Northern Ireland's Olympic rowing heroes returned home to a festival atmosphere in their native Coleraine yesterday, despite the heavens opening during their momentous return.
Despite rainfall that would have given Noah's Ark a run for its money, never mind rowers — families, fans and well-wishers turned out in their droves to welcome the young legends.
It seemed apt that as men who spend most of their time on the water, the Chambers brothers and Alan Campbell were treated to monsoon-like downpours as they brought back three medals to the home of Northern Ireland rowing.
They returned victorious to their beloved Bann Rowing club — weighed down with two silvers and one bronze medal — to be greeted by countless fans.
And after proudly displaying their dazzling medals to the awaiting crowds, they were treated to a piper-led parade into the centre of their home town.
Crowds lined the streets on the route while others followed them from the rowing club, clapping and cheering all the way.
Sitting side-by-side as guests of honour in the town hall, medals hanging proudly around their necks, the Olympians talked of their homecoming.
“Bringing the medal back is an amazing experience,” said bronze medallist Alan Campbell (29).
“Three weeks ago when we were starting out and preparing, we could never have predicted we would be in the situation we are in right now.
“I expected the weather, but I didn’t really expect anything else. We are three boys from this town and we grew up here. To win an Olympic medal has been a dream — they may be our medals and we get to hold them, but it really is down to the people of Coleraine.”
Peter Chambers (22) said the support from the crowds had been overwhelming.
“We were out there racing for Coleraine and Northern Ireland,” he added.
His brother Richard (27), equally overcome by the enormity of the occasion, said the scale of the achievement wouldn’t set in until he saw his family.
Alan Campbell’s mother Jenny said she, too, had been overwhelmed by the huge turnout.
“It's fantastic. There is always a great crowd but to me this is a real homecoming,” she added.
“The club has done an amazing job — and really shared in Alan's success. When he finished that race it was amazing.”
The bronze medallist and champion sculler’s grandmother Anna (91) said she was proud of him.
“I'm so glad I'm still alive to have seen him. He is always so kind and considerate to me, as he is to everybody,” she added.
Eric Chambers — father of silver medallists Peter and Richard — said it had been an “amazing experience”.
“It has been overwhelming. We probably didn't pick up on the response back home,” he added. “But watching all the news coverage, it's amazing.”
His wife Gillian said the support and warm welcome had been outstanding, despite the weather.
“I couldn't see them at first, I could just hear them and thought, why did I ever doubt the people of Coleraine,” she added. “I'm enormously proud of them but also because they are good lads and have a good head on them.”
As well as the hordes of locals, others came from further afield.
The Miller family travelled from Strabane — waiting patiently outside the town hall for the three rowers to emerge.
“We came especially to see these fellas, they have done really well,” said Anne Miller. “It was marvellous seeing them on television. It was fantastic.”
Godfather of rowing shares success
By John Mulgrew
He's been described as the godfather of Northern Ireland rowing with more than 70 years of love and attention dedicated to the sport.
Despite his age Bobby Platt – the current Bann Rowing Club president and former coach – was as sprightly as ever in Coleraine yesterday, welcoming his boys back home.
Bobby ‘Crafty’ Platt is celebrated as the godfather of rowing in Coleraine, coaching Olympic competitors and medal winners for years, having first captained the Bann Rowing Club in 1959 and again from 1972 to 1983.
He celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this year, and began his career as a rower back in 1941 - and has retained his love for rowing over the past seven decades.
“It's a fantastic boost for the sport, being here today, and I really hope there will be more in the future,” he said.
And as for the title of godfather, Bobby's modest demeanour and infectious humour make him one of the most humble men involved in the sport.
“Some people have been asking what's in the water here in Coleraine that's producing these rowers,” he said.
“I haven't done too bad in my time. Not everybody keeps up with it. Some go and get married. I’m here now and I’ve been here for a good while. Just turned 90 there in February.”
Despite his fantastic contribution to rowing he's still very active — having coached a host of top oarsmen over his 71 years in the sport.
Recalling the early days in Coleraine when he was first starting out, he said the chances of an Olympic victory were very slim, as it wasn't included in the Games until after the Second World War.
“I was rowing long before it was an Olympic sport — but I haven't done too bad in my time,” he added.
Minister vows funding review for cramped club facilities
By John Mulgrew
Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has pledged to assess the lack of facilities at Bann Rowing in Coleraine and insisted she will battle for cash to help boost the club.
She said she will be “fighting for the money” in order to improve training facilities for our current and future Olympians — describing the current set-up at the now famous club as “not fit for purpose”.
Speaking as Coleraine's medal-winning rowing talents arrived back to a heroes’ welcome at their home club, she said officials from her department would begin examining the centre next week.
Despite already pledging £3m to help boxing clubs across Northern Ireland, Ms Ni Chuilin said she had no way of giving any assurances of a similar funding package for our rowers.
“I can't make an announcement until I know what the needs are,” she added.
“You can't. I can't say what the needs are until I've done the assessment.
“But I am committed to finding out the needs of club. I'm going to get officials down here next week.”
She added that a re-examination of the budget may be needed in order to see whether funds could be made available.
“I knew just by looking at a few of the (boxing) clubs that there was a big need. Boxing more than any sport has been under-invested for decades,” the minister added.
Bann Rowing Club's vice captain Stephen Smyth showed the Belfast Telegraph around the cramped and limited spaces in which rowers Alan Campbell and the Chambers brothers used to train and hone themselves in preparation for the Games.
In premises below a Chinese restaurant, a small weights room, cramped changing rooms with one urinal and a rowing machine room only able to cope with a handful of potential Olympians at a time are all the some 100 rowers — male and female — at the club have at their disposal.
Mr Smyth said the lack of space meant if our rowing giants wanted to do a press up — their only option was to do it on the cold concrete floor of the boat storage area.
“Compared to somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge that people associate with rowing — this training room is all we have. It's something from the 1950s,” he added.