The big interview: Skibbereen stars counting the cost of rowing faster

By Larry Ryan

The first World Cup event of the rowing season began yesterday in Belgrade. Having wintered together in Australia and New Zealand, two Skibbereen double-acts now face very different challenges. Gary and Paul O’Donovan are on top of the world to be shot down, while Shane O’Driscoll and Mark O’Donovan must summon the appetite to survive the biggest test of their careers.

Summer yawns in front of the four Skibbereen lads who have Ireland circled on every rowing map. Their second summer of 2018 holds great promise but also much to weigh and calculate.

Paul and Gary O’Donovan must count the cost of celebrity and make sure they pay no price in speed. They must count the cost of everything and make sure they have the price of it.

Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll have already calculated the steep price of an Olympic dream. Now they must make sure they don’t pay too heavily with their bodies.

The four friends spent the first three months of the year together on the other side of the world. This weekend they begin their European season. The brothers, the Olympic silver-medalists, started in Belgrade yesterday among the World Cup favourites and progressed smoothly to today’s semi-final of the lightweight double.

But Mark and Shane, the lightweight pair world champions, now bulked-up for their transition to heavyweight, are starting all over again.

“The Irish O’Donovan brothers are, perhaps, the biggest characters in world rowing at the moment and are building quite a celebrity status with Red Bull,” wrote British rowing writer Daniel Spring this week on the Fatsculler blog, previewing the first World Cup event of the year.

The energy drink people arrived in Skibb earlier this year to tell the Olympic story one more time. And the mini-documentary produced has given wings to a global appeal built on their Rio charm.

But however easily they deal with the attention, it also makes them wary. And they’ve been locked down since at their base at the National Training Centre in Farran Wood, Cork.

“We’ve been keeping the head down,” says Paul. “If we wanted we could be going around doing something the whole time,” Gary says. “If we were to do them all we’d miss so many days of training and we’d risk not doing well.

“Every decision we’ve made in our lives has been to try and go faster so why would we start making other decisions now that will slow us down?”

Every decision must be weighed and franked and costed. They compete in Serbia this weekend and at the third World Cup in Lucerne, mid-July, but Rowing Ireland — strapped for funding and with an expanding roster of high-performance athletes — can’t afford to send a team to the middle event in Linz, Austria. As the Southern Star reported this week, however, the O’Donovans will attempt to make their own way, to “beg, borrow, or steal” a boat to take part.

“We’d love to do it. The more racing the better,” Gary says. “We train 50-55 weeks of the year.”

“Hardly 55,” offers Paul.

“Ok, 50 anyway. We take the two weeks off so you’ve got so many weeks behind you and you only have four or five big race weekends in the year, so you want to try and capitalise on that.”

Gary O’Donovan knows exactly how many weeks there are in the year and what to do with them. As he says in that Red Bull film, “we kind of act kind of stupid and don’t give away anything.”

The decision to winter in Australia and New Zealand wasn’t taken lightly. There might have been snaps coming home of the quartet on Sydney Harbour Bridge. There was the odd trip to the Blue Mountains and out to Palm Beach — or Summer Bay — where Alf Stewart never flamin’ showed. But this was an investment lodged midway through an Olympic cycle.

“We have one of the best facilities in the world (on Inniscarra Lake in Farran),” Gary says. “We definitely have one of the greatest stretches of water. We have the advantage of having a 2km rowing course out there, permanently, all year round. The facility is perfect for everything we need. But unfortunately we don’t have the weather all year round. It’s one of the big challenges, especially for crews where you have to synchronise. You need to get in the water and to be able to do that all year round can be difficult here. So we try to get away.

“Because we were all finished studying and Mark and Shane weren’t working, we said what will we do with ourselves, we’ll travel the world. Why not? We mightn’t get this opportunity again. It’s outside an Olympic qualifying year, when things will be more refined and structured and everything will be a bit more focussed.”

Friends and favours were called, shoestrings pulled. Their popularity on the circuit helped. In New Zealand they stayed with World Championship bronze medalist Chris Harris. In Australia, they were based at a rowing club outside Sydney, where former Olympians — ex-Skibb stalwart Richard Coakley and Fermoy’s Gearóid Towey — smoothed the logistics with boats and transport.

“We paid for all of it,” says Mark. “It was fairly costly, three full months away. It was good, but it was expensive.”

“The priority was to get our training done,” Gary says. “We had good weather, did loads of sightseeing, made good friends, but the opportunity was rowing, and if we had been given the opportunity to go down there, without boats or rowing clubs or water, we’d have said no way.

