Claire Lambe: The World of an Olympian

After her summer in Rio, Conall Cahill sits down with UCD alum and Team Ireland rower Claire Lambe.[br]LIKE a summer romance, the Rio Olympians flickered within our sight for a fleeting moment, then left with our hearts. In their wake we wandered aimlessly, looking for something that gave us the same joy, laughter, nervousness; the same heartbreak. We watched the interviews with the magnificent O’Donovan brothers and Thomas Barr over and over again; we bookmarked Scott Evans tearing off his shirt and we ranted to anyone who’d listen about Mick Conlan and the injustice of it all.And we watched Claire Lambe and Sinead Jennings, a pair so odd yet so fitting, and we fell in love with them just a little. Jennings, a mother of three who had spent sixteen years trying to get to an Olympics; Lambe, whose shy and gentle exterior when interviewed belied a toughness most of us can barely fathom.Her story is as remarkable as that of any Olympian – of any person who devotes years of their life to fulfilling a picture they have in their mind. But for Lambe, who alongside Jennings finished sixth in the lightweight double sculls in Rio, it has never been about a seemingly ceaseless pursuit; rather, it has been about the daily rekindling of an inextinguishable romance she holds with her sport:“You come in after a session, when the weather is just lovely. Or maybe there was a sunrise on the water that morning. And you’re so happy that you’re getting to do that... nothing compares to going out on the water and when the boat’s moving effortlessly. You put in the hard hours and the horrible training sessions just for that feeling. I love it. I absolutely love it. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give it up.”Team Ireland’s Olympics this summer at times felt like a vulnerable craft at the mercy of a fickle swell. Boxer Michael O’Reilly tested positive for a banned substance before competition had even begun. What followed his exit from Brazil were a series of under-performances and injustices involving his Irish boxing team-mates that had the nation reeling. The Olympic Council of Ireland ticket touting scandal and the arrest of its president Pat Hickey spelt international embarrassment for Ireland. At times it felt like the rowers, Annalise Murphy, Tom Barr and their fellow chinks of light were all that held us together.
“You put in the hard hours and the horrible training sessions just for that feeling. I love it. I absolutely love it. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give it up.”
Lambe admits that they were aware of the gloom that was at one stage threatening to engulf Team Ireland:“Yeah, I remember the first interview with RTÉ when we came in (after their race) and they said everybody at home was very down, and it was all very negative with the boxers... I was nearly annoyed at RTÉ for saying something negative. Everyone (in Rio) is doing their best – although some results were disappointing.”She talks now with self-assurance and a “robust” faith in her own ability that she admits she has only gained “in the last couple of years”. Oftentimes, we assume that professional athletes – with their sleek frames, steady postures and excellence in a sporting sense – are the most cocksure of us all. But Lambe reveals a crippling self-doubt that hindered her attempts at qualifying for the London Olympics four years ago.“I think my biggest inhibiting factor was that I never believed I could do it - although I always had positive coaches and people telling me I had natural ability. Nobody ever told me, ‘You’re never going to make it.’ It was always me that told myself, ‘I can’t do it.”This, she believes, is one of the key factors behind sporting performance (and underperformance) – the inability to control the demons, to stop “that negative thought coming into your head”. She talks of coming thirteenth with Jennings in a World Cup regatta in Varese in April and telling a coach afterwards that she thought they could medal in Rio. His wide-eyed response didn’t shake what, “deep down”, she knew they had within them. Reserves of belief stood up after years of effort and dedication that stretched back to when she was turning down nights out in UCD in favour of an early bedtime and a dawn rise for training the next day.Although she was always left out of the loop when winks and nudges were exchanged in her engineering lectures after class nights spent somewhere on Harcourt Street, she doesn’t think she “ever felt overly like I was missing out”. She found the UCD Boat Club and fell in with its steady and consistent rhythm and routine, its early starts and easy companionship amongst people of a kindred spirit. The types of people who enjoy getting up before the