Paul and Gary O’Donovan have been joined at the hip in the public consciousness since winning silver medals in Rio four years ago, but the pair had been gliding along on parallel but separate paths this last year until the coronavirus thrust them back into each other’s pockets.
The loosening of the siblings’ sporting bond came about last summer when Gary, after some injury issues earlier in the year, lost his place in the lightweight double sculls boat to Fintan McCarthy and had to acquaint himself with life in the singles.
Paul O’Donovan and McCarthy duly went on to claim gold at the World Rowing Championships in Austria in August. Gary finished fourth in the B final, and tenth overall, in the singles but the goal has always been to get up close and personal again with his younger brother.
He has managed that, but not in the manner either of them expected.
The O’Donovans were in Spain at a training camp when the plug was pulled on the season and they were among the elite rowers advised to self-isolate for two weeks on return to Ireland. That they did, in a rented cottage in West Cork. They’re still there now all these weeks later.
“Over the last few years there we haven’t really had much to do with each other outside of the boat,” said Gary from said cottage by way of conference call. “We live separate, Paul has his studies and I do my own thing. We are fairly independent and only see each other at training.”
The pandemic, and the ripples emanating from it, have caused the O’Donovans to adapt just like everyone else.
Paul had taken a break from medical studies in UCC but the decision by the International Olympic Committee and local organisers in Japan to row the Games back 12 months has allowed him log on to online modules and he will sit his year’s exams this coming August.
Gary graduated from college a few years ago. His days are less cluttered.
“I spent a bit of time this morning wandering, looking at a bit of grass and the trees, checking out the views. There’s some lovely scenery down here in West Cork and you wouldn’t have to walk far from the house.
“Just across the field and over the hill there and you’re looking out at Roaringwater Bay and Kilcoe Castle and Whitehall Castle. We can see Sherkin Island and I can sit down and listen to some podcasts, watch rowing videos... Anything can take over my day, I can tell ya.”
Training still takes up the largest bulk of it.
Two rowing machines loaned from the National rowing Centre have been stationed in the cottage and, in a way, this life of isolation and grind is not a huge change.
Ireland’s climate restricts them to pulling like dogs indoors for long stretches of the winter anyway and there is the realisation too that they are fortunate not to be as dependent on water work as a swimmer or diver.
Paul set a new Irish record at the National Indoors in the UL Arena at the start of February and plenty of others registered PBs. Fitness levels were approaching peak when the Games were postponed, as would be expected given the Games were fast approaching at that point, and the motivation now is to ensure all that work doesn’t go to seed.
For Gary, the goal hasn’t changed: get a seat in that boat.
“If you think about if from an internal perspective, for me, it doesn’t make a huge difference in having been in (the double last year) or not.
"My goal is to win the Olympics. How do I do that? I do all the training I can, all that is necessary to make me as fast as possible.”
Who knows when they will be able to compete again? There is talk of the European Championships, originally scheduled for early June in Poznan, being rerouted to some point in October instead but who can say what tomorrow will bring, let alone a point six months away?
The O’Donovans are following the news like everyone else. They are even tweaking their training schedule on the basis of the updates and projections emanating from government and health officials on a daily basis.
Speculation that the Olympics may not even proceed in the summer of 2021, given the need for a COVID-19 vaccine and the complications involved with an international event that size in the midst of global crisis, hasn’t escaped them either but what can they do but use it as a beacon that is lighting the way for now?
If Tokyo that remains the pull then that competition close to home for the double sculls slits is the push.
For the bones of four years there, from 2015 through to 2018, the two brothers were paddling this particular canoe by themselves but others want a taste of the Olympics now too.
Fintan McCarthy isn’t the only other contender. Add in his brother Jake and Shane O’Driscoll and that’s five of them angling for two spots. Disappointment is guaranteed but the O’Donovans are soaking up the greater depth of knowledge that comes with all this.
They look back to Rio in 2016 now, with their standout performances on the water and the laidback, quirky humour off it that caused a nation fall for them, and marvel at how new to the elite international scene and naive they actually were.
“The one thing I notice is our understanding of rowing and of the programme, and our knowledge, it’s all accumulated a lot since then,” said Gary.
“I often appreciate how much more aware we are. We always said back then that, ‘we’re new to international rowing, we’re trying to figure it, we’re trying to learn’ and, again, in three years time we’ll be a lot better at what we’re doing.
“We’re making progress,” he said.
Even as the world around them stands still.