Louise O'Neill: My new obsession is the rower, Paul O’Donovan

I think about all the children at home, watching these two men, standing on a podium as the Irish flag is raised and Amhrán na bhFiann is played
Louise O'Neill: My new obsession is the rower, Paul O’Donovan

Fintan Mccarthy and Paul O'Donovan celebrate winning the gold medal during the Lightweight Men's Double Sculls Final A in Tokyo, Japan. Picture: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Marian Keyes refers to them as her ‘sudden, wild enthusiasms’ – when, seemingly out of nowhere, she will develop an all-encompassing obsession with renovating old furniture or an obscure Icelandic musician and that’s all she can think about for the foreseeable future. 

I have found myself in the middle of a Sudden Wild Enthusiasm recently, one which many of you might share.

Over the last number of days, I have become an armchair expert on the ‘twisties’, (the phenomenon which can leave gymnasts unable to tell up from down when they’re in the air) which forced Simone Biles to withdraw from the Olympics. I have spent hours scrolling through #OlympicTikTok because TRULY, there is nothing I want to know more about than the Olympic village and the cardboard beds to stop the contestants hooking up with each other (because I’m sure the world’s most gifted athletes will never figure out how to have sex standing up), what the free swag bags contain, what food they’re eating, etc. 

I’m fascinated by these people in the same way I’m fascinated with Beyoncé; to see the magic that can occur when raw talent is met with a level of discipline, hard work, and sacrifice that is unthinkable for most of us.

My new obsession is the rower, Paul O’Donovan. I’ll admit that much of this is pride that it’s someone from West Cork who is considered the best in the world at his chosen sport, described by his awed competitors as a ‘beast’, a ‘monster’. 

Ireland's Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy celebrating their victory after the Lightweight Men's Double Sculls Final. 
Ireland's Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy celebrating their victory after the Lightweight Men's Double Sculls Final. 

Speaking to Newstalk, three-time rowing Olympian, Niall O’Toole, said, “Paul is a phenomenon, one in a million… He’s so far ahead of everyone else, it’s just hard to fathom.” 

As always, after O’Donovan’s post-race interviews, the conversation became less about his physical prowess and more about his remarkably relaxed demeanour. His mother has said that if he was ‘any more laid back, he’d be a corpse’, and the questions put both to O’Donovan and his fellow gold medal winner, Fintan McCarthy, often attempt to interrogate that composure.

It is like we cannot understand how two men could be so unflappable with the weight of a nation’s expectations upon them, or to be more precise, how able they are to understand that in the end, those expectations have nothing to do with them. 

They can only control what they can control – their training, their preparation, their ability to ‘pull like a dog’ once they’re in the boat. After that, it’s in the hands of the gods.

What I find most interesting about Paul O’Donovan is his attitude to winning. In a capitalistic culture where we are encouraged to strive for material achievement above all else, there is something almost subversive about a man holding his gold medal and saying, “it’s fine, like. You’re very happy winning obviously but at the end of the day, you forget about it and get on with life.” 

He has also said that “there’s almost a ceiling on how happy you can be for winning medals”, and that “if we don’t (win gold) but we still gave it our best shot, then we’ll be kind of happy with that.”

There’s a lesson there, even for those of us who will never set foot in the Olympic village. 

How often do we tell ourselves that we will be happy when we earn this amount of money, when we get that promotion when we receive the validation that we’re so desperate for? When did the destination become more important than the journey?

Much has been said about the extraordinary success of the Skibbereen Rowing Club, and from people far better placed to comment on that success than I am. 

Gold medallists Paul O'Donovan, left, and Fintan McCarthy at Dublin Airport as Team Ireland's rowers returned from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Sunday. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Gold medallists Paul O'Donovan, left, and Fintan McCarthy at Dublin Airport as Team Ireland's rowers returned from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Sunday. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

But I was struck by a passage in Kieran McCarthy’s book on the club, 'Something in the Water', in which a very young Paul and Gary met a Great Britain Olympic champ and had a chance to wear his gold medal. “From that day on,” their father said, “they always believed they were going to the Olympics. Nothing was going to stop them.”

Gary O’Donovan has said that as children, he and Paul looked up to the likes of former Olympians Eugene Coakley and Timmy Harnedy, and their success, “seemed achievable because these lads were local.” 

There’s even a clip from the 2016 'Pull Like A Dog' documentary in which Fintan McCarthy and his brother, Jake, say that seeing the O’Donovan brothers do so well was incredible motivation. 

“We’d be looking at them,” Jake McCarthy explains, “and we’d just be thinking why can’t we do the same thing?” Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy have proven there is a path from the river Illen to the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo, and have done so with a humility and sense of humour that is irresistible. 

I think about all the children at home, watching these two men, standing on a podium as the Irish flag is raised and Amhrán na bhFiann is played, and I wonder what those children will think is possible for them. What dreams they can achieve if they work hard enough.

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