birds and pushing themselves to excruciating physical and mental extremes balancing finely on the line preceding torture. She admits she would laugh when seeing other sportspeople engage in what they called ‘training’ and a part of her would wonder why it was that she was so drawn to the rhythm of the lake and such an uncompromising pursuit. It was always a fleeting moment of curiosity, rather than any concrete manifestation of doubt.When talking to someone who has just achieved their life’s dreams and is operating in that hazy stratosphere of euphoria just above cloud nine, one is often reluctant to ask questions that threaten to dampen that mood. Yet the possible connotations of the ticket touting scandal involving the Olympic Council of Ireland are all very real for athletes like Lambe. More specifically, for their family and friends – those, in other words, who have often played nearly as much of a role in their success as the athletes themselves.Since the news broke that Kevin Mallon of the company THG was arrested in Rio in possession of hundreds of OCI tickets, and since it was reported by Brazilian police that 228 further tickets were found in the room of Team Ireland’s Chef de Mission Kevin Kilty, stories have been emerging of athletes’ families and friends who struggled to get their hands on tickets for their loved ones’ performances in the Games. People like Gráinne Adams, mother of sailor Finn Lynch, who couldn’t get any tickets from Pro10, the supposed ticket provider for the Olympic Council of Ireland for the Rio Olympics. People like Scott Evans, whose parents had similar problems with Pro10.And, speaking to the University Observer, Lambe told of her own supporters’ frustrations with Pro10:“Pro10 were an absolute disaster for any of my friends trying to get out there... (they) had an awful time with Pro10 in that they were unresponsive to emails, unresponsive to phone calls, and then eventually they told them that they never had any rowing tickets whatsoever – and were never going to. So my friends ended up buying them through other country sellers and, oh God, one of my friends even got totally done on a scam website. There was no proper Irish vendor that I was aware of, other than Pro10.”Lambe says that representatives of Pro10 had initially promised that tickets for the rowing events would be released through a “lottery” system in February of this year. But when February came, “they told (her friends) that there were no rowing tickets anyway. And at that point they had to go and find some outside the country.”She admits that it “all seems very strange” – stating that her parents “paid over four hundred euros each for the week of rowing, on top of the travel expenses” and that “the cost ruled out my sisters coming out, and a lot of others.” Her parents sourced tickets through the “rowing federation” just after she qualified out of a fear that “they wouldn’t be able to get tickets elsewhere”.Of course, all of this raises questions as to why the relatives of one of Ireland’s Olympic athletes weren’t certain that they could quite easily obtain tickets to watch their daughter’s events. Why were her friends forced to go through such obscure – and, plainly, dangerous – avenues in order to acquire tickets? All of this was going on while spare OCI tickets were allegedly set to be flogged in Rio; while tickets lay in Kilty’s room; while, according to emails alleged by Brazilian police to be from his account, Hickey seems to have offered tickets to THG director Kevin Mallon and refused the offer of tickets for the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies.Indeed, it appears that Lambe’s parents shouldn’t even have had to look for tickets. According to Gráinne Adams, under a ‘family and friends’ scheme supposedly run by the Olympic Council of Ireland, there are meant to be two tickets allocated to each athlete for their event that can be (at a cost) used by family or friends.As part of the Brazilian police inquiry, a number of OCI officials had their passports seized, among them Dermot Henihan, Kilty and Stephen Martin. The three men have now had their passports returned to them – but at the time of the interview they were still languishing in Rio, something that displeased Lambe greatly. She said herself and Jennings (who is a friend of Henihan’s) were “very upset” about the situation, opining that the treatment of the trio was “awful”.Lambe admits that she “doesn’t want any negativity” to cloud her memory of the Rio Olympics and that, perhaps because of this, she “hasn’t given too much thought” to the inquiry or to what impact its results could have on that memory.After all that she has done, it is a little sad that, in the coming months, she just might have to think about it.