Carrick on Shannon Rowing Club
Aidan Nangle (R.I.P)
There are many opening phrases that spring to mind when writing about competing in the jungle of the international sporting circuit. Famous phrases like: 'One crowded hour …..'; 'the roar of the crowd'; 'reach for the stars' and ' while thousands cheer', but I have sought the animal world, because a dog played a large part in those spell binding, breathtaking moments at the Rowing Basin in Moscow.
Goodbye old Teddy and I hope you lie in peace in your doggy grave because you were there in the build-up and during those glorious years. Her faithful labrador was her constant companion and also a pace-maker as she pounded out her morning 12 mile run in all weathers. Sometimes she gently scolded him to keep his loping pace down to match her own as she kept striving for that 100% fitness in this demanding of sports. When she used her affectionate name for him and raised her voice to 'Tedser', it was as if his canine instinct understood to slow his loping stride for his mistress.
But while that was a time of effort, sacrifice and dedication, it was also a time I will always recall as the best years of my life. But to reach that historical period in the club's history I have to travel back down the arches of the years to a different era, a different time.
The time was away back in the late sixties, when four very young primary school girls begged a number of the then committee to be allowed to join as active members. They were turned down by those whom they asked and perhaps I was the last resort. After the break-up of one of the club's great men's crews of Gabriel Cox, Christy Kelleher, Tommy Nerney and the late Mickey Dunne, wins at regattas were non-existent. On the advice of the late lamented Raymond Glancy and Gabriel Cox, I decided to coach those young school girls. Within two days the floodgates opened and I was involved with at least 16 girls.
Naturally after a year the enthusiasm for competitive rowing had waned with most and in 1969 a very young Carrick Girls' crew set out to conquer. It was a vicious challenge to those youngsters as there was no special category for young girls at Irish regattas, only a race for women's fours. This meant the Carrick 13 to 14 year olds had to race against fully grown, mature women. As they were then so young and small, somebody in Irish rowing called them the 'Little People'.
It was this disadvantage in mind that the idea of going overseas to a British regatta was born. The British Rowing Association had a category for girls under 18 years of age. So the club took the grand leap into the unknown by entering the crew at the All Women's Regatta at Bedford. In the over 100 year history of the Irish Amateur Rowing Union, Carrick sent the first female crew to compete outside the country. Their first performance at Bedford was exceptional as they won their heat, quarter final, semi final and were beaten in the final by feet. Carrick competed at the Bedford Regatta in 1969/1970 and had two changes in the crew for 1971.
To me those seven young girls who competed at Bedford during the '69 to '71 period will always be known as 'The Magnificent Seven'. For the record the names in alphabetical order of those seven international pioneers are Annette Cox, Geraldine Dunne, Jeanette Dunne, Geraldine Gibbons, Ann Kelly, Joan Masterson and Mary Reynolds.
From that seven came Mary Reynolds who competed at the famous Bosbaan in Amsterdam and later in the year, won the silver medal in the Four Countries International. Then the following year in 1973 came the big breakthrough, when Mary, rowing for her country, won the gold at Nottingham against England, Scotland and Wales. Never before had an Irish oarswoman won at international level and perhaps on that day the thought of walking behind the Irish flag in an Olympic parade was no longer a dream.
In 1974 a new school girl's crew came on the scene, but once again they were faced with the same problems as their '69 predecessors, the I.A.R.U. had no special event for school girls. By winning one trophy in 1974, this crew had then to compete at the second highest level n 1975. This was a dream year for the club as the crew was unbeaten on Irish waters and realised a very personal ambition for me by winning the Junior Women's Fours event at Bedford. Rowing at No. 3 in that great crew was a young girl who was destined to become one of the greatest scullers in an era of the greatest oarswomen of all time; 1976 to 1986.
Frances Cryan walked tall with such stars of the sport like Carlson of Sweden, Schiebert of Norway, Justensen of Denmark, Mitchell of Great Britain, Machkina of USSR, Velinavo of Bulgaria, Schroeter of East Germany, Groll of West Germany, Lind of America, De La Fuente of Mexico, Toma of Romania, Foster of New Zealand, Ambrus of Hungary and the brilliant Borias of Holland. There were at least six other scullers who were rated in that select group and were only separated by about two seconds from the medal rostrum or disappointment.
