Paul O’Donovan is the possessor of nine major championship medals. The last time he stood on the third step of any podium at the very highest level was probably at the U23 Worlds eight years ago.
Six of his senior haul to date are golds, the only real honour still eluding him as he braces for his second Games here in Japan is that of Olympic champion and he is a decent bet to set that to rights next Thursday in the final of the men’s lightweight double at the Sea Forest Waterway.
Where are all those medals now? Truth is he can’t be sure. A student doctor, he might stash them in a box when he stays on campus at UCC during term. They could be at home in Skibbereen by now, or maybe even at his grandmother’s place. You don’t get the impression there are any plans to frame them, or even find them a regular home.
It’s an attitude that highlights a devotion to the process, not the result.
He doesn’t deny the allure that the Games and the shot at success that Tokyo offers. O’Donovan has dreamt of being first past the post at an Olympics since he was a boy but his claim that “you’d lose your mind if you were thinking about it every day” speaks for a philosophy that places his passion in perspective.
“It’s always nice to win medals but I’m rowing because I enjoy it, not to get a big collection of medals. I was doing a bit of thinking earlier in the year when I had a bit of time: from my experience of winning European and World championships, and even the Olympic medal, really there’s a ceiling on how happy you can be from winning medals.
“For me it’s not that much of a goal. Happiness comes from what happens randomly that makes you happy and if I really didn’t enjoy rowing and found it hard and miserable every day in training, knowing the experience I’ve had from winning medals, it just wouldn’t be worth it.”
So much has changed since Paul and Gary O’Donovan claimed silver at the Games in Rio five years ago. Gary has been replaced in the boat by Fintan McCarthy and gone too is the short hair and cleanshaven visage sported by the former when they captivated a nation at the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Copacabana.
The levity and the wit which the brothers brought to the usually po-faced business of elite sport, and which they repeated on the Late Late and the Graham Norton Show, and on their parade through the town of Skibbereen, has been replaced by a more sober and thoughtful man.
Not deliberate, he says.
“No, I don’t think so. This is probably more my habitual personality and what I resort back to when I’m in uncomfortable situations like talking to people. Gary would be a bit more extroverted and just a bit more devilment in him.
“I would kind of bounce off that then when we are together. It’s entertaining for some people but, yeah… Gary is very serious as well,” he explains. “I’m like the old man on the team so I have to be more serious.”
There is none of the brimstone that you would see with Roy Keane but the beard and the equanimity with which O’Donovan professes to approach an event of this magnitude, bear more than a passing resemblance to the former Manchester United midfielder.
Whatever happens in Japan, the 27-year old plans on refreshing his medical training come early September and pushing on towards the delayed World Championships, whenever they take place.
It may be that he needs a bigger box some day, or maybe even a second, to contain the medals. Other than that, the plan doesn’t appear to be any more complicated than a case of drive on regardless, to Paris in 2024 and maybe even beyond.
As long as he is enjoying it.
No fuss, no drama, just a consistent excellence on the water.