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'Tourists randomly started arriving at the club just to see it... it's a bit mad'

While Denise Walsh wants to replicate the success of her team-mates, she’s happy to remain under the radar.

Denise Walsh (IRL) LW1x Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS WASN’T required to make Denise Walsh a recognisable face around Skibbereen. She was the postman’s daughter long before she became a medal winner at the European Championships.

The 25-year-old is stopped to discuss her exploits in the boat slightly more often around the West Cork town these days, but her life certainly hasn’t changed to the same extent that it has for four of her male colleagues at Skibbereen Rowing Club.

Walsh wants to match the achievements of Shane O’Driscoll, Mark O’Donovan and the O’Donovan brothers, Paul and Gary. Should it happen, she’ll be satisfied to savour it in the shadows while the nation laps up the quartet’s latest quips.

“My dad knows everyone because he’s the postman, so people all probably knew me from him before I ever rowed,” Walsh says of the reaction to her success this year from the natives in Skibb, which has a population of roughly 2,500.

“People do come up and say ‘well done’ and stuff like that, which is obviously nice. But I’m not really good with those situations and I’m really bad with remembering names too.

“People are really encouraging, though. Mom and dad get loads of good wishes before competitions and that’s a really good thing. I’m not the best when it comes to that side of it but I am very thankful for the support I get.”

Team Ireland Source: Mummycooks/INPHO

Unlike her team-mates, Walsh finds it difficult to envisage herself at the centre of advertising campaigns or on Graham Norton’s couch: “Oh, yeah! I wouldn’t know what to do with stuff like that. There’s a lot of travelling involved in that side of things as well.

“To give you an example, I have a bit of a cold at the moment so I’d hate to have to go some event or whatever now instead of just focusing on recovering and training. That wouldn’t be ideal for me at all.

“The lads are actually going away soon for three months just so they can focus solely on training. I’d say it is disruptive, although they’re well used to it and they seem to manage it well. I’m glad it’s not something I have to consider.”

The achievements of Paul and Gary O’Donovan in 2016 put Skibbereen Rowing Club in the spotlight. After winning gold at the European Championships and silver at the Olympics in the lightweight doubles, Paul added a World Championship gold to their medal haul with victory in the single sculls in Rotterdam.

In 2017, casual observers discovered that there was more to the club on the banks of the River Ilen than just the O’Donovan brothers. At the European Championships, Shane O’Driscoll, Mark O’Donovan and Denise Walsh became the club’s latest major international medallists.

There was even more to come for the Skibb squad at the World Championships in September, but in the meantime the clubhouse threatened to join Mizen Head, Garnish Island and the Baltimore Beacon as one of West Cork’s most popular attractions.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 09.36.44 Source: Skibbereen Rowing Club

“Tourists randomly started arriving at the club just to see it,” Denise Walsh explains. “It’s a bit mad. Loads of Americans started calling down during the summer. We didn’t know how to react to these people because the club isn’t anything impressive to look at.

“All of a sudden then you start to look at it from someone else’s point of view and you’re like, ‘Ah, it’s very dirty there, we better clean the place up’. The people who come down to see the place all seem impressed by it but to us it’s just the club, the same as it’s always been.”

That club first came into Denise Walsh’s life when she started rowing on Sunday mornings at the age of 13. When he’s not delivering for An Post, her father Tony is the club chairman — a role he also fills for the local soccer club.

With 17 national titles, she’s been rowing for Ireland at various levels since 2010. Nowadays, Walsh’s time revolves around competing with the world’s best, while also helping to steer the ‘Get Going, Get Rowing’ schools programme in West Cork – a scheme funded by Sport Ireland with a view to aiding the growth of the sport among kids.

A turning point for Walsh came in May of this year. Three weeks after finishing second at a World Cup event in Belgrade, she won a silver medal at the European Championships in Racice. After a conservative start, she produced a trademark Skibbereen finish in the second 1,000 metres to reach the podium.

“I don’t know why, but we just like sprinting. The lads are famous for their finishes as well. Maybe it’s the way we train in Skibb. We’re always really competitive towards the end, digging deep to beat the other boat,” Walsh explains.

Denise Walsh on her way to winning the semi-final Source: Detlev Seyb/INPHO

“We’re so used to that, that we don’t even think about it in a race. And that’s my favourite part of the race — going for the sprint. It’s probably weird because after the first 500 metres you’re thinking, ‘Jesus, I’m only a quarter of the way there’.

