Sanita Puspure: Not leaving anything to chance

Sanita Puspure of Ireland celebrates after winning the Women's Singles sculls quarter-final race during the 2019 World Rowing Championships (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
Sanita Puspure of Ireland celebrates after winning the Women's Singles sculls quarter-final race during the 2019 World Rowing Championships (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

World Champion and two-time Olympian Sanita Puspure is ready to pull out all the stops for Tokyo 2020

With her third Olympic Games just within reach, all eyes are on Sanita Puspure and whether she will finally clinch the Olympic medal that eluded her in both London 2012 and Rio 2016.

“That's the only medal was missing from my trophy cabinet so it would be lovely to have a nice addition to that,” Puspure told Tokyo 2020.

The Latvian-born Irish rower has consistently dominated women’s single sculls since her Olympic debut and has swept back-to-back titles at the World Rowing Championships (2018, 2019) and European Rowing Championships (2019, 2020).

Still, Puspure stopped short of making predictions about Tokyo 2020.

“Obviously, I'm not going to be calling out numbers and places and stuff. We all know what we want, but there's no point. There are so many athletes going. And if we all want the same thing, we know that not everyone's going to get it."

“For me, I think I’ll just do the best I can and not let myself down and not to fall into some pressure traps or anything like that. Just enjoy the Games, do one race at a time, just a normal championship strategy, really, and then do the absolute best you can and see what it gets to,” she added.

(From left to right) Silver medal winner Emma Twigg of New Zealand, gold medal winner Sanita Puspure of Ireland and bronze medal winner Kara Kohler of United States of America at the victory ceremony of the 2019 World Rowing Championships (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
(From left to right) Silver medal winner Emma Twigg of New Zealand, gold medal winner Sanita Puspure of Ireland and bronze medal winner Kara Kohler of United States of America at the victory ceremony of the 2019 World Rowing Championships (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

The zoo encounter and the comeback

As one of the most successful female rowers in the world, life could have been very different for the two-time Olympian.

Puspure was a successful junior sculler back in Latvia but retired thinking that she wouldn’t be able to make the leap into the senior rankings. And when she got married and had her first child, the rower decided to close that chapter of her life and focus on family.

But right after moving to Ireland with her husband, Puspure, who had a second baby on the way, had a chance encounter that turned her life around.

“We went to the zoo and we missed the turn and we ended up right beside the river where all the rowing was happening at the time. And I had no idea how rowing was going on in Dublin. I've never seen anybody row there. And that was that was my comeback.”

With her passion for the sport rekindled, just five to six weeks after giving birth Puspure was back in the place she loves best: the water.

“I couldn't wait to get back in the boat. [But at first] it was going to be a bit of a social experience, that social side of it, and to gain more friends and have a bit of exercise after having kids as well. And I knew how relaxing it can be in a boat so I was really looking forward to that.”

“It didn't take too long for the thought of the Olympics to kind of brew in my head and once the seed was planted, there was nowhere else to go. I had to kind of chase my dreams then."

In 2012, Puspure represented the country of Ireland at the Olympic Games London 2012 – their first female Irish single sculler since Moscow 1980.

Despite only placing 13th, Puspure said it was the experience that mattered.

“I finished 13th, which was fair for me. I think I might have been able to make the semi-final maybe but I didn't. And I was quite happy with that [outcome] because even to get to the Olympics was the biggest thing ever.”

Sanita Puspure of Ireland competes in the Women's Single Sculls finals at the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Sanita Puspure of Ireland competes in the Women's Single Sculls finals at the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
2012 Getty Images

All-out support from the community

Now at the pinnacle of her sport whilst also juggling motherhood, Puspure acknowledges that it was the support she got from the community - from her coaches in both Ireland and even in Latvia – that carried her through to become the athlete she is today.

“I think it was the great support. The people behind me kind of carried me all over the finish line and helped me with the mental game as well,” the 39-year-old rower said.

“[In Ireland] I had an amazing coach who pushed me. He was a bit of a dreamer as well. Now that I look back, I think he thought that I’d make it, and he helped with the boat and the oars, and I [also] had a really nice group of girls around me at that time."

Puspure also hasn’t forgotten the foundation she had back in Latvia.

“The experience I got in in Latvia was that, first of all, I learnt how to train hard and then not even just hard, just how to work, you know, the work ethic.”

“I definitely learnt that from my first coach. She was very strict. She was giving a lot of her own time and she was asking that we give a 100 per cent to her as well in return, which is fair enough. And that's how I learnt that if you work, you work. There's no point in doing something halfway.”

In Ireland, Puspure continues to receive massive support from the community.

In October 2020, she was named the Irish Times Sportswoman of the Year, the second award she received in a row, and just a few weeks ago she was named as Cork Person of the Year for 2020.

Puspure admitted that the award from the Cork community gave her a boost for Tokyo 2020.

“I wasn't expecting it. And it definitely gave me a boost, especially at the end of January. You know, it's kind of a sticky point in preparation, where it's kind of winter and you're not quite in the spring yet. And that was really nice. And I know they all support me very much. And yeah, hopefully I won't let them down.”

Overcoming defeat and bouncing back

With Tokyo 2020 just a few months away, Puspure hopes that it will be different from Rio, where extreme weather conditions wreaked havoc on most of the races,

Puspure, had a heartbreaking loss after placing fourth in her heat.

"We shouldn’t have raced and I still have hard feelings – but obviously, I moved past that.”

“It was unfair to let us race in those conditions. So hopefully in Tokyo - I know it won't be flat, calm and beautiful, but it will hopefully be better. And hopefully they will make better decisions if it comes to that.”

Whilst Puspure has bounced back from that experience and accumulated every prestigious rowing title along the way, she had to deal with another setback last year when the Games were postponed.

“It was harder just to keep training once you don't have that end goal. The Olympics, suddenly five months away, moved over to 18 months away and it just seemed too far away to give it an absolute one hundred percent."

But now with Tokyo 2020 in her mind, she is leaving no stone unturned.

“I'm obviously training, doing everything I can now to prepare myself for whatever comes. And that's what we're working on, not to leave anything to chance.”

Amidst the global pandemic, Puspure is grateful to be able to continue training.

“We've been lucky enough. We were able to train stick in our own little bubble and we have a national rowing centre, which is quite a big facility."

“I'm in a single on the water, so there's no one near me. There's no danger of catching COVID-19 on the lake anyway. So yeah, we're lucky enough at least and fresh air and water are like the safest place to be.

“My mindset [going to Tokyo 2020] is really just take one day at a time, just focus on today and tomorrow, get the best out in training, do the best efforts I can and carry on and patiently wait for the day when we go to the Olympics.”

Watch Sanita Puspure in action when the Tokyo 2020 rowing competition begins on Saturday 24 July at the Sea Forest Waterway.