Rowing: Cormac Folan – Olympic Dreams

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Irish Olympic rower, Cormac Folan, talks exclusively to The Sport Review about life as a rower and the pressure of representing his country at the Olympics.

The Olympics – a place where dreams come true or are torn apart. The difference between a gold medal and 4th place is minute. At the Olympics we see true sportsmen and women compete for glory.

Glory not just for themselves but also their country. Unlike the stars of commercialised sports such as football, there is no motivation of financial gain for the athletes in the Olympics. Only a sense of personal achievement.

Years of preparation culminate in a rapid two weeks of competition. After years of gruelling hard work, the majority of competitors will leave empty handed. Those fortunate enough to succeed will inscribe their names in Olympic folklore forever.

Ireland’s main hopes for Beijing 2008, were the rowers. The lightweight 4 had been in impressive form, in the years leading up to the Olympics. Heavyweight men’s rowing had enjoyed a renaissance within Irish rowing with the arrival of head coach, Harold Jarhling.

In last year’s Olympics, ultimately, both 4’s were unable were to reach the final’s of their respective events and both crews finished fourth in the B final’s of their respective events. A disappointing outcome to to their Olympic campaigns. However despite this, the signs are promising for the future of Irish rowing, and looking to the future, London 2012 is now the main objective.

Galwegian, Cormac Folan, was the bowman in the Irish heavyweight 4. Hailing from a rowing family, it was no surprise to see him grace the waters of the River Corrib in his teenage years. Rowing for his local school ‘The Jes’, he got his first taste of competition at the age of 15.

“When you’re 15-years-old you think J15 is the biggest event there is and so on through J16 and J18”, he adds, “I really enjoyed those years, it was just good fun going down to the club and going out rowing with your friends and traveling around the country racing. It was only really as a Senior level that I started to believe that I could compete at the highest level.”

He progressed from Junior level, leaving school and joining NUI Galway’s rowing club. As a senior he was coached by Tom Tuohy who he describes as one of the biggest influences on his rowing career. After trialling, he soon earned selection into the Ireland squad. However their was one final big decision to be made.

“I decided in 2006 to go full time and I feel that I needed to make this step to try and make the step – up to international senior rowing.”

This commitment entailed that he was now training virtually 6 days a week, multiple times during the day.

“For the past four years under Harald Jarhling’s program we were doing somewhere between 10-15 sessions per week depending on time of the year. Generally we started with a row at 8am, usually 20-24 k’s, then an hour break followed by another technical row of about 10-12k or a cycle of around 40k. That was then followed by another weights session in the evening.

“We usually worked in two and a half day cycles so two hard days followed by a half day and one day off a week.”

“I’m not naive enough to believe that there is no drug abuse in rowing but I do believe it is not as much of a problem as it is in cycling or other professional sports.”

The winter months can be a depressing time for a rower. With the weather conditions detiorating, gym work becomes increasingly common. This entails less technical training and more endurance training. The light at the end of the tunnel can seem far away and motivating yourself on a daily basis can be a struggle.

“When training at home in Galway I’d try to get out on the water whenever possible, so when the weather is bad we would do all our other work in the gym or go for runs. For the Olympic year our coach took no chances and we were based in the south of France, Germany and Switzerland for most of the year so weather wasn’t such an issue in those locations.”

High Altitude training camps are renowned for being a torturous couple of weeks. It is a case of fine-tuning the crew in preparation for the main event.

“The main difference between training at altitude and sea level is that you have to gradually increase your intensity over the three-and-a-half week camp. You would really feel the burn in your lungs, but by the next week that wouldn’t seem so bad and we would increase the rating and intensity. Probably the hardest work out of the year was the flat out 2k we’d do at the end of camp. The burn in your lungs and muscles is as bad as it gets!”

The diet of an international rower is very important. It is case of eating as much of the right foods as possible to provide energy for training sessions. At the same time ensuring that you don’t put on weight. Folan describes the diet, saying:

“For a heavyweight rower it would be to eat as much as you can! Food high in carbohydrates and protein and low in fat, but usually when you’re on camps its a struggle to try get all the calories in between sessions and try keep from losing weight. Probably the most important thing is eating as soon after training as possible.”

With the intensity of the training, and the fine line between winning and losing, it is inevitable that cheats and the use of drugs will seep into the the sport.

“I’m not naive enough to believe that there is no drug abuse in rowing but I do believe it is not as much of a problem as it is in cycling or other professional sports.”

The issue for Folan is the lack of consistency of testing:

“I am tested regularly throughout the year and the Irish Sports Council have introduced new anti-doping measures this year with stricter whereabouts information where we now have to provide one hour of every day where we can guarantee we will be available for testing. I have no problem with these stricter measures but I just hope that every other country is doing the same. A lot of countries don’t have anti-doping measures within their system so their athletes are tested only at events.

“When you see some crews that have not been at the pace for four years of an Olympic cycle show up and win medals it makes you wonder about their methods. With regards the punishment for failed tests, I do believe a life ban is necessary as a strong deterrent.”

On race day, pre-race nerves are common amongst all competitors. Sir Steve Redgrave discloses in his autobiography how he witnessed Sir Matthew Pinsent throw up his breakfast the morning of the final of the heavyweight 4’s in 2000. Folan has his own method to control any nerves:

“I think the best technique is just to accept that they are part of doing competitive sport. I’m usually more worried when i’m not nervous. When they start to get bad I have a few lines I say to myself over and over to focus on something positive. Just technical idea’s to stay focused.”

He describes the fine line between success and failure in men’s heavyweight rowing. One mistake and your race can be over. Finishing fourth in the ‘B Final’ at the Beijing Olympics, I asked Folan was he disappointed with the result.

“The more time that passes the more disappointed I am with our result. We were closer to the medals than we had ever been but unfortunately in the men’s fours, two seconds is the difference between a medal and 10th. It was an extremely tough year and we didn’t have the ideal preparation before departing for Beijing with injuries and selection issues, but we found good speed out there. But as I said before you can’t afford to make mistakes at that level and unfortunately we started poorly in our races and that cost us a higher placing.”

And the future for Folan and Irish rowing? He remains upbeat. He will continue to focus on rowing, intent on cementing his place in the Irish squad. He aims to compete in the Olympics in 2012 in London, citing it as a ‘great opportunity’ for Irish athletes. When asked how did he envisage Ireland’s chances of picking more medals in 2012 he said:

“Irish rowing is in a period of transition at the moment. We have a new High Performance Director in Martin McElroy who is very experienced with Elite rowing and it is his job to set up the program that will see us through 2012 and beyond. I believe the talent is there to be challenging for medals in 2012 but there is a lot that needs to be done before that.”

He believes there is the talent coming through in Irish rowing to provide the spring board for success in 2012, and further down the line.

“It is important that the 17 and 18-year-olds of today are nurtured and kept interested by providing a competitive scene in Ireland where they can work their way up through the ranks'”

So we can expect to see Folan back in 2012, competing for Ireland again, and trying to end Ireland’s medal drought in rowing. Lessons have been learned and experience gained which will prove vital for any potential successes in the future. With Irish rowing going form strength to strength, it remains one of Ireland’s best medal opportunities at the Olympics.

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