Rio heroes’ homecoming: Madness is alive and well on road to Tokyo

Olympic rowing heroes Gary and Paul O’Donovan went back to where it all began yesterday, telling a press conference at Skibbereen Rowing Club that they left their medals on the kitchen table on getting home and how the welcome they have received has taken them by surprise.

To steak and spuds we can now add cereal, as we heard the lads devoured a bowl each as soon as they got home on Sunday night.

En route from Cork Airport the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery seems to have obliged with some ham sandwiches, in what appears to have been a drive-by pick-up. “We were delighted,” Gary said.

Did they ever expect all this? “Not at all,” said Paul. “We were just talking shite and being ourselves.” Gary nipped in: “answering questions and rowing fast.”

It’s all good for the sport, they said, stressing the importance of the support from the local community. It was a masterclass from the brothers in how to deal with a press conference. For the opening question Gary’s droll response was “which camera are we on?” Nothing knocked them out of their stride.

Regarding Sunday night’s homecoming, Gary said it was “overwhelming”.

“People were sending us messages telling us what we were going to be in for”, he said, recalling a message from a friend telling him buses of people were coming up from Skibbereen. “I thought the homecoming was tonight,” Paul chimed to a chorus of laughter.

Ahead of that homecoming parade, it was instructive to visit the club that has helped forge them into the elite athletes they have become. It might not be state of the art, but that does not appear to have held them back. Some of the rowing machines in one narrow room are placed in front of a dozen ancient computer monitors, much of the gear in the weights room hasn’t come straight out of the box, and yet the rollcall of honours lengthens by the year.

Maybe it was no surprise then when, asked about funding, the brothers didn’t dwell too long on financial matters.

“The way I see it, everything we’ve done we are just trying to represent our club,” Gary said. “We’re not just fools around the place in front of cameras, we’re like this every day, we come in here and we pull with the youngsters and everything we have done at the Olympics and before that is just representing what we do in here every day. We try and make it fun for the youngsters who come in and hopefully we can get more people in, it’s such a great sport.”

Paul said: “Like everyone in the world you need more money but you’ve just got to make the most of what money you have at the time and we’ve shown here with the facilities that we have, they’re not the best in the world but they do the job as we’ve shown.

“If you have the willpower and set it in action you can get beyond the money issue, it can help but it’s not the be all and end all,” he said.

Instead, they paid tