Forty minutes had elapsed since Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy crossed the finishing line and signed for gold and the Skibbereen pair was still only at the foothills of a day that was piling up with a mountain of anti-doping commitments and media interviews.
Meanwhile, Sanita Puspure’s day had just been swept from under her because of a shock fifth-place finish in her single sculls semi-final. A few hundred metres away from the celebrations she sat crouched forward in her single sculls boat in obvious distress. Two boats, both heavily favoured, and yet such contrasting scenes and emotions.
What this all highlighted, yet again, is the ease with which the best-laid plans can crumble. Like the fine margins between civilisation and savagery, the difference between success and failure can be gossamer-thin. There is no such thing as impervious in sport. No point at which a ‘sure thing’ can feel safe from the sniper that is the unexpected.
There was nothing to say that some kind of calamity could not befall the men’s lightweight double pairing but put their talent and their training to one side for a minute and it may be that the secret ingredient to their success is in their very refusal, their inability even, to comprehend how such a thing could happen.
O’Donovan struggled to connect with this line of thinking when asked just how confident anyone can really be when they line up at the start of a race. How could you calculate that, he wondered. For them, things work in those crucial minutes on the water because they spend days and weeks and months on end making them work.
O’Donovan lines up for each race radiating certainty. His fetching top knot even bears a resemblance to the chonmage traditionally worn by Japanese samurai who wore their hair in that fashion as a means of warning that they were
always prepared for a fight.
This is a man who would have had no truck with meddling Greek gods. Their fate was in their hands, and theirs’ alone.
“We row all the time, twice a day every day of the year really, and stuff doesn’t generally go wrong,” said O’Donovan who has now claimed gold in European, World, and Olympic competition. “That’s over 700 training sessions a year and I’d say once or twice you’d have a mishap so they’re not bad odds.”
It’s a simplicity of thought and action that cuts through so many of the layers amassed around modern elite sport. This is not to say that there isn’t a highly evolved and professional operation around them. There clearly is, but O’Donovan and McCarthy are still, in a way, just pulling like dogs and letting the rest take care of itself.
Jiri Simanek reflected the mood around this Irish crew yesterday when the Czech, whose boat finished almost 10 seconds back in fourth place and yet within a whisker of bronze, described O’Donovan as a “monster”. Something from “out of space”. Simanek has run Ironman competitions and is a second-generation Olympic rower. He knows.
The aura around the Skib pair isn’t just created by their refusal to lose. It stems every bit as much in how they win. Their method is metronomic, sticking to their own chosen pace regardless of how everyone else winds their clocks, and secure in the knowledge that they will either hunt you down or leave you for dead.
Either way you lose.
It saw them through again yesterday when, despite lodging their best start of the week, they found themselves some distance back from the German pair of Jonathan Rommelmann and Jason Osborne. That was the moment where a nation’s nerves, already frayed by the lateness of the hour, threatened to snap.
O’Donovan? He doesn’t seem to do doubt. Before or during the race.
“I don’t believe in performance anxiety, for me. The other crews can’t affect us unless they barge right into our lane and crash into us. Nobody does that really. You don’t have that to worry about so you’re just cracking on with your own race then.”
Paul and Gary O’Donovan made waves off the water with their loveable personas after claiming silver in Rio in 2016. Gary was a travelling reserve this time, here but behind the curtain. Paul’s dry sense of humour has been toned down. What remains is an easily parodied but authentic simplicity and a perspective that belies the hyperbole of any Games.
“Whatever happens happens. If you don’t win, life goes on as well so it’s okay. I didn’t win in Rio and sure I was happy out afterwards… I wouldn’t think it’s that big of a deal, winning the Olympics or something like that. People get too excited about it, in my opinion.
“It doesn’t change who you are as a person, which is the most important thing. I’m not going to be going around the place thinking I’m better than anybody else around Skibbereen. Okay, I probably will be for a while [laughs] but they’ll knock me back handy enough if I do get carried away. You’ve just got to put it into perspective.”
He would hate this next take, so.
Still only 27, he is now one of only three Irish people to have won a medal at two Olympic Games. Pat O’Callaghan claimed his in 1928 and 1932 in the hammer, Paddy Barnes doubled up in boxing in Beijing and London. Both built glorious careers but the latest addition to that canon is building a body of work that is another level again.
O’Donovan is at that point now where Wikipedia is going to have to pick and choose what achievements to list down the right-hand side of his page: four-time world champion, two-time European champion, Olympic silver and now gold. McCarthy is three years younger but already the possessor of golds in all three of the major championships.
Gary O’Donovan will likely still have ambitions of reclaiming his seat in the boat, and Jake McCarthy will have eyes on a spot too, but there is a touch of the Steve Redgrave-Matthew Pinsent about the current incumbents: one of them a multi-generational talent and the other a world-class athlete who would be the main man in another era. Scotty Pippen to our Michael Jordan.
Hyperbole? Why not.
This pair, like all the rowers here this last week, will slip back into the shadows until the spotlight seeks them out again at the Île-de-France Olympic Water Sports Stadium which sits 35 kilometres from the centre of Paris, in three years’ time. The sports world is a shallow place but O’Donovan has no beef with that. When the eyes of a nation return, they’ll be ready.
“Even if we didn’t win, I’d say we would be going on to Paris and trying to win that. Winning, I don’t think it makes any difference for motivation towards that but I suppose it lets us know that if we keep going the way we are, we will be in contention for a gold medal again and it’s not a bad thing.”
These boys are not turning.