Rowing | McNamara goes out on top

By Tyler Maher

Michael McNamara's Australian rowing dream was snatched out of his hands at the 11th hour due to health issues in 2018.

He had been picked to represent his country at the World Rowing Championships and a pair of World Cup events in the lead-up before being forced to pull out

But rather than wallow in disappointment, Nagambie product McNamara put his nose to the grindstone and delivered Victoria a historic Penrith Cup title last year to be able to hang his oar up in style.

“It was a bit of a roller coaster,” McNamara said.

“I moved up to Canberra for about four months and I was feeling pretty drained. I thought it might be the lift in training intensity, but it got to the stage where I was feeling more and more exhausted.

“About a week before we were meant to leave I found out I had an auto-immune disease called sarcoidosis. I had growths throughout my lungs and internal organs.

“The flights were booked, all the gear was sorted for the two World Cup events and I had to forgo all of it. It was shattering.

“So I came back to Victoria in about July 2018 and spent that next six to seven months just trying to get healthy. It was low intensity stuff, hours on the bike and in the boat.

“I was glad that I did.”

The men's lightweight coxless four Penrith Cup triumph — Victoria's first since 1995 — came on the back of a national championship win for McNamara and his crew of James Crouch, Red Matthews and Jayden Grey at the same regatta.

“I noticed that there was three other blokes in Victoria who were all pretty strong lightweights and I thought if we were ever going to win the Penrith Cup this was going to be the year,” McNamara said.

“So I kept going and got us all together and went from there.

“I was coming to the pointy end of my rowing and if I had put the oar up then it would have been finishing on a pretty sour note.

“I was stoked I could get a bit of a fairytale ending and have that as a final win. I'm probably going to look back and feel that the best two wins of my career probably came in my last two races.

“Even just the race itself, I was really happy with how it went and how it all ended, so I was able to walk away from the sport at that level on a high note.”

It also earned the crew the Victorian Sporting Team of the Year gong at the Leader Local Sports Star awards.

“It was a big year and a big 12 months leading into that one,” he said.

“It was really good, it was a good month or two after the race and it was a nice little reminder of it.

“It was a good night at the MCG and good bonding with the boys afterwards.

“We weren't too sure heading into it, we knew we had been nominated by Rowing Victoria, but as the night went on we couldn't see many other teams there. We quickly realised once we saw that it looked like only the winners in each category were there as they were getting called out that we might be in with a pretty good chance.

“But it was definitely a surprise going into the night.”

McNamara has no regrets about taking a step back from the sport, but is still involved with his Mercantile and Nagambie rowing clubs.

“Health was always an issue and getting down to 70 kg consistently as a six-foot-one guy was tough, my body started not wanting to get down to the weight,” he said.

“I'm still involved in the sport a bit with Mercantile and helping out at Nagambie where I can, in terms of rowing I might have a couple of races with the old man (Patrick) in the masters, but at the top level it has certainly come to an end for me.”

That does not mean McNamara is finished with top level training regimes though.

His partner Lucy Stephan — 2019 Victorian Female Athlete of the Year at the Victorian Sports Awards, two-time world champion and current member of the Olympic rowing squad — has chosen Nagambie as her self-isolation destination to await the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Right now we're definitely to a part where most of us are in self-isolation,” Stephan said.

“Obviously they've decided to postpone the Olympics to I don't know when, the Australian Olympic Commission had said if it was still on we're not going to go anyway.

“It was definitely the right call to postpone.

“We had kind of been training as usual within reason at Penrith, we had created our own little bubble of isolation at the training centre with all of the athletes as well as coaches and their families.

“But it got to a point on Monday where the Olympics had been postponed, so we didn't think it was ethically right to keep training at the national centre.

“At this stage we don't know how long this will last or when the Olympics will be exactly, so they told all 24 of us who were in Penrith that they could stay there or take equipment to their houses and create their own gyms.”

So Stephan packed up her equipment and headed for Nagambie.

“I jumped in my car and went for a row the next day, you've just been through this traumatic experience and you don't know what to do, so you just stay in routine,” she said.

“I'm really, really lucky, the Nagambie Rowing Centre has been really supportive and we've been able to set up a home gym at Mick's, the plan I guess now is to just keep training until all of this blows over.

“I'm still definitely training for the Olympics, just instead of peaking four months from now I'm aiming to peak in about 18 months’ time I suppose.”

Despite the upheaval and uncertainty, Stephan is looking at the positives of the situation.

“We've been long distance for over two years now, so it does give us an opportunity to be together,” she said.

“It also gives me the opportunity to be fitter, faster and stronger when we get there.

“I'm in the best physical shape of my life and now I have a whole (extra) year to push those boundaries and see what I can do.”