In an incredible year that brought him and his brother from the European and Olympic podiums to the Graham Norton Show, and a host of awards ceremonies in between, Gary O’Donovan describes the special local Lisheen moment that meant the most. And he recalls how watching the driven younger Paul one day ignited the champion inside him too
Even someone from whom talk spills so easily needs a drop of fuel back in the tank first. Gary O’Donovan has sliced 20km through Inniscarra lake this morning, soaked the pain away in the shower and has half an hour before he lifts weights.
He leads the way to the kitchen at the National Rowing Centre at Farran Wood, 22 km from Cork city, mixes his porridge and prods the microwave. On the notice board is pinned Eamonn Sweeney’s article about the Sports Person of the Year Awards from the Sunday Independent, headline: ‘RTÉ wins award for silliest shortlist’. In the corner, the fourth best lightweight pair in the world this year — Shane O’Driscoll and Mark O’Donovan — hunch over an iPad, sliding frame by frame through footage of their own 20k ‘paddle’ this morning, picking holes. The lads are sweep rowing — one oar each — compared to Gary and Paul O’Donovan’s sculling.
“Way harder,” says Shane. “Sure, if we get it wrong, and one goes harder than the other, we start going round in circles.”
All this analysis, though. Don’t tell us there’s a bit more to this than just pulling like a dog.
“Tell him nothing, Gary…” is the advice, as the older O’Donovan retrieves his porridge and squirts an island of honey. “... you know this fella has been telling lies for the last four months.”
“It’s all about keeping the lies consistent,” Gary smiles. “Like, if I start telling people now we pull like cats, it could bring the whole thing down…”
He leaves them at it and the European champion, one half of Irish rowing’s first Olympic medal-winning boat, goes looking for a place he can poke through it all one more time. Maybe for the last time in 2016. Maybe. It’s not hard to find a spot. It’s quieter here at the beginning of another Olympic cycle. Natural erosion as some fall away having come up short and others can’t afford to put civilian life on hold any longer.
Gary unlocks an office and cradles his porridge. It’s too hot. His Rio tan has dimmed. Hint of a winter cough. Fleece over the t-shirt. But first thing that screams there’s more than glamour and awards shows in his life right now are the hands. Destroyed. Blisters on blisters.
“Ah, that’s standard. I get it particularly bad. Paul wouldn’t get as much trouble. If you pull at anything for long enough, you’re going to get a blister. Four hours a day holding onto one thing, pulling at it fairly hard.
“When we go away for a training camp, when you’re doing 40-50k a day, the whole team become absolute experts on medical tape. Just to survive a training session. Before you go out on the water, you just roll a load of tape around the blisters and put a bit of tissue or something soft between it and the tape.
“But at competitions, it’s not too bad. At the regatta, a race is only six minutes whereas 40k takes four or five hours. They weren’t too bad at the Olympics.”
Last Saturday, here at the centre, Mark and Shane beat him into third in an Ireland singles assessment. Paul didn’t row.
Gary graduated with his business degree from CIT last month, and will soon start another course, but Paul was tied up with his physiotherapy exams and is still hard at it this week.
“I haven’t been training as well as they have. It’s that simple,” Gary says.
Awards shows and glamour?
“Probably. I try not to take a day off. But we tend to end up taking them alright. Other commitments and stuff.”
This is Gary’s soft regime, during this slack period of celebration and rewards and wintering well...
“Sometimes, I go home after the first session and have a nap.” Nana’s place. “Today, there’s S&C coaches here so I’ll stick around and do some weightlifting. It depends what the boys are doing as well. It’s nice to train with a bit of company.
“I’ll go home after the weights, have the dinner and probably go on the rowing machine this evening for an hour or two — 16k or 18k. I might only do 16k after doing weights. If I didn’t do the weights, I’d do 20/22k.
“But we train really early on a Sunday morning and late on a Monday evening. So we’re nearly getting two days off. You train both days but it’s nearly like two days off. That helps get the recovery right.”
He looks up from the porridge and catches the wince.
“Nobody here knows any better. We’ve been doing it all our lives. You normally take a couple of weeks off after the World Championships. But even then, we’re mad eager to get back and we’re thinking, God almighty, what would we be doing if we weren’t rowing.”
THIS FAME THING, I DON’T GET IT...