“That’s mentally hard, staying with it towards the middle. The last bit, when you’re just going for it, is the fun part. Sometimes it’s hard because you’re wondering if you’re too tired to go — if you have enough to go for it. On that day, I went and I didn’t hold back a single percent.”

Walsh sought another strong showing at September’s World Championships in Florida, where the early signs were promising. She was victorious in her heat and semi-final to secure a place in the decider against boats from South Africa, Netherlands, USA, Switzerland and Sweden.

In hindsight, she believes she may have paid the price taking a full-tilt approach to winning her semi-final when a top-three finish would have been sufficient. A flat performance, in her own estimation, left her in sixth place. When Walsh tried to dig as deep as she had done in Racice, the tank was empty. The fun part never materialised.

“My heat went really well, I had two days off, and then I went really aggressive in the semi-final,” she recalls. “I think I dug too deep, which was good because I won it, but I expended way too much energy doing that. I wasn’t strategic. I raced the semi like it was the final, which I shouldn’t have done, especially with the final just 24 hours later.

“It just wasn’t in my legs in the final. When I tried to make a push it just didn’t really happen. You know sometimes when the harder you try to do something, the worse it makes it? That’s what it felt like. I was really, really trying but I wasn’t getting anywhere for it. It was a total slog.”

Denise Walsh after finishing sixth Source: Detlev Seyb/INPHO

The result was as a bitter pill to swallow, particularly in the context of events within the previous hour at Benderson Park in Sarasota. When she took to the water in the women’s lightweight sculls final, Paul O’Donovan, Shane O’Driscoll and Mark O’Donovan were all ready to receive world championship gold medals after their respective victories.

“It does definitely make it harder when the lads have been so successful because you want that kind of buzz as well,” Walsh admits. “The lads are all very supportive — and we don’t even talk about it that much because it’s just a given that we’ll back each other that way.

“We all train as a group so you don’t want to feel like the person letting the team down. We always used to win so much together at national level when we were younger, so you want to bring that on to a bigger stage.”

In spite of the disappointment that came from her first World Championship final, Denise Walsh is reflecting on 2017 as a significant step in the right direction. And while there’ll be many steps to take in the meantime, ultimately it’s all geared towards Tokyo 2020.

“If I see this as a four-year project — which it basically is — then this was definitely a good year overall. I felt much stronger, both mentally and in terms of my rowing,” says Walsh, whose best international showing in 2016 was fourth place at the European Championships.

“If you told me at the start of the year that I’d be in the A final at the Worlds, I’d have been absolutely over the moon. But you’re in it to win it so you’re always going to be disappointed when it doesn’t go your way.”

Denise Walsh celebrates winning silver Source: Srdjan Stevanovic/INPHO

Denise Walsh’s name is more familiar to the Irish sporting public now than it was this time last year, although a European Championship medallist in any code from this country might ordinarily have received more attention than she has. Given the overall extent of Skibbereen Rowing Club’s success, her achievements have been somewhat overshadowed.

The lightweight single, the event in which she has excelled in 2017, isn’t on the Olympic schedule. She therefore has double vision for 2020. As Kieran McCarthy of The Corkman newspaper recently recalled, Walsh was handing out refreshments when the national media invaded Skibbereen Rowing Club in August of last year for Paul and Gary O’Donovan’s victorious homecoming from Rio de Janeiro.

The pain of missing out on the 2016 Olympics is still fresh enough in the memory to keep her motivated for Tokyo. Walsh seemed on course to partner Claire Lambe as Ireland’s lightweight double, but the other place in the boat was ultimately given to the returning Sinead Jennings.

“That’s not a position I want to be in again,” she insists. “I don’t really know how to describe how that felt. When I see what the boys did in Rio, that’s something I really want. And I know I can do it. I just have to focus on myself. If I shift my focus onto other people then it won’t happen.”

Walsh’s current form in the single scull suggests that the only uncertainty regarding Tokyo will relate to who will partner her in the boat. But a lot can change between now and then, and experience has taught her to take nothing for granted in her bid to create more memorable Olympic moments for club and country.

If she can avoid the likes of Graham Norton along the way, that’ll be an added bonus.

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