Michelle Carpenter, chief executive of Rowing Ireland, talks to Brendan O’Brien about the unique challenges presented by the current crisis, the financial realities that still lie ahead and the optimism that comes with the re-opening of sport and society at large in recent weeks.

What was the moment you realised this was a challenge on an entirely different scale?

I was in Vienna at a European Rowing meeting back in February and Italy started coming in with numbers at that stage. I was talking with Jean-Christophe Rolland, the president of FISA [the International Rowing Federation] and he was beginning to get concerned at that stage. I thought at that time that we could be looking at something very difficult here.

We started going into lockdown with our high-performance athletes in mid-March. They had relocated to Lee Valley Golf Club, which is within 5km of the National Rowing Centre, so we had put plans in place. Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone realised how difficult this was going to be.

We had a board meeting on the 8th of March and someone joked we mightn’t be able to hold our AGM at the end of the month and we all looked with horror. There as a bit of us hoping this wouldn’t happen bit it had certainly been ramping up for a time in my own mind.

Has anything in your past professional experience been a help in dealing with this?

My experience in communication and public information was a huge benefit in this circumstance. I worked on the launch of the euro, which was a pan-European public information campaign with the European Central Bank, between 1999 and 2001.

So that was a huge benefit so being able to communicate around the number of platforms. As CEOs you are dealt with an awful lot of problems day-to-day, curveballs. Be it accidents, be it risk, be it a setback.

Last year Sanita Puspure had the setback with her sister being sick and you just have to cope with things like that and put a strategy in place.

How daunting has it been to deal with the entire range of issues that have arisen: From financial concerns, dealing with stakeholders, applying new Covid-19 guidelines and everything else?

I think we have adapted very well. We initially put a Covid-19 working group in place and we had it in place in the middle of March, fairly immediately after the initial lockdown phase started. So we were already meeting weekly and assessing what we could do and put in place.

For our community it has been fairly devastating. We have obviously had no regattas and our clubs have had to shut down so we felt that it was really important to communicate with our clubs and let them know what was happening and to support them.

We were one of the first national rowing organisations to put out a rowing protocol and I have had calls from a number of other rowing organisations around the world asking if they could use our protocols and adapt them but we still have a long way to go. We still haven’t got a framework yet for a return to regattas and that’s something we will have to look at in the next few weeks.

How severe do you think the financial losses will be for your organisation and your sport at large?

It will be huge. Our clubs have had to shut down. They can’t hold regattas, which is the main financial driver for clubs. As we go into a new phase of membership in September we will be looking at that and we are very concerned about that. We have put forecasts in place as to how we will work around that so it has been devastating for our clubs.

Then the whole recession part of it, the ‘pandession’ as David McWilliams calls it, we don’t know what effect it will have on the finances and on government finances next year as we head into Tokyo again. We are very concerned about that. In terms of sponsorship we have Kinetica on board and they have been very good to us but other organisations that we were talking to or looking to work with are not now in a position to support us.

Do you see any overseas models in your sport or elsewhere which might be applied here?

As a nation in Ireland, sailing and canoeing have done very good plans and we were one of the first to put something in place. We worked with them and shared ideas on that because we had some concern initially over water and could the virus be in the water.

We were in contact with FISA about the slipstream effect but really we had done a lot of research on it ourselves and looked to people that we knew who were public health experts and had worked in the field of pandemics who could give us advice on that.

Can you explain that ‘slipstream effect’ and is there any further consensus on it internationally?

Michelle Carpenter: 'I don't think anyone realised how difficult this was going to be'

The best way to explain it is if you are sitting in a car and the car in front puts on the wiper wash and it hits your car. That’s what you’re dealing with. So you have someone in front of you in a boat. They are huffing and puffing and spitting and all the rest and breathing heavily. So the FISA medical commission have looked at that and they reckon that one metre is enough of a distance in line with the slipstream effect.

In a boat you are 1.2 metres apart anyway, in a crew boat, so we are very hopeful that it will be very safe. There has been very good research and feedback in recent days about the strength of Covid-19. It seems to be losing its strength and then the reproduction rate has gone way down so hopefully in a number of weeks and months the reproduction rate will be so low that the chances of catching it are… you might as well buy a Lotto ticket.

How important is that our high-performance athletes will be able to access their training bases in the coming days with the easing of travel restrictions?

Time is of the essence when you are training to the standard of our high-performance athletes, two or three times a day and seven days a week. They are delighted to be back. We would have 16-20 athletes using the National Rowing Centre, which is in the middle of the countryside in Cork, and none of them live within the 5km zone. Maybe one, but that’s about it. They only needed a one-off dispensation to travel outside the 5k.

After Monday they will be going into Lee Valley Golf Club which is within the zone and they will be living there as family units to protect them more than anything else and ensure that they are safe from catching the virus. For example, one of the athletes lives with a nurse and it is just too much of a risk to take so we are putting them all into their own camp-like environment from Monday. They get on great together and they can train off each other again. They have missed a whole season of racing so they need that.

When are we likely to see our elite rowers competing in international regattas again? And when will competition start back again here at home?

The first time we might see our elite rowers competing is possibly at the Irish Championships or a festival of rowing. The working group on Covid-19 is looking at that.

We have a championship committee which will also look at that. If we feel that is safe to do then our elite athletes will take part at our own centre in Cork which would be fantastic to see.

The European U23s are scheduled to take place in September and the European Juniors and Seniors in October.

It looks promising that they will go ahead and give them some opportunity to compete this year.

What is the feeling on the ground? Is there optimism with light at the end of the tunnel?

I’m always glad to have fun so I would always see the optimistic side of things. I think there is a lot of optimism out there that clubs are back and we have been able to get back because of the use of the single scull. Clubs are looking forward to getting back in crew boats when they have the okay to do it.

I know some national governing bodies are looking at summer camps so we would be looking to see if that is a possibility.

We all want things, we are all pushing for things like we were pushing for high-performance athletes, but public health is the priority at the end of the day and we all know that we have to adhere to that.”