Rowers Gary and Paul O’Donovan say benefits from sport far exceed the fleeting joy of a big win. Áilín Quinlan reports
OLYMPIC silver medallists Gary and Paul O’Donovan, who carved out glittering national and international careers in rowing, are now urging children to get involved in sports at a young age.
The duo, who recently took silver in a terrific World Cup race in Poznan, Poland, started out in the sport very early on — they first handled oars when they were both in primary school.
Eight years later they rowed for Ireland for the first time. “We started rowing in 2001 and we rowed for Ireland for the first time in 2008. Our Dad was involved in the local rowing club and he‘d bring us in with him, and we saw people training and racing,” recalls Gary, now 24, who is currently planning to return to college - either at his alma Mater, Cork Institute of Technology, or at University College Cork - to begin a master’s degree.
“I was about eight and Paul was about seven when we first started rowing with Skibbereen Rowing Club.
“We were also involved in football, soccer and rugby - we did everything! Even when we were rowing we were doing other sports, but eventually the rowing took over.”
Their comments come at a time when experts are reporting a dramatic rise in children’s sedentary behaviour - a report published just last month (May) by the World Health Organisation which looked at the prevalence of childhood obesity from 2002 to 2014 found the condition was on the rise among adolescences and that the vast majority of young people were failing to take recommended levels of daily exercise. Worryingly, researchers found that up to two-thirds of children were spending two or more hours a day on computers, tablets or smartphones. The study warned that it’s now estimated that one in three adolescents in Europe are overweight or obese.
Exercise is crucial for children for several reasons.
Gary recalls that playing sports as young boys, helped the brothers burn off their very large amounts of surplus energy.
Another plus was the fact that they always played sports in the company of friends: “We started bringing our friends with us to the rowing club and they started rowing with us.
“They were in the boat with us and we loved being active and being outside.
“We were always very active anyway, and we loved being outside and loved being out on the water.
“We loved exercise and we had our friends with us and we developed a huge passion and love of rowing.”
Starting sports at a young age, according to Paul, 23, who has just finished his final physiotherapy exams at UCD, has other benefits too:
“You learn time management and organisation.
“Everyone has to set goals.
“The goals have to be appropriate, and children will take responsibility for a goal they have been involved in setting for themselves.
“If children achieve a goal they’ll have a sense of satisfaction in having done it.
“If they don’t achieve it, they’ll be disappointed and that’s ok too because you won’t always reach your goals.
“So children learn to try harder and keep practising and kids figure all of this out themselves.”
However, he emphasises, it’s important that the goals are appropriate and that children enjoy what they’re doing:
“It’s always good to challenge children, but they have to be happy to be doing it!
“It’s very important for children to learn to set goals in sports, and what Gary and I have learned is that you can carry that goal-setting into later in life.”
It’s a good idea for children to try as many sports as they can, Paul adds - for years, he and Gary played many different sports. “It’s important to have a healthy lifestyle and to try different sports and find one that suits you.”
However, cautions Gary, it’s not a case of giving children a list of sports to work through until they find one that suits - it’s more holistic than that:
“Kids are naturally inclined to be active. You don’t have to try everything and pick one.
“Some people like to do several different sports, and this doesn’t end with sports it applies to every aspect of life - for example, you’ll study a broad range of subjects at school and in college. It doesn’t have to be just one sport!” Fun is a crucial element, however, as Gary emphasises:
“Fun is part of a kid’s nature. When Paul and I were growing up, rowing was fun. It was something we liked doing, and with our friends, it was great. It was the same with football -we wanted to be with our friends and run around a field!
“Kids don’t enjoy doings things if they’re not fun to do and they’re not happy doing it”
He says enjoyment has been key to him and his brother, with whom he officially teamed up in 2015 ahead of the 2016 Olympics:
“We always try to have as much fun as we can!”
The O’Donovans recently joined forces with FBD Insurance to encourage children to participate in sport from a young age through its Choose Sport initiative which is using a variety of social media platforms to promote this message.
As part of the drive, the brothers recently presented the students of St Joseph’s BNS, Carrickmacross, with new sports equipment and joined them for their annual sports day.
Sports has brought tremendous benefits for the duo, who were born and reared at Lisheen near the West Cork town of Skibbereen.
But it’s not just the trophies and the acclaim that come from winning silver at the 2016 World Rowing Cup, and that same year, gold at the European Championships and silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics - not to mention a memorable appearance on the Graham Norton Show.
For Gary, sport is also about the people he meets and all that travelling he gets to do. “Sports is our lives. We’ve grown up doing this - it’s all we know and what we really enjoy is that we meet loads of people.
“When we were small and right through our adolescence we were going around the country rowing and meeting people everywhere we went.
“More recently we’ve been travelling to international events and making friends all over the world..”
Gary highlights other, less obvious, but profound benefits: “ For me, sports helped build character - you learn about things like goal-setting and planning to achieve your goals and you experience happiness when you achieve them and disappointment when you don’t!” The duo plan to continue their schedule of rowing and study for some years to come.
“At the moment we are travelling a lot - to races and training camps - but we will be going back to college,” says Gary, who plans to begin a postgraduate degree, possibly in marketing.
Paul too is enjoying a summer of rowing - with Gary he will be attending a slew of regattas and training camps in advance of the world championships - but like his older brother, he is planning for some years of post-graduate study.
“I’m waiting for my exam results and I will row for the summer,” he says, adding that for the time being, he will be focusing on racing.
“I’d like to go back to college and further my education by doing a post-graduate degree - a master’s degree in the area of physiotherapy. I enjoy the work. So we will be continuing the rowing in tandem with our studies for the foreseeable future.”
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