FOR the last few years, North-East women’s rowing has been riding the crest of a wave. Kat Copeland became the first woman from the region to win an Olympic gold medal when she triumphed in 2012, Jess Eddie competed in successive Olympic finals in the eight, and the likes of Tina Stiller and Beth Bryan have won world medals at under-23 level.
There has been success on the men’s side – most notably via Matt Wells, who won an Olympic bronze medal in Beijing, and Kieren Emery, who won a senior world title in 2011 – but since the 2012 Games, the region has lacked a male figurehead despite the successes of Nathaniel Reilly-O’Donnell and Will Fletcher.
His winning margin of almost 15 seconds is unprecedented at elite level, but marks the continuation of an improvement that should see him emerge as a leading medal candidate in Rio in two years time.
“I felt like I had a point to prove,” said Kirkwood, who was raised in Cresswell, near Ashington, and learned to row at Cambois Rowing Club on the Tyne. “Last season, I felt like I should have been given a chance in an Olympic class boat, rather than competing in the World Championships in a single.
“I wanted to show everyone what I could do, and I think I did that. I beat a really high-calibre field by a fairly large margin. There were Olympic medallists in there, but I felt good going into the race and was able to execute things as I wanted to.
“We’ll see what happens selection-wise now, but my main aim for the rest of the year is to be part of the double. That’s where I want to be at the European Championships, and hopefully on into the Worlds. If I could do it with Will (Fletcher, who is from Chester-le-Street), that would be even better.”
Kirkwood began his rowing career competing in Inter-Regional Championships for the North-East as a 15-year-old, and was invited to train at Durham School when his ability was spotted at regional regattas.
He was a spare at the under-23 World Championships in 2008, and joined the Imperial College Rowing Club when he moved south to study sport science at Roehampton University.
He won gold as part of the lightweight four at the 2010 Under-23 World Championships in Belarus, but was forced to miss the Olympic trials in 2012 after suffering glandular fever and post-viral fatigue.
He made the World Championships ‘B’ final in the lightweight single last year, and is determined to continue his upward progress over the course of the next 12 months.
“I’ve come a long way since I was starting out at Cambois under the head coach at the time, Norman Howitt, but I feel like I’ve only really started on my journey,” said Kirkwood. “I’ve had two pretty serious illnesses since entering the senior ranks, and was devastated when I missed out on making the senior team at a couple of trials.
“But that’s all in the past now. I’m fully fit and feel like I’ve come on so much as a rower in the last couple of years. The move to Henley, to be close to Caversham, has really helped me, and I’m looking forward to competing in some big competitions this year.”