Michael Stipe, E-Bow the Letter
Earlier, when Gary was in the shower, Irish Rowing CEO Hamish Adams made tea, gave the tour of the high-performance gym, the physio rooms, the bunk bed sleeping quarters. He talked about the publicity windfall the lads have dealt the sport. Every YouTube click, chat show appearance, awards show gong lengthens the new waiting lists at rowing clubs around the land.
These brothers are rowing’s Jack Charlton. Even if Jack only took the boat out to fish.
Did it bother them any bit, inside the circle, that RTÉ awards fuss; Paul, who also won World Championship gold, nominated as an individual, both as a team? Hamish doesn’t really know if two rowers in a boat constitutes a team — two individuals working together, is how he thinks of it — but he was glad the evening didn’t send only one of them home rewarded.
The clipping in the kitchen, though, that’s not a GAA dressing room door, we’ll-show-them-boys-in-the-media kind of thing, Gary insists.
“We put it up on the wall because it was a nice picture of us. One of the lads cut it out.”
Did Paul’s separate nod bother him at all?
“No, why would it? I didn’t think too much about it. What difference does it make to me? I do my training and go as fast as I can regardless. Rowing is number one and everything else like that is irrelevant.
“It’s really good for the sport, the more publicity and exposure for rowing. Myself and Paul were two individuals who won team of the year. But without our coach Dominic Casey, for one, we’d be nothing. We wouldn’t be the team we are. The three of us are the lightweight double, if you wish.”
The brothers might, overnight, have joined the most recognisable faces in the country. But out here, fame might seem as temporary and fickle as a ripple on the water. When you can slog for 8,000km a year alongside high achievers who nobody knows. People who run you close and keep you honest and sometimes beat you, but who are as invisible to the nation as you were a few short months ago.
“If you took a runner or a soccer team who came fourth in the world, they’d be complete superstars. But Shane and Mark are relatively unknown. Although we’d been a little bit successful, we were completely unknown until Rio. I guess that’s the nature of the sport.
“Give it another year or two or three, there will be lot more faces. If you took all of our results away, exclude myself and Paul, it’s probably been one of the most successful years ever for Irish rowing.
“Sanita (Puspure), third at the Europeans; Denise (Walsh) fourth at the Europeans, the lightweight pair fourth at the Euros, fourth at the Worlds. A whole bunch of crews came top 12 at the Worlds.”
Claire Lambe and Sinead Jennings in an Olympic final. Darragh Lynch and Ronan Byrne shining at the World U18s. Aoife Casey, Dominic’s daughter, coming strong.
“Myself and Paul are getting a lot of publicity and exposure. And any recognition we can get for the sport, that’s great. Because that will drive it on. But it’s important too to appreciate it’s not just myself and Paul that are the Irish rowing team.
“We spent the 12 months before Rio in Inniscarra lake with the rest of them.
“Out there this morning, we were all racing against each other. And putting pressure on each other. And that competition helps us get faster. There’s a whole infrastructure around it. Morten (Espersen) the high-performance director, he’s got a whole world of knowledge of rowing, he’s been around forever and a day.”
And in a sport like rowing, out there on the water, you can never hide from the gold standard.
“All the lads and girls on the team, we compare relative speeds as well. So while one crew might be faster than another, we compare our speeds relative to a gold medal time. So we might be faster than the lightweight women’s crew, but they might be closer to winning a medal.”
Team or not, they are rivals too. In 2015, Gary and Paul qualified a lightweight double boat for Rio. But in 2016, both had to compete to sit in it.
“That’s only fair. That’s a huge incentive. That’s what drives the team on. Why it was so successful at the World Championships.
“Obviously, everyone wants to get in the top boat. But it’s not just trying to get into the top boat. There’s athletes there who know they won’t get into the top boat this year.
“But the young lads think if they can get into the top four of the U23s, they can go to the U23s in a quad and have a very good chance of a medal.
“And then the U23 guys in the quad are probably thinking if I can get into the senior boat, I’ll have a better chance of a medal.
“Four years ago, I was in a double with Shane and I was coming 12th at the U23 World Championships. Steadily we’ve been progressing. It’s a constant ladder for the whole team.
“All this publicity and media attention is well and good and it’s great to promote the sport. But the best possible way we can promote the sport and continue the longevity of the media exposure is to win medals. We have to keep that in mind too. If we just spend all our time doing media, we won’t be able to do the training we need to do to keep as successful as we are.”
Do you have to draw a line under 2016?
“Not really. As long as we can get our training done.
“If we disappear off the face of the earth, it’ll probably spike and come back down. If we can keep winning medals and more people win medals, hopefully it will grow and keep growing.”
