Gary and Paul O'Donovan: Ireland's Olympic brothers talk family, inspiration and beating pain

Good news for Irish medal prospects. A month out from the Rio Olympics, the O’Donovan brothers from Skibbereen are on the same wavelength. As they prepare to fulfil long-held dreams, they talk about family, inspiration and beating pain...

You won’t get a more thoroughly answered question than one asked to Gary and Paul O’Donovan. Their relationship in the boat is as synchronised as in conversation: pulling at the same rate on water, completing each other’s points on land. Always playing in tune.

Gary (23), the eldest, and Paul (22), the fastest, are brothers from West Cork, and Ireland’s leading hope for a first ever Olympic medal in rowing.

But to be the best in Rio, they have to be the best they can be from the moment they wake up in the morning, or from one of their afternoon naps at their Nana’s house. As sure as their recovery between strokes is expertly measured, so too is their recovery off the lake. It allows them to train morning and evening, seven days a week. 14 hard sessions.

Theirs isn’t just a two-person relationship, though. It draws on the inspiration of community and is facilitated by family. Their short story so far goes from the early beginnings of trips to the river and the arrival of the internet all the way to European gold, via the night clubs of Cork. Their first chapter will end in Rio.

The interview in the boathouse of the National Rowing Centre, sitting between the replica boats of those already being hauled to Brazil, begins mid-conversation about the role of family and goes from there…

Brown cake

SB: “So, tell me more about the secret to your success – the role of your grandmother?”

Gary: (Laughs) “We spend an awful lot of time with our Nana. When we’re training here at the National Rowing Centre, Skibbereen is a bit of a trek for us. Our Nana lives in Ballincollig and she’s very good to us. She takes really good care of us.

“During the winter, when it’s cold, she makes soup for us most days. So we’d come in and some days we’d have mushroom soup and vegetable soup, or whatever’s going. It’s great because as soon as we come in from training, we’re cold, for one, because it’s the winter, so we’re getting in the warm soup straight away, and we’re getting all the nutrients and the goodness out of that. That keeps us good and healthy throughout the winter.”

Paul: “She makes us a fresh loaf of brown cake as well every day so that gives us plenty of energy for training. On a Sunday she makes a Sunday roast so we love that. Lamb’s our favourite. She’s brilliant at lamb…”

Gary: “…brilliant, a roast leg of lamb...”

Paul: “…‘tis delicious altogether.”

Gary: “We’re very lucky that our family are so helpful to us. Our parents support us so much as well. It’s a huge ease to have the confidence that they’re all behind us and want us to do well.”

SB: “Will they be travelling down to Rio?”

Gary: “I think our parents are going and a few of our friends from the club at home. There’ll be a nice few going, not a huge crowd but…”

Gary and Paul in unison: “…they’ll make plenty of noise.”

Gary: “We’ll have tricolours going in Rio all over the place!”

Training like a lunatic

The O’Donovans won the European Rowing Championships in May, bypassing Norway’s 2013 world champions in the final 250 metres to take gold. The next week Gary was back in Cork IT sitting his final exams in marketing. It was a similar story for Paul, who also studies part-time. He has been remotely studying physiotherapy from UCD in the last term, having completed his work placement after last September’s World Championships.

College was a good distraction and, often, a welcome break from living in each other’s pockets. Since they finished their studies Paul recalls that they would catch themselves “sitting about drinking coffee and talking shite for the day”. It’s somehow apt, so, that when Gary first plotted his Olympic quest after a night out in Cork, his friends thought he was talking shite then too.

SB: “Hamish (Adams, CEO of Rowing Ireland) mentioned that hanging out with your friends was when you decided to aim for the Olympics...”

Gary: (Laughs) “I had actually forgotten all about this until a few weeks ago when my friends reminded me.

“I went to college in 2011, first year in CIT, to study marketing. I think I had a bit more fun than I should’ve had. Training suffered. I went out and raced the national championships that year and I barely finished the race.

“I was partying and having a lot of fun – throughout the summer, the same thing. But I’d been watching the London Olympics on TV as well and one night, after the nightclub was over and I was hanging around outside with my friends, I just decided, there and then, that I was going to go to the Olympics in Rio. That moment, I turned to my friends and I said it to them: ‘Look, I’m sick of this now, I’m going to go to the Olympics. I’m going to quit the drink for a year and do my best’.