So why did the Leitrim Club become involved competing against the greatest oarswomen of modern times? The club knew the odds were not in it's favour, as rowing, more than other sports - had long become professional in most of the countries mentioned. Could the club not have been content with having it's scullers name inscribed on the Irish Women's Championship trophy for eleven successive years? Perhaps one might condemn Edmund Hillary of New Zealand who planted the flag on the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, the Soviet Astronaut the late Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man in space in 1961 and of course Neil Armstrong who was the first person to walk on the moon's surface in June 1969. Those men and others who followed them became heroes not alone in their own countries but throughout the world. The same yardstick applies to sport as men and women will always strive to race faster and jump longer and higher than their predecessors and rivals of their time.
In 1976, after winning the first of her Irish Senior Championships Frances set out, on the glory trail to international stardom. Her first international win was at the Soro International Regatta in Denmark in the Women's Junior Sculls. The following year she was to win the Senior B event at the same venue and in 1981, she returned to this famous rowing centre to win the gold medal at Senior A level. As a result of this unique treble, Frances' portrait hangs proudly on the boathouse wall with the guests of Danish rowing in this beautiful old town on the banks of Lake Soro.
The Moscow Olympics were not even contemplated in 1978 and 1979 but gold medals at Mommonth, Newark and Nottingham International were becoming familiar. The build up for 1980 Games started early that year and standards had become demands from the Olympic Council of Ireland. Frances was chosen, as a result of brilliant performances at Nottingham, Ratzeburg, Mannheim and Lucerne, becoming the first Irish oarswoman to compete at Olympic level.
But enough has been written about those glorious and heart-stopping mornings in July of 1980, on the excellent course, at Moscow's rowing basin. But not one of the roaring Irish spectators will ever forget that race on the path to the semi final, with only two of the six girls to go through. Having dropped the Czech girl and the Dutch bronze medalist, from the previous years' World Rowing Championships at the half way mark, it was a blanket finish with the Soviet Union, Ireland, Mexico and Denmark crossing the finish line in that order. Then the never-to-be-forgotten semi final with Frances just pipped by only two centimetres for a place in sporting history and glory. Leaving Sheremtyevo airport on the flight home, nothing was said about the next Olympic Games, but Los Angeles was on a four year horizon.
The years leading up to the 1984 Games were almost akin to torture as it was obvious that the I.A.R.U. was setting standards for Frances that were an impossibility. With the demise of the famous Garda crew, the number of men even capable of competing in Los Angeles were non-existent. So it looked as early as 1982 that the only entrant of Ireland in rowing would be Frances. It was at about that time that the 'dirty' politics in Irish rowing reared it's ugly head. One typical example occurred in August of 1982 after her triumphant return from the Copenhagen International. A sub committee of four members of the executive of the I.A.R.U. were requested to assess her performanceat Lake Bagsvaard. Even though Frances had a gold medal and the Scandinavian Championship trophy three of the four selectors were dissatisfied on the grounds that the opposition were not of the highest calibre. That same opposition consisted of Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, French, Germans and the U.S.A. Other victories and some defeats were to follow in the next season and also the Olympic year, which definitely had the blue and white colours in line for the Los Angeles Olympic parade. The I.A.R.U. had hired former Olympic and World Championship oarsman, Jim Clarke of Great Britain to give an objective assessment of ALL prospective rowing Olympians over the 1984 season, at a number of international regattas, the final verdict to be made at Lucerne Regatta in July. Jim Clarke's decision was that Frances Cryan, was the only Irish rower of Olympic material, this decision to be ratified by the I.A.R.U.
After a tiring flight from Zurich, I attended a specially convened meeting of that August body of 'sports' who then were the Government of Irish Rowing. I sensed that something terrible was about to happen. It was decided that Frances Cryan was not to be allowed to compete! Such a decision! But the powers that were had spoken. Their decision was final. That was that!
Perhaps that fateful evening at a Dublin Hotel in July 1984 was the end of a memorable era on the international scene by Leitrim's only Rowing Club. Fair minded rowing personnel in some of the Irish clubs and a large number of sports journalists, described the decision as a tragedy and a travesty of justice. We learned afterwards that the voting was three for - good friends of Carrick - Garda, Galway and Bann, five against. One of those who voted against sending Frances should have abstained, as she had been beaten umpteen times by Frances. It was one way of hitting back! To this day and for years to come, neither of us can find it in our hearts to forgive those six. Many sporting journalists commented on that drastic decision and not one agreed with it. However, it's now in the past and it puts an end to Frances' rowing career.