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'If I could achieve half of what them boys have achieved I'd be on top of the world'

Rising Carlow rower Jack Keating is aiming for big things.

ROWING HAS BEEN right to the core of Jack Keating’s life for the most part. He’s been involved, and well in truly in the middle of it all, since the age of five.

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Just turned 18 and preparing for his Leaving Cert at the time of our conversation, Keating fondly remembers childhood memories as he rolls back the years.

He didn’t have to look too far for ideas at the time — his father, Jim, had the seed planted in his head from the word go. He himself donned the Ireland singlet on the international stage in 1987, and now his son is following in his footsteps.

“My Dad introduced me to the sport,” Keating smiles as he chats to The42.

“He brought me down and I was always the little lad walking around next to the big lads, looking at the senior rowers and seeing them being successful. I said, ‘I want to do that!’

“He himself rowed as a junior, he only started when he was 16. In his family, it was predominantly football but as he said, nobody would pass him the ball so he changed sports. That’s what really started it off for me, to follow his footsteps.

“I just really enjoyed it, you know, watching it.”

It was all pretty much inevitable. The Carlow town native maps out his route to the clubhouse like a rhyme: walk out of the house, take a right, walk straight for six minutes and you’re there.

Although rowing was always his one true love, he flirted with rugby for a stint, starting out at the age of six. By 10, the oval ball game got the boot though as he pledged his allegiance to the water.

“Rowing just took over then,” he explains.

“With the change in season from rugby to rowing, in that space of six months I said, ‘Nah, I’ll stick to the rowing’. I enjoyed it more, you know, I was more competitive and it could be an individual and a team-based sport. That’s what I enjoyed, that I could also be an individual as well as part of a crew.”

Screen Shot 2018-06-09 at 00.16.17 Source: Cathal Noonan.

By the age of 11, rowing well and truly took off the ground and he had caught the bug and raging hunger evident through his every word today.

“That was when it all kicked off for me,” he continues.

“I was quite lucky, my first event was [an] international regatta in Belgium and for an 11 year-old, that was a big thing. I was quite lucky in that sense, to get to go.”

He pauses slightly to gather his thoughts, his modesty coming to the fore as we both know exactly how it went. Does he remember much from that day?

“Not really, no. I remember winning it anyway, that was it!

“It was quite a big deal for the club. It was the first win of the weekend, it was a two-day event. For the young lad that had only started, who was only rowing four or five months, to come along and to have won his first event and for it to be an international event as well.

“It was a big thing. Mainly we all start off in the likes of Neptune and in Dublin and so on, them types of regattas. One could say I was thrown straight into the deep end!”

Keating chipped away under the radar for some time, but the last few years have been particularly defining. Not just for him on an individual level, but the sport of rowing in Ireland as a whole.

“Sure in my school, nobody knew about rowing until the O’Donovans done well,” he grins.

“I remember after the Olympics, coming into school and the boys turning around going, ‘Who are them boys who were on the television doing rowing?’ Sure that started it all off then and once one person knows, everybody knows.”

He adds, of how influential the Skibbereen contingent have been, and how he draws motivation from there. And almost quietly slips something else into the conversation:

“Oh yeah, yeah. Like, the goal for myself is 2024. If I could achieve what half of them boys have achieved I’d be on top of the world.

“For Paul (O’Donovan) especially there, winning a silver medal at the Olympics, to go on then two weeks later and win gold in the world championships. To be able to do that is phenomenal.

Paul and Gary O'Donovan celebrate with their silver medals Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“The travel and everything is crazy. It’s…. quite a tough endurance sport and you’ve to deal with it quite well.”

As the conversation progresses, his welcome confidence in his own ability shines through more and more. The target is the 2024 Olympics in Paris and he assures that it’s achievable and well within his reach.

“Oh yeah, yeah,” he responds, going on to share stories of how far he’s come in the last year or so alone. Considering his achievements on the international stage, it’s hard to believe that last year was his first time rowing for Ireland.