“Twelve months later I went to my first World Championships, the under-23s, and four years on I’d completely forgotten all that ever happened, but a couple of my friends said it to me in the last few weeks: ‘Jesus, do you remember four years ago when you said that you were going to do such a thing’, and I said: ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about that’. They said, ‘We doubted you and we all laughed at you at the time but, jeez, you actually went and did it’.”

SB: “And was there a moment when you made that decision, Paul?”

Paul: (smiles) “I’d say I was about 12 (Gary laughs) and I was full sure of myself that I was going to go to the London Olympics.

“It was unrealistic really, and I kind of knew that as well, but I just set myself that goal. So I’ve been training like a lunatic since I was 12 to try to do that. It didn’t work out but we’re doing very well to make the Rio Olympics. We’re a very young crew.”

Gary: “Even before we started rowing, we had always been involved in rowing. Our dad used bring us out to watch the crews train in the river, and our dad was involved in rowing himself when he was younger, so he really bred it into us since we were small. He brought us to the events here in Inniscarra. We used to admire all these lads from Skibbereen Rowing Club who used to go out racing and we weren’t even rowing at the time.

“Always, going to the Olympics was the dream. There was never going to be a doubt in our minds. We used always say when we were younger, ‘Yeah, sure we’ll go to the Olympics. That’s what we want to do’.”

Paul: “There’s been a few guys from the rowing club in Skibbereen that have gone to the Olympics so that helped with the belief as well…”

Gary: “…it made it tangible…”

Paul: “…it made it possible…”

Gary: “…because we knew people who had gone to the Olympics and we used to be able to see them training in Skibbereen. It made it more achievable for us and more of a tangible thing…”

Paul: “…and our coaches said, ‘You know, these guys are doing it, ye’re no different to them. Ye can do it if ye want’.”

When we got the internet

They may be champions of Europe in the lightweight double sculls, but last September it looked like they might miss out on their Olympic spot. They needed to avoid last place in the World Championship B final to qualify, but were exactly that for most of the race. Yet they avoided that despair in the final few strokes, arriving ahead of Greece by a quarter-of-a-second.

Since that liberation, there’s been a rising tide of success. At the World Cup 1 event, they were only bettered by a South African crew that rowed a world best time in winning the 2014 World Championship. At the two World Cup events since then, they’ve finished fourth. Their placing in Lucerne was a 10-place improvement from being second in the C final last summer.

SB: “Your progress in the last year has been described as ‘startling’ and ‘stunning’ in various articles. Ye have got into the Olympics in the last available spot at the Worlds and since then ye’ve been hauling in medals. What’s been the secret to that progress?”

Paul: “Once we got that qualifying place the slate is wiped clean and everyone starts again fresh for the new season. We knew then that we didn’t have to focus on the Qualifying Regatta in Lucerne…”

Gary: “…in May…”

Paul: “…that we could focus everything towards the actual Olympic Games. It’s a bit easier on the mind knowing that there’s no questions over it.”

Gary: “We really realised the opportunity we had and that we’d 11 months to do every single thing we could to do the best we can. We’ve tried to make every decision with regard to training camp, with regard to college, food, diet… training-wise, we’ve tried to make every decision the right one. We consulted everything with our coach, Dominic (Casey), and our team manager, Morten (Espersen). They’ve been making all the right decisions for us.

“Because we knew we’ve been doing everything so well all year, this success hasn’t been a huge surprise. We’re delighted that we’re doing well but we would’ve expected it of ourselves because of the year of training we’ve put in.”

Paul: “The difference as well from last year is that I was in college in UCD and because we were going to go part-time, I’d been up there trying to get the bulk of the work done. So we hadn’t been doing too much training, just a weekend here and there in the double. And because the synchronisation and timing is such a big thing, we didn’t have the time in the boat really.

“It was our first season coming together, too, whereas the others have been there three, four, five, some of them six years rowing together day in, day out. So they had that bit of an advantage on us.

“It was Gary’s first senior World Championship regatta last September and he qualified for the Olympics from it, so he had made a massive improvement up to there. Then we stepped it on even further this year...”