“In New Zealand we raced the national championships. We raced some of the fastest crews in the world. And we got a good kick up the arse down there.

“But it’ll all in perspective. We’re not stupid either. We have to be realistic about what our capabilities are at that time of year against that competition. They’re after three months of racing, their summer season. And we went down with the priority to train and target our European season, and the World Cups. And the World Championships.

“But we were really able to learn how fast these guys and girls can go all year round. They’re going as fast as they will be in the World Champs in September, which is kind of alien to countries in the northern hemisphere. So we come home and think maybe we can maintain that peak, we can go faster earlier and it possibly won’t hinder us later on.”

The dream team even got a run out.

“We actually raced in a four in New Zealand, the elite four, “ Gary says. “We finished third. We were delighted with it. They were all heavyweights. The Olympic champion in the men’s single was in the four that came second. We were about a half a length behind them.

“It was good fun. Our double is successful and we’ll stick to that, but if we get the opportunity to race together we’ll take it because it’s enjoyable. If we can do things to freshen the mind we do.”

They returned fresh and fit and with their outstanding French nemesis — Rio gold medal winners Jeremie Azou and Pierre Houin — retired, they will meet expectancy wherever they travel.

For Mark and Shane, there is rather more uncertainty ahead as they open another chapter in what might yet prove one of the most compelling Irish sport stories.

Unbeatable last year on their way to three lightweight World Cup wins and European and World Championship golds, the season was still clouded by the decision of world governing body FISA to drop the men’s lightweight four from the Tokyo Olympics. With no lightweight pairs race, it was their most realistic Olympic ticket torn up.

Hence the decision to go heavyweight. From racing at 70 kilos last year, they’ve since put on eight or nine kilos each.

“It is a struggle every day,” Shane says. “We go home from training and just eat and eat and eat. Before we’d have been really watching our diet but now it’s just calories, getting calories in. The support staff is good, we’re working with a nutritionist who comes down from Dublin from the Institute of Sport and she has opened our eyes.

“We’re working so bloody hard out there that we can basically eat anything. We have clean dinners and eat a lot of veg, proper meat, carbs, but around that, straight after a session, it’s calories in straight away. Anything in sight really.

“We weigh ourselves maybe three times a day. And some days if you don’t get the calories in straight after training, you will suffer the next day and your weight will start dropping pretty rapidly.

“But we’re after putting on a few kilos of muscle so we’re happy with that. We’re quite surprised. We’re being very patient with it and people are being patient around us.”

The transition is a two- to three-year project, they reckon. So do they have enough time? The target is top 11 at the Worlds in 2019, the Olympic qualifying mark. For now, there was no guarantee they’d even be the country’s best at the heavier grade. But a fortnight ago at the Ireland trials in Farran, they held off the giant pair Patrick Boomer and Andy Harrington by 2.8 seconds.

“We’re trying to ensure our muscle mass and aerobically we’re as good as it was when we were lightweight,” Mark says. “But we’ve got to be smarter about it now. We’re going to be up against guys a foot bigger than us, with bigger lungs.”

They were 13th fastest in the heats yesterday but missed out on a semi-final place in the repechage. They will race in the C final this weekend.

Shane estimates they must cut 10 seconds minimum by September 2019. Yesterday, they were 14 off the fastest boat.

It’s a stark adjustment for a pair grown used to looking over their shoulders.

“After winning the world champs last year, it’s going to be hard,” Mark admits. “It’s massively different.

“But myself and Shane have been in this position many times before. We’re used to shovelling the shit really.

“We’ve always been coming from the back making our way through. We’re always persevering.

“It took us three years to become world champions in the lightweight. We’re taking ourselves back those three years. We’re going to try our level best and these things take time.”

They have the backing of new Rowing Ireland high-performance coach Antonio Maurogiovanni, and despite Australian David McGowan’s arrival as Ireland heavyweight coach, they’ll continue, like Paul and Gary, to work with legendary Skibb coach Dominic Casey.

As Shane puts it: “We’re changing a lot of stuff now, and Antonio saw that. We don’t need to change everything. We’re working well with Dominic.”

“There is an exception in place. With a strong Skibbereen bond,” Mark laughs. “Antonio has been very kind with that. We’ve been working with Dominic so long and his programme has been so successful, you can’t change a winning combination, can you?”

A combination with the appetite to start winning again.

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.


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