From dogs to gods for the O'Donovan brothers

Gary O’Donovan looks giddy. He has every right to be, having just won an Olympic silver, but this goes beyond that as even on the biggest day of his life, he can’t help himself. 

As he takes his place at the press conference, he’s fiddling about like an unsupervised child, wondering just how he’ll amuse himself next. Devilment lights up his eyes. Then, amidst a lack of questions, it hits him. He grabs the microphone and decides to interview the third-place Norwegians. He doesn’t do a bad job of it either.

It doesn’t last long though as he’s hyper now and gets bored with that after a few minutes but he’s not completely finished. Soon after, “DJ Gary is in the house,” is announced from the speakers. He giggles to himself. The volunteers are enthralled, having been subjected to so much of the same when the media talk to athletes.

Wonderfully wired about covers him and his brother, and it’s that which makes this medal all the more marvelous. We’ve had podiums with asterisks so many times yet here is one of the rare cases in modern sport you can let the cogs of the Dictaphone simply roll and roll and where you can truly take joy from someone else’s achievement.

“I suppose we’re almost like the same person at this stage because we’ve spent so long together in this past year,” explains Paul of their attitude across the Games.

“I suppose people think when we’re giving interviews we’re great craic but we’re just excited that we’ve other people to talk to than ourselves. We’re sitting at home there and we’re only allowed rest up in bed most of the time. We can’t even talk to each other because it’s like talking to yourself. We can only talk about things that we’ve done. Gary can’t say to me ‘Do you know I did this earlier...’ because I’d seen him do it, I was there. It’s a bit boring then at times. So this makes it worth it.”

“Yeah, we used to bate the head off each other when we were smaller,” interjects Gary. “We’d be at it, two young brothers growing up and stuff, that’s the way it goes. As we matured and started getting a bit more successful in rowing we realised if we bate the head off each other, well, I kind of need him to be in good health and uninjured so we realised we can’t be doing that to each other.”

A few days ago we didn’t know them. By now we’re wondering how and why we didn’t, as this is like the best of what’s local and honest and joyous projected onto the biggest corporate stage. Technicolor suddenly and unexpectedly projected onto a grey background. A €100 note you never knew was there tucked away in your wallet. By now beside them the French team, prim and proper in victory, are looking on at the show and are unsure what to make of it, while the Norwegian crew laugh along and are told that the pints are on them tonight.

“When we qualified last year we had a bit of a party, a kind of a celebration-type thing and Are [Strandli of Norway] there took good care of me on a night out and he promised he’d do the same this time,” says Gary. “We beat him and I’m sure if he’d beat me it would’ve been the other way around. We’ve got good friends over there who will look out for us while we’re socialising. Like we all meet up in a weigh-in room and sit around and talk for 10 minutes. We try to make friends around the world. It’s not just the Norwegians, we are great friends with all the crews.” But if there’s been another theme at the rowing all week aside from fun, it’s been the sense that none of our rowers have done this alone. That adds an important humility to their playfulness. Right now we’re all peering in but there’ve been plenty of quiet times on the water when nobody cared. They, like the women’s boats, haven’t forgotten that and are quick to thank those about them who have made this happen. “That’s the thing, it’s absolutely fantastic for the sport,” stresses Paul.

“That’s the main thing that we wanted to do, get a bit of publicity and media attention for the sport because it’s an absolutely fantastic sport and we love doing it. We just hope now that more young kids will give it a go and they’ll get a bit of a belief, and hopefully there’ll be some Olympic champions or medalists or just Olympians or people having fun as well will come out of it as well. But we wanted to do this for the whole country, they’ve been absolutely fantastic. They’re famous around the world for getting behind their athletes. I suppose we’re just proud that we’ve been able to do this for them and give them a bit of excitement. Like Skibbereen will be going wild tonight and as well in Nana’s place in Ballincollig. It’d be mad craic at home.”

“Yeah we have great people around us at home,” adds Gary. “Two of our best friends, Mark [O’Donovan] and Shane [O’Driscoll] are lightweight doubles as well so we always said that if anything happened to one of us the next man to fill in is from Skibbereen.”

Always about the local. He even jokes that he’ll be sad to miss out on the session back home but wonders if it’ll still be going on when he gets there after the closing ceremony. He might be in luck on that front.

“Like this is just fantastic and we haven’t taken time to appreciate it yet. But this was an historic Olympics before we even got to Rio. Forever we have been in to rowing. Ah. Forever. Our dad used to take us in to watch the crews training and at the national championships we would watch the Skibbereen crews racing. They would all be wrecked after one race and then they would go out for another race, another race. We used to be amazed. And like recently at home we would be driving to training and I would be thinking, ‘God, I still love this, I love the thrill of training and the excitement of it all’.

“Now we are so lucky we can be ambassadors for Ireland and rowing.”

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