Irish Competitor Has A Little Extra Motivation At WRICH 2023

By Stuart Miller-Davis

Declan Watson has never let what some might see as insurmountable obstacles get in the way of his passion for indoor rowing and participating in its top global events.

Watson just competed in the 2023 European Rowing Indoor Championships in Paris, France and can’t wait to participate in person once again in the 55 to 59, 2000m event at the 2023 World Rowing Indoor Championships taking place in Canada for the first time ever on February 25 and 26.

“Since the last in person World Rowing Indoor Championships (WRICH) in Paris in 2020, I have been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, gone through high dose Chemo and a stem cell transplant.  I am in month 18 of maintenance therapy and still in remission,” says Watson, who adds competing in rowing is good for his physical and mental well-being.

Watson adds, “this is an incurable blood cancer and I have made a very conscious decision to ‘Live With Cancer’ and not fight cancer.  This thing sucks up enough energy as is – living with it is a much more efficient way to use that energy.”

Watson took up rowing when he was the track and field captain at Trinity College Dublin University to make good on a bet with a friend for a beer that he couldn’t last one session. He was instantly hooked on the sport and the indoor version would prove to be an important coping mechanism in the face of his myeloma diagnosis, and when his wife, Julianne, was dealing with throat cancer. 

“When I went into the boat house for the first time, I felt a sense of the history in terms of the photographs from over a century of previous crews. It had that Oxford-Cambridge feel to it,” he said on a Zoom call about what attracted him to rowing. “The atmosphere and the community among rowers were absolutely captivating.”

Watson rowed competitively for a few years after leaving university to live in the US. The rigours of travel for work forced him to let go of rowing, though not completely still keeping an erg around that got the odd use every once and again. When Julianne was diagnosed, getting back on the rowing machine gave him a way to “keep my mental state in some shape or form.”

“I got totally back into it,” Watson says. “Before I knew it, an online group convinced me to go to the 2018 World Rowing Indoor Championships in Alexandria, Virginia. I wasn’t in peak shape, but I loved the nature of getting into a competition again and it sparked from there.”

He’s since competed in European Indoor, British Indoor, Irish Indoor, other WRICHs, leading up to WRICH 2023 in Mississauga. His wife who breathes through a stoma in her neck has also returned to using the erg.

“I enjoy the sense of occasion,” he says of participating in the World Championships. “There’s a buzz, especially when there are so many people doing great things,” adds Watson, who actually spent three years working in Toronto.  He is looking forward to seeing some familiar places and catching up with old friends.

“I have changed my lifestyle and my mindset towards cancer. I know my cancer is coming back, but I’d like a long remission of several years. In the meantime, research will have progressed even further. Part of living with it is keeping the extra energy to get out of bed.”

Though it has made the physical nature of competing in indoor rowing harder (laughing as he says he’s on performance inhibiting drugs), it’s important as he tries to keep a sense of normalcy. Even though he knows he’s not going to reach the times he’s done in the past. 

“A big part of it for me is trying to reclaim normality as much as I can,” he says. “You always want to get back to where you were, but my goals have completely changed. Until I’m done with chemo, it’ll be four or five months until I can get back to that. For now, it’s just trying to adapt.”

The longtime human resources consultant says one of the things he values most about getting back into rowing is getting involved with the online indoor rowing community, where people are quite active and post messages to one another. 

“People are coming from all kinds of different backgrounds and capabilities and when people post, whether it be a personal best, or a new distance rowed, people are pretty positive in their feedback. When someone asks a question, people will come with helpful answers,” he says. 

He adds, ” I really place a high value on that kind of positivity because my own motivation to get out of bed in the morning is to help people succeed and that’s given me a tone of energy.”

At WRICH 2023, it isn’t all about winning or losing for Watson. Rather, it’s about enjoying the moment with the community he’s grown to love.