In May 2017, he competed in the Junior European Championships in Germany in the Junior Men’s Quad alongside a strong, but fresh on the scene, team: Barry O’Flynn from Cork, Matt Dundon from Clonmel and James Quinlan from Limerick, he tells me.

“Like, it’s a totally different story from the usual you head to Cork and go down to the National Trials. You’re competing against the best lads in Europe.

“We done quite well, we got 9th or 10th in Europe. We were quite happy considering it was our first time competing against the likes of Romania and Germany and so on, so forth. That really inspired us to go on to Coupe then.

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“We had a lot of trials leading up to the Europeans and we really felt that if we could stay going with training, we’d do quite well at Coupe.”

The Coupe de la Jeunesse last year was held in Hazelwinkel in Belgium, and the quartet were fortunate enough to then be selected to go.

“I said to the boys before we went down to Cork for training, we said, ‘Right lads, we’re going for a medal,’” Keating continues.

Jack Keating, Rowing Ireland

“We all had the same mentality and we were quite fortunate in the fact that we got the opportunity to do that. It was a big, big thing.

“Barry the previous year had went to Coupe and he didn’t do quite well, he thought he would have done better – he’ll probably shoot me for saying that!

“But we went over and I’ll never forget the feeling of winning the heat and saying to the boys, ‘I think we have this.’ For me, that was a huge, huge feeling.

“To get a medal out of it — we won two golds over the weekend and the overall Ireland team was third on the medal table and we had the smallest entry. For us to be able to do that is phenomenal.”

That success, those experiences and joyous memories are among the many things that drive him on further. Closer and closer to that main goal he’s mentioned.

Like any successful athlete, it’s always onto the next big day, the next big challenge.

The Coupe — which will be held at the National Rowing Centre in Farran Woods, Cork from 27-29 July this year – is brilliant for development and a ‘big, big thing’ for Ireland, he says, but he’s also eyeing the Junior World Championships from 8-15 August.

“Oh yeah. Like, I said to the boys… they were like, ‘What’s for you now?’ and I said, ‘I hope to go to the Junior World Championships’

“Coupe is a big development stage for athletes like me. We’re quite lucky because this then gives a taster of what the competition would be like.

“The boys are kind of relying on me now to go to the Junior Worlds… But I like the pressure, you know!”

He lets his mind wander as he thinks down the line to the summer ahead but can’t let himself go too far with other commitments before then. He’s in the thick of it now, but the Leaving Cert was just around the corner at the time.

Fifteen days, he reminds himself. But it’s not him counting, it’s his Mam, he assures.

Training off the Director of Rowing Ireland Antonio Maurogiovanni’s training programme, he faces an intense regime:

“He does 100% week, 75% week and 50% week, so it varies,” he explains.

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“On the 100% week you’re training twice a day every day, 75%, you’re training 10-12 times a week and then 50% you’re just training seven times a week. It takes its toll.

“When it’s 100% week you’re shattered. You’re studying and then you’re training, then you’re studying, then you’re training again.

“There’s six o’clock starts and then into school. I do a lot of training on the turbo trainer on the bike, and it’s quite loud. When I’m up, the house is up – Mam does be going mad!”

With school and rowing, it’s difficult to juggle everything.

“It’s hard to find the balance alright. Rowing is such a demanding sport,” he agrees.

“For me, it’s not too bad because I have the support at home. If I need anything, they’ll support me with it. If I needed grinds in the morning, my parents will go get me grinds.

“In September I did find it tough. You’re coming back out of the summer season, you’re after having a couple of weeks of rowing and you’re like, ‘Ah, do I want to go back and do this for another year?’ But the other side of it is when you remember how well you’ve done the previous year, you’re like, ‘Ah, I want to go better again’.

“My school Knockbeg College, have been really supportive of me. They’ve given me a lot of help. They’ve supported my academics and my rowing career. We’d predominantly be a GAA school. Rowing is a very different sport but if I required help or a study plan or anything like that, they’ll help me out with it.”

A busy summer ahead so. But his main focus is on one thing, and one thing only.

“Get through the Leaving Cert and then I can concentrate on rowing then!”

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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