Michelle Carpenter has made quite the impact since coming on board as CEO of Rowing Ireland in 2018.
She first got involved in the executive side of the sport when she helped launch their ‘Get Going, Get Rowing’ campaign in 2014, in an effort to bring rowing machines to schools and get children active through rowing. That programme has seen huge results and engaged over 32,000 individuals last year alone.
And now Carpenter is one of just four female CEOs out of the 40 high-performance sports in Ireland and is looking to bring rowing to new heights.
Yet every accomplishment of hers in the role is just a way to give back to the sport which has given her so much over the past 30 years.
“I’ve been involved in rowing since I was 14 years of age. I started rowing in Athlunkard Boat Club in Limerick and then went on to row for Shannon. I would have rowed competitively, I was part of the Irish squad at junior at U23.
“There wouldn’t have been that many women rowing at the time so there was a big diversity gap. I was one of the first female members of Shannon Rowing Club and then from there, I rowed with Commercial Rowing Club in Dublin. Not every rowing club in Ireland accepted women, so that was my choice in Dublin.
“I lived in Strasbourg in France where I worked for the Court of Human Rights and Frankfurt in Germany where I worked on the launch of the Euro campaign and I would have rowed there as well. It was always a hobby, a pastime, and a passion of mine.”
While there may have been some barriers to the sport for females in the ’80s, the actions of some like-minded individuals tore down those barriers and now rowing can boast almost complete gender equality in their sport.
It’s certainly come a long way since Carpenter first took to the water and it was with great honour that she became their first female CEO.
“I’m one of four daughters so I grew up around women and I didn’t see myself any different. I didn’t see why I couldn’t have the opportunity to row. I was passionate about the sport so I was determined that we would find a way.
“I’ve been involved in the sport my whole life. It’s looked after me very well and taken me all around the world. I’ve incredible friendships and a rowing family. I’m passionate about leading it and bringing it to new heights.
“We’re coming into Tokyo soon, half our crews qualified for Tokyo, our female crews, we’re hoping to qualify one, if not two, more boats which would be female. It’s an honour to be leading a sport where now in clubs we have 46% women and 54% men so we’re practically gender-equal. We’ve come a long way.
The look that says it all.. Our CEO Michelle Carpenter (and former Get Going Manager) with our newly crowned World Champion Sanita Purspure. We are so proud of your achievements!! #wearerowingireland #greenblades pic.twitter.com/y7pkNzRSAj
— Get Going Get Rowing (@get_rowing) September 18, 2018
“Our men row alongside women in world rowing events and there’s complete diversity and openness. Our Paralympians row alongside each other as well. It’s really fantastic to be involved in a sport where there is no difference, there’s no ‘Women’s World Championships’ and ‘Men’s World Championships’. Our Irish Championships are open to everyone as well.”
Interest in rowing has certainly grown enormously since two brothers from Skibbereen took to our television screens in 2016 and brought home silver medals from the Rio Olympics.
Now the sport can look to multiple world champions as their role models and their success has certainly seen the sport grow in Ireland.
Still, it is Carpenter’s role to make sure that interest and involvement continue on an upward trajectory and that means capturing people’s attention from a young age.
“Our regattas have been at capacity and we’ve seen a surge in membership and we’ll be launching a membership strategy shortly.
“I think the public are still a little bit unsure what is the difference between rowing and canoeing whereas they are as different as basketball and football are. The O’Donovans and Sanita [Puspure] have been such role models for our sport and have really put us on the map and the rest of our high-performance team.
“My job is to put rowing on the map and to educate the public on it through the ‘Get Going, Get Rowing’ programme and being in schools, kids become more familiar with it. It’s bringing our sport to schools where there would traditionally have always been football, GAA, whatever.
“We’ve come a long way but there’s still a good bit to go and the fact that we’re getting another go at the row into Tokyo, it might give us another opportunity to educate people on rowing.”
Ireland have an incredible standing on the world stage in rowing. Our small nation is ranked second in the world in Olympic-class boats and continues to excel.
All of this comes off the back of a very dedicated high-performance team but such success doesn’t happen overnight. Like all sports, rowing faces many challenges but their tight-knit group have pushed the sport forward to the point where Tokyo is not their only focus at the moment, but the Paris Olympics which will be held in 2024.
“Sport Ireland have been incredible in supporting our carded athletes and supporting us as an organisation. Running the National Rowing Centre costs us about €100,000 a year so that’s an extra burden”, explains Carpenter.
“Today I’m travelling down because we’ve had teenagers around and we need to check up on it, we don’t have a security company in there to check it.
“We’ve a very good platform and team, we’ve a very supportive and effective high-performance committee with an excellent chair and we work really well together as a team working on the strategy.
“We’re planning ahead for Paris now because obviously the run-in to Paris is going to be shorter than a normal Olympics so it’s about building that capacity. We’re working with universities to try and build a pathway for our high-performance athletes, working with clubs to build that pathway.”
Teamwork and a sense of togetherness seem to be ever-present traits in the world of Irish rowing. Earlier this week, Fintan McCarthy said that the “weird sort of family environment” created is the best thing about rowing in Ireland.
Having been involved in the sport for over 30 years in so many different capacities, perhaps none are more qualified to judge than Carpenter and McCarthy’s sentiment is one she whole-heartedly agrees with.
As part of our @RowingIreland week, world gold medallist Fintan McCarthy tells us about his favourite memories, training regime and what he hopes to achieve in the sport! 🙌 🏆#ShowcaseYourSport @iresporthttps://t.co/DSgoWQKANE
— Pundit Arena (@PunditArena) June 2, 2020
“We are a small sport, with over 4,000 members and the schools’ programme as well. But everyone knows everyone, there’s people in rowing I know over 30 years and they have seen me through thick and thin and it is a weird sort of family.
“It’s those friendships that you have, it doesn’t matter if you’re only talking to them every six months or every year, it’s a lifelong friendship and a lifelong family of friends.”