DRIVEN PAST DISTRACTION...
Teddy O’Donovan put his sons in a boat on the Ilen River for the first time when they were seven and nine.
They enjoyed it and they were naturals and Teddy sunk deep foundations of technique upon which Dominic Casey and the centre of excellence that Skibbereen Rowing Club has become built winners.
Yet, something separated the brothers. When the Irish Examiner’s Stephen Barry met the lads a few weeks before Rio, Gary told him about the night, four years ago, when he tried to convince his friends he was going to knuckle down and make the Olympics and they thought it was the drink talking.
On RTÉ Radio, Paul recalled the time Gary was out the night before a national championship, slept through his alarm, missed his race and got the club fined.
That kind of thing didn’t happen to Paul, who had been targeting the Olympics since he was 12.
“I always put in the time. I was coming out the same time as Paul, going home the same time, going in the water with him, putting in the same distance as him. I just didn’t have that same intent.
“When I was younger, I used to love going out rowing. I just loved being in the water. And my friends were there. And they are still here and I love coming out on the water to hang out with my friends.
“But then Paul started doing really well. And it was more I could visualise it myself at that stage, more of a realisation I can see why Paul is doing so well. I could see the intensity he does his training at. It was more a change of mindset than anything. I’m here anyway, I’m doing the same mileage, I might as well put in the same effort, mentally and physically.”
The younger bro still serves as an inspiration, now he’s world champion.
“We have a good benchmark here. We can go out and train against the fastest sculler in the world. And you know if you train hard and get close to him, you’ve a good chance of doing well. If you can beat him, you’ve a good chance of being the fastest in the world.”
A TO B AS FAST AS YOU CAN...
“Their personality was the X Factor,” Hamish Adams says. “Endeared them to the nation. They are two great guys. What you saw in front of the cameras, that’s who they are.”
A few minutes in the kitchen at Inniscarra dispels any idea theirs was a show for primetime. It’s a place that smiles and laughs and welcomes, tries to persuade a visitor to go out for a splash in a boat, that really would go round in circles. Or sink.
“Rowing is a hard sport. We put in a lot of hours, going up and down, just pulling the oars through the water, doing the same thing again and again and again.
“We put a big emphasis on having a bit of fun around it too. We have a brilliant time. I don’t think we’d come out here all the time if we weren’t having fun.”
Gary has talked before about the pain, how he used to hate it, but gradually worked with it, then past it, but how it never melts away. And he knows well it would be easy enough make the whole thing sound too grim.
“Rowing isn’t televised at all, not in Ireland anyway. Even at international level, only the finals are televised.
“So the only time you see the top guys racing is when they are their very very best. If you’re a youngster, looking at that, it’s daunting. It’s amazing to see these top boats. It’s intimidating.
“I used look at them and say, how are they so good, how do you compete with them?
“When youngsters come in here to race or train, they might be thinking, these guys came second at the Olympics, they must train so hard, it must be so gruelling, oh my God, the focus and the determination.
“And yeah, it’s all there, but we have a great time as well around that. For people to see the fun makes it more of an achievable target.”
In Rio, the fun was being out on the water with their friends, the Norwegians, the British, the French. So when the RTÉ cameras swung by, it was as if Joe Stack had popped into the club in Skibb or the kitchen in Inniscarra.
Maybe most elite athletes these days tend to shut up shop and give us cliches about executing the process. But the lads could lift the shutters and melt YouTube only because the process was tightly locked down.
“It’s each to their own. Some people would go round the regatta venue before a race with their earphones in and they’d keep to themselves. But we’re outgoing guys and we just like chatting to people. We’d chat to our competitors before the race. It’s not like we’re ignoring the process and turning up and having a laugh.
“We are in complete control of everything. We have our process down. We have our warmup down to a tee. We have our pre-race nutrition down really well. Our weight management. Everything.
“But when we’re in control of it, we’re able to relax. It’s not like we are running around chasing after ourselves, wondering what do we have to do now. We know what we’re doing now, we have five minutes to spare so we can sit around and chat.”
At the same time, it demands a certain grace and self-possession to take more than a decade of learning and strengthening and fine- tuning; of studying race footage and training videos “since they got the internet” and distill it down to going from A to B as fast as you can, to closing your eyes and pulling like a dog.
“Of course every sport is technical. We could make it very complicated. And come up with these strategies, fierce extravagant things. But it’s not that complicated.
