WHEN SINEAD JENNINGS, now competing as Sinead Lynch, her married name, takes to the start line at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in Rio this afternoon, it will be the culmination of a lifetime’s work.
Jennings, from Hawthorn Heights in Letterkenny, goes in the lightweight women’s double scull at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Jennings competes with Claire Lamb. It is 16 years now since the Olympic flame first ignited in Jennings’ mind, but the hardships, the tortures and the setbacks go further back still.
Jennings has represented Ireland in triathlon, cycling and rowing. She had her Olympic dreams dashed in rowing previously and for London 2012 she narrowly missed out when attempting to qualify in track cycling.
Her tale is one of a persistence and of a single-mindedness that marks her out as one of the finest athletes this county will ever see.[adrotate group=”38″]
When Teresa Jennings took two of her daughters, Deirdre and Sinead to the old swimming pool on the High Road in Letterkenny – now the site for the construction of the new courthouse – in 1983, the flame began to flicker.
Sinead Jennings was with the Swilly Seals club then, but when the pool closed down for refurbishment the first of her disappointments had been experienced.
The facility was to close for six months for the works to be carried out.
It was 1989 before its doors would re-open.
At Community Games, Jennings won the Letterkenny final in the under-14 50m breaststroke, going on to reach the national semi-final.[adrotate group=”81″]
The following year, fuelled by the sights of her father, Michael, competing on the bike, she gave cycling a go. She won bronze at the first attempt and returned to win a gold medal.
That has been the way with Jennings all through a career that has thrown several roadblocks.
Her first introduction to rowing was when she and a friend, Caragh Kenny, while they were studying in Sunderland, went along to the rowing club believing there to be ‘a chance of meeting other handsome rowers’.
Jennings fell in love – with the sport.
She moved to Scotland in 1997 and won a Novice Championship aged 21, her first big competition.
After coming second at the Home International, held in Cork, she had a conversation with Hamish Burrell, a Scottish selector, that went something like this.[adrotate group=”37″]
“I’d like to win the Novice Championships in Scotland.”
“And that’s it?”
“I might enter the seniors as well.”
“So that’s all you want to do?”
“If I’m going well, I’d like to go to Ireland and do the Irish Championships.”
“I might do the single sculls in the Home Internationals and try to win it.”
“So you don’t want to go for bigger international competitions?”
“I might give the World Cup a go.”
“You don’t want a medal in a World Cup?”
There was a desire and a focus within Jennings that has remained with her throughout her career.
Alison Harrison gave her the loan of £6,000 to get a boat, a German-manufactured Empacher.
She described herself as ‘so embarrassed’ when, at the Irish Trials in Cork in February 2000, she ‘hit buoy after buoy, got the oar stuck and turned the boat 90 degrees’.
And, yet, it would prove a defining day for Jennings.
After a little discussion, the rules were bent and Jennings was allowed compete in the final – which she won with seven seconds to spare.[adrotate group=”46″]
Off she went to Duisburg and won by ten seconds. At a World Cup event in Munich, just three weeks later, she won a silver medal, and returned from Vienna with a silver soon afterwards.
At the World Rowing Championships at Zagreb that August, Jennings won a bronze medal.
In the lightweight men’s singles, Sam Lynch won a silver medal in Zagreb.
The same Sam Lynch rowed for Ireland at the 1996 and 2004 Olympic Games and is the father to Sinead Jennings’ three children, Clodagh, Molly and Hannah.
He’ll be in Rio and will be a vital asset for his wife, who’ll look to make the most after finally getting her chance on the biggest stage of all – four years after her sister, Caitriona, competed in the women’s marathon.
In 2001, Jennings was back for the World Championships, this time in Lucerne.[adrotate group=”70″]
Disaster struck on the eve of the competition.
“The oars arrived in a thousand pieces,” Jennings recalled.
“It would be easier to get used to a new boat than a set of oars, but we got a pair shipped from Holland.”
After winning her heat and her semi-final, Jennings was last at the 500m mark in the final. She moved up into third and, across the last 750m, went past Switzerland’s Pia Vogel and Dutch woman Mirjam ter Beek for gold.
“The most amazing feeling ever,” was how she described the moment.
Sam Lynch, incidentally, won gold in the men’s lightweight single sculls in Lucerne.
Jennings is 39 now and is a qualified doctor. She took a career break to focus on her Olympic bid.
It was last September when the dream became a reality.[adrotate group=”53″]
She and Lambe came third in the B final at Aiguebelette in France in the World Rowing Championships.
It’s eight years now since she hoped to compete in Beijing, but never got the chance to go to a qualifying regatta with the politics of the day interfering. That was after she couldn’t find a doubles partner for the 2004 Games in Athens.
Now, though, she’ll get into a boat in Rio and will row as if her life depends on it.
After all, it’s a day and hour that will have been her lifetime in the making.
– The women’s lightweight double sculls begin today at around 12.45pm and will be shown live on RTÉ