So what happened next? Right after Paul and Gary O’Donovan became rowing royalty with their Olympic medal honesty in and out of the water in Rio de Janeiro.
After the heroics, welcome to fame, endorsements and awards. Agents. The People of the Year. The television documentary at Christmas on two ordinary Skibbereen lads doing extraordinary things. Filling in what Irish rowing’s first Olympic medallists did next. But catching that shooting star before it vanishes: How does Irish rowing ensure an appropriate and substantive legacy from its finest six and a half minutes?
In the cold blows of December, the National Rowing Centre at Inniscarra in Cork seems an odd spot to be making miracles, but the warm aftermath of that August Friday continues to radiate across the stretch of River Lee that weaves its way around the sport’s headquarters.
“The commercial value is an aside,” Rowing Ireland CEO Hamish Adams says. “It’s like, as a sport, we have been recognised, there’s that feelgood factor for the guy or girl who’s been in the local rowing club for 30 years.”
The analogy of Munster rugby’s breakthrough season in Europe a decade ago would be obvious even if it wasn’t already appropriate, given Adams’ role at the time as the head of the province’s Academy.
“At that time, there was this incredible outpouring of emotion, that sense of a breakthrough. Paul and Gary’s achievements have transformed our sport, it will never be the same again.”
But with that comes increased pressure. Romance giving way to expectation.
“When Munster won the second Heineken Cup in 2008, it was almost expected,” Adams says. “There’s definitely greater pressure now. Paul went straight from Rio to the world championships in Rotterdam, and there was almost an expectation he was going to win. It wasn’t an emotional occasion. The innocence is gone immediately. It’s an incredible change.”
Of course, there are upsides aplenty. Irish Rowing can bring its framed front pages to the Olympic Council and Sport Ireland tables for funding discussions. Every other sport can wait in line. Rowing had to often enough.
“We are going to be at the front of the queue, and rightly so,” Adams says with that typical New Zealand frankness. “Other sports are envious now in many ways. We are all competing against each other for that small piece of the pie. Sports are going to lose funding, it happened to us after the 2012 Games in London. We had to swallow a drop in funding of 33% because we under-performed. We had one rower who finished 13th. It’s hard to invest in that.”
Of greater immediate import, in many ways, is driving active participation on the back of all that positive publicity from August 12.
“All our clubs now have waiting lists,” the CEO declares. “You couldn’t buy the advertising that Paul and Gary have delivered, but we have been growing as a sport consistently for quite a while. Their performances in Rio were driven by strategic planning, good governance and structures. None of these are sexy but getting them right means rowing is in a good place with a stable financial model. Rowing in this country operates on a modest annual turnover of €1.5m and for the last four years, we have delivered a small surplus. Around half the annual spend comes from Sport Ireland’s backing for the High Performance programme.”
Of course, the two-man stand-up routine of the O’Donovan brothers is the lucky bounce money can’t buy.
“Their personality, that’s the X Factor,” Hamish Adams says. “They have endeared themselves to a nation, two very ordinary guys who have achieved an extraordinary thing. There are only 31 Olympic medallists in Ireland.”
This December day, the Rowing Centre is on low wattage even with the television cameras running downstairs with Paul and Gary. The day of the final last August…well, let Hamish relive it.
“We watched it here, Friday afternoon, big screen, probably 50 of us in total. Just a huge buzz, we had the Junior and U23 squads in camp, Dominic’s (coach, Casey) wife was here too. Just this incredible outpouring of emotion because everyone has worked so hard. There’s been six world champions in Ireland, but never an Olympic medal.
“For everyone associated with rowing, it was special.
“What might have gone under the radar was we also had the most successful world championships ever at Junior (Under 18), U23 and senior. All the crews competing this year finished in the top 12 in the world. Our investors are getting good bang for their buck.”
The sport’s recreational side has bolstered membership too. Rowing has 3,000 registered competitive rowers in this country, 3,000 more in coastal rowing, which is affiliated, on top of 4,000 general members.
But just as Tag Rugby has grown tangentially from its mother code, so too is recreational rowing. “Adult competitor numbers are actually declining across Irish sport,” Adams points out. “GAA, rugby, soccer, all the same — the growth areas are on the recreational side. We have had to diversify our business too. The Tribesmen club in Galway has 200 members, and it’s all recreational rowing. Being a competitive athlete takes a huge commitment.”
And then there’s the realm in which the O’Donovans exist, training 30-35 hours a week at their peak.
Hamish Adams is a former rugby professional himself, a hard bastard, according to contemporaries. Even he winces at the extreme physical duress rowers put their bodies through.
“You are literally pushing the body to the point of collapse. In a normal year, these guys might have only 5-10 days off training. They train seven days a week, two or three times a day. To build the aerobic capacity to race 2,000m takes time.”
Four years as CEO, overlooking the stretch of River Lee on which rowing’s OIympic ambitions were nurtured, allowed Adams what proved to be an accurate assessment of what to expect from the Summer Games.
“My exact words at the lunch in the Bon Voyage (in Dublin) were we had the capability of making three finals. We had Sanita (Puspure), Claire Lamb and Sinead Jennings in the lightweight doubles, plus Paul and Gary in the lightweight men’s. Two out of three made finals, Sanita was a little unlucky, she didn’t get the bounce of the ball. The bookies had Paul and Gary in 5th spot, so they probably over-performed. As much as anything that was a testament to how they took everything their stride, they didn’t overthink it. As they said, it was a case of going from A to B as quick as they could.”
What slows, of course, is the natural rhythm of Olympic cycles. The O’Donovans have returned to full-time study, fitting in their commercial demands between books and training. It’s been a steep learning curve for them and everyone in Inniscarra, and Adams hasn’t been slow in utilising his own contacts in professional rugby to manage new challenges.
As a 32-county sport, rowing has challenges of its own, with a base in the south of the country. The National Centre was located in Cork on the advice of World Rowing which deemed it the most suitable stretch of water. Opened a decade now, the Centre has the fully-laned course, the High Performance gym, the technical expertise and back-up and accommodation area for athletes.
2017 focus will be on three World Cup events, a European Championship and a World Championships next September in America which Paul O’Donovan will race as the defending champion.
“Paul was rowing for Ireland at 16, he has been on that pathway for some time. But the future is bright too. Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll, also from Skibbereen, finished 4th in the world, and they are looking at Tokyo in 2020 too. There’s two young lads who rowed in the Under 18 worlds, Darragh Lynch from Clonmel and Ronan Byrne, from Shandon BC. At U23, there’s David O’Malley and Shane Mulvanny (UCD), and Aoife Casey, Dominic’s daughter, is another prospect. Dominic is producing a veritable conveyor belt of serious rowers in Skibb.”
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