Renewed self-belief now driving Puspure to new heights

Sister’s sad passing reinforced rower’s determination to defend World Championship gold

"I actually didn't have any injuries," says Sanita Puspure. The rims of her eyes reddening, a second World Championship gold medal is thrown on the table. Today there is not enough left in the tank to pretend to support the invented summer theme of an injury.

The previous night she had flown back from Austria after defending her single sculls world crown. Arrived in Dublin to find her car wouldn't start. Cork was her destination. That night she made it to her own bed in Ballincollig then left at 5.00am to be back in Dublin.

Her low wattage today is a combination of things. The hangover of World Championship competition, a lack of sleep and the compound interest she is paying after a summer’s accommodation of tragedy and despair.

Her 'injury' was priceless time spent in Latvia with her sister Inese, who was living her final days with cancer. She died earlier this year. The 'injury' was an invention to give her space and time and to find peace in the changing world in which she found herself living. She didn't want to have to explain it all. 'Injury' was chosen as an innocent solution.


It must have been that harsh training we started two years ago that really kind of gave the confidence

“That [injury] was made up,” she says. “After the Europeans, I went over to see my sister who has been battling with cancer since 2017. She was getting worse rapidly so I went over for a few days and then I was home for a little bit. And then I was in Latvia for three weeks and she passed away the same week the World Cup was on.

“It was scary because I had very mixed emotions. I thought I should be at home training but at the same time, I wanted to spend some quality time with my sister because I knew she was going to pass away soon.

“It was really hard being so conflicted within myself and not knowing what to do. Because of that, the medal has very high value. We just needed something nice to happen.”

Conflict has been a feature of Puspure’s competitive life. Until last year’s first World Championship win in Bulgaria, she was seen as the perennial underachiever. Put Sanita in a good position and she would flunk it. She could win events but found ways not to.

She doubted herself when a streak of arrogance was required. She questioned herself when the answers were on the tip of her tongue. At 36-years-old it finally came together in 2018 over 2000 metres at the Regatta Venue in Plovdiv.

“Yeah, I think a bit of a lack of self-belief, definitely. My husband believed I could be great 10 years ago, when I just went back to training [after children]. I was like ‘what are you talking about?’

Great physiology

“I suppose I’m very lucky that I have great physiology; my body reacts very well to training and I have really good VO2 Max – if that says anything. Yeah, I’ve always had really good numbers [in the lab]. Always looked encouraging. I suppose the tough training, probably, was missing. And technical improvement as well.

“It must have been that harsh training we started two years ago that really kind of gave the confidence – ‘oh yeah, I can actually go another level’. I think I row much better now than I did, let’s say, five years ago.

“Like I find [I have] a more efficient way to move the boat, which gives you a second every 500 (metres), which is four seconds over the 2,000 metres, which is a massive margin. I wasn’t far off all the time. I was missing out on medals by, like, half a second. I just needed that kick up the backside, I suppose.”

The back-up win takes her into an even bigger pressure zone. Puspure will be favourite for the Olympic Games gold medal in 10 months’time. She, along with Gary O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy in the lightweight double sculls, are two Irish boats with an increasing psychological freight of gold. Gymnast Rhys McClenaghan is another prospect and Rory McIlroy in golf. Then the boxers. Always the boxers.

I used to get ill quite a lot while training whereas now I occasionally get a head cold. The training is way more consistent

There is also her recognition of her place in the world order as the female figurehead. It has also given the sport in Ireland a broader reach and interest and, they hope, she is a stimulus for a whole new cadre of women scullers.

The recent World Championships were Ireland’s most successful ever with four boats qualified for Tokyo and the potential for one more next spring.

She laughs. “I know! Target on my back now.

“Yeah. It’s very exciting to go into the next 12 months as being favourite to win an Olympic medal. I’ve never been in that position before. Let’s say three years ago, if I go to Tokyo [I would have hoped] to win a medal. But I wasn’t winning medals at that stage. Yet.

“So, it was like, how am I going to do this? It was just train, month by month, day by day. But now, I know what tools I need to do it.”

She will be 39-years-old come Tokyo. But maybe for the first time she finds herself in a network that addresses all her needs. The diet is important because it prevents her from becoming sick. Less down time is more up time to improve technique, get stronger. The sports psychologist reinforces how powerful she is on the water. Each piece is not just a fix in itself but reaches into other areas. They give her license and reasons to believe she is the best in the world.

Massive difference

At the European Championships in Lucerne three months ago, she won gold by .86 of a second. Her tactics were new. She went out and won the first 1000 metres and held on for the second. It worked. Now she knows she can do that.

At the recent World Championships, New Zealand's Emma Twigg took off leaving Puspure chasing. But the 500m splits for the first 1000 metres were off world record times. She knew she had reserves. She knew she could do a faster second 1000 metres. That worked too as she caught Twigg and won.

“In the new programme we have a really good nutritionist Sharon Madigan working with us, making sure we’re fuelling properly for the loads we’re doing. That’s made a massive difference,” she explains.

“I used to get ill quite a lot while training whereas now I occasionally get a head cold. The training is way more consistent. For a normal human being it’s fine. You just get over it. For an athlete, it throws you off. You don’t feel well so you have to cut down on your training and you might miss five days out of a really good training block. It’s gonna cost you a little bit.

“That was a massive thing we changed last year. We kept the same principles of you eat as much as you need to do training sessions the next day. I was always a bit like that. Our immunity is down most of the time anyway because we work so hard and don’t get to recover much. It’s easy to tip over.”

Today she is an ambassador for the recruitment company Indeed. She says she is chronically tired, needs sleep.

When does Tokyo begin, she is asked.

“Two weeks.”

You’ll go away?

“I don’t know yet. Probably will. Just do nothing. Great,” she says.

A summer now over. What a summer it has been.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times