“There’s a start line and a finish line, and if we can go from the start to the finish as fast as we can… then there’s no more to it. We do video analysis of our technique and discuss everything. But the simplicity of rowing is different to team sports like rugby or soccer or football. Your competitors can’t influence what you’re doing. I’m not an expert in any of these sports, but you hear the commentator talking about marking the best player, stopping him getting the ball, or whatever.
“But no matter how fast France go off at the start or no matter how fast any crew go at the finish, it’s not going to make us go any faster or slower. We’re in our own lane, it’s just us.
“We could blast off and go 10 seconds ahead in the first quarter of the race, but sure we’d run out of steam and everyone would pass us out.
“It’s kind of like a time trial really. Every race. It’s just you in your boat and what you do. You try different things. And the more racing you do the more you learn. We practice our start to get the first five our six strikes as smooth as we can. But it’s fairly simple.”
Still, does it not wear out its welcome, being celebrated for your soundbites as much as your talent? Wouldn’t you prefer people tweeting and liking and clicking about your stroke rate?
“I suppose people don’t know the technique of rowing. That’s our coach’s job. What difference would it make anyway if you go writing in the newspaper analysing my technique? It’s not going to make me faster or slower.”
For all the joking in the kitchen, it’s certainly not about hiding anything.
“Rowing is a very fair sport and there are very few secrets in it. If you train hard and work hard, in theory you should see a result.
“Everyone knows that. It’s simple enough to figure out. Oh no, don’t tell anyone, if they train harder than me, they’ll beat me.
“I started rowing at eight years old. And the older guys in our rowing club never hid anything from us. We had three guys going to the Olympics, World Championship medalists, and all they wanted to do was help us.
“We do the video analysis here and the athletes get together and critique each other. We will all be honest with each other, because we’re very close friends.
“We all want each other to do well. It’s not like I’m watching Shane’s technique and I know he’s getting very close to me so I’m going to tell him something to slow him down (laughs). I won’t do that and he wouldn’t do that to me.”
The embrace with their conquerors in Rio was another special moment RTÉ caught. Another real moment.
“We’re all friends too. When we beat the Norwegians, there’s no hard feelings. It’s a tightknit sport. There’s respect. When the French guys beat us, there’s no hard feelings. They must have worked harder and fair play to them for that.”
GETTING IN TOUCH WITH THE FIRE...
“It has been pretty cool. We’ve done a lot of cool things. It’s hard to pick one moment. The homecoming was cool. Graham Norton (to be broadcast New Year’s Eve), that was cool.”
There was the People of the Year awards, where they shared another gong with Annalise Murphy and the most famous person in the family — Nana — met the crowd from Fair City.
“She had a blast. We all had a great time. And the Fair City gang had a great time. It was a great evening. We were filming a documentary the last few months too. That’ll be interesting. A day in the life job. Telling our story.
“It’s good for Skibb rowing club. It’s the story of where we came from.”
Pull Like a Dog, by Wildfire Films, airs on RTÉ One on Tuesday, December 27 at 9.25pm. The cameras were there to capture the moment Gary eventually singles out as the most special one since life changed on the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon under the watch of Christ the Redeemer.
A new tradition took shape in 2008, when Gary, Paul and Shane — neighbours from the Aghadown townland in Lisheen — were selected for Ireland for the first time. They brought junior quad gold from the Home International Regatta in Cardiff. And when Teddy landed home with them, Aghadown lit a fire at the crossroads between the O’Donovans’ house and the O’Driscolls’.
“The first year, it was probably the family. There might have been 20 or 30. Now we have it every year, to celebrate the end of each season. All our neighbours come out and we have a big get-together. Everyone from around Aghadown. And it’s a lovely gathering.
“We really look forward to that. This year, there was close to 100 between kids and everything. Those things are really nice and special.
“We do spend a lot of time in isolation here. And because we’re in college as well, our time is pretty limited, so it’s nice when we do get to hang out with family and friends and neighbours.”
RTÉ sent us a preview rough cut of a lovely one-hour film. After they drink and eat with neighbours and friends, around the fire, and fill the kids’ phones with selfies, Gary remembers one of the things that helps him find a way past the pain. When I’m in a race and it’s getting tough, it just kind of naturally happens that I remember the bonfire at home. It pops into my head.”
It did, years ago, at a National Championships and it did at the European Championships in Brandenburg in May, when they stormed into a headwind and pushed past pain and the Norwegians in the final quarter.
And he saw the fire too in Rio, when the crunch came. It would be the best one yet.
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