Gary: “…and we were able to go to the south of Spain over the winter. We sent our boat over there in November and left it there until February. We were able to come and go from there because we don’t have kids and we were off college for the winter, so we could go to Spain around exams and around Christmas.

“We spent in total just under seven weeks there which was a huge advantage. When we couldn’t have got on the water here because of the bad weather, we were able to spend hours and hours clocking up mileage on the water over there and helping us get that synchronicity and unity together as a crew, which is really standing to us.”

SB: “Is there any brotherly telepathy that helps in the boat?”

Gary: “There probably is…”

Paul: “…yeah…”

Gary: “…we don’t think too much about it!”

Paul: “In body size we’re similar, so that helps with the set-up in the boat and it’s a bit easier to synchronise the movements.

“Without realising it, then, because we’re spending so much time together and living together… we watch rowing videos and races on the YouTube at home on the computer together, and we just talk about it so much it’s almost instinctive that if we’re in such a position during a race, we have done it without realising it. So we know what we’re going to do in that situation without discussing it.”

Gary: “We’ve been watching and analysing World Championship videos since we got the internet at home. I remember it, when we got the internet, the first thing we did was go into YouTube and watch rowing videos all day. We were going back to Olympics years and years ago and World Championships years ago. We were always so interested and we used analyse them together.”

SB: “When did you start doing that?”

Gary: “Oh, that’s going way back. I can’t remember what year. It must’ve been 2003 or 2004 when we got the internet in at home.

“We’ve talked so much about racing over the years, watched so much different racing and we raced together a lot as juniors as well with our two friends, Shane (O’Driscoll) and Mark (O’Donovan). We’d a very successful junior career, so we’re new in the lightweight double but we’re been rowing together all our lives.

“Even if we consciously don’t think about it, there must be something there that we know each other inside out.”

Paul: “You know, if there was something we wanted to say, or something we weren’t happy with, there’s no beating around the bush and worrying about feelings. We can come straight out with it and be as harsh as we want. We won’t fall out over it. We just get on with things and we know we’re both trying to do the best we can for each other.”

What are you afraid of?

They’ve rowed together in Skibbereen Rowing Club for as long as they can remember, but they wouldn’t have been paired together for the Olympics if they weren’t individually the two fastest lightweight rowers in the country. Now, between the National Rowing Centre on Inniscarra Lake, having study and placement in Cork City and their Nana’s house on the doorstep of both, if the O’Donovans wished to avoid trespassing outside the county bounds, except for races, they’d be easily able to. They’re all set in Cork.

However, they push themselves out of their comfort zone in the boat and they push themselves outside it too. Rowing Ireland are holding a pre-Olympics training camp this month in Banyolas, the site of the rowing events at the Barcelona Games. The O’Donovans had that idea last winter with their warm-weather training in Seville. They’ll hope that investment stands to them when it counts.

SB: “I was talking to Sanita (Puspure) about what happens when the tank is emptied out on the water. How do you manage that side of pushing yourselves beyond what you’ve done before?”

Paul: “Well, in racing it’s nearly no different to what we do in training, like we always try to empty the tank out there...”

Gary: “…we get better at managing it as well. Like when you’re younger and you’re pushing hard, and you start getting sore and tired and you’re struggling, you might back off a bit. But the more of it you do, the better you get at it, so you might push yourself a little more each day as the years go on.”

Paul: “You end up convincing yourself that you just love this feeling of pain and you just want more and more and more of it, and you keep going and going. It’s just the mindset really that gets it out of you.”

Gary: “A few years ago I used to think to myself, ‘God, I hate this, it’s so hard. Aw, I’m in so much pain’, and I didn’t like it. But now I don’t even think about it anymore. Like you’re going through pain but you don’t think and you keep on going.”

Paul: “Yeah, I kind of noticed it a little bit when we came into the double together and we did our first few races. I was like, ‘What are you afraid of? You’ve trained all year, this is the time to enjoy it now and make the most of it’.

“It’s just that mindset then that helps you get that extra little bit.”

The Irish Rowing Championships continue today and tomorrow at the National Rowing Centre in Farran Wood, Ovens, Co Cork.


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