with her dying sister Inese became a year in which she showed what a wonderful, inspiring, athlete she can be. The women’s single sculls at the World Championships might well have been all about the comeback story of New Zealand’s Emma Twigg. Self-exiled in order to study, she had paid the price of falling away from competition. Fourth at the Olympic Games in 2016, she roared back in 2019 to win the World Cup regattas in Poznan, Poland and Rotterdam. In the World Championships semi-final, Twigg hung on to Puspure and took second; in the final she blasted out into the lead and held it till the final quarter, only to see Puspure flash past to win well. For Puspure it had been four races, four wins, four demonstrations of her command.
Sanita Puspure, Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy are the Afloat Rowers of the Year 2019.
Rower of the Year awards: The judging panel is made up of Liam Gorman, rowing correspondent of The Irish Times and David O'Brien, Editor of Afloat magazine. Monthly awards for achievements during the year 2020 will appear on afloat.ie. Keep a monthly eye on progress and watch our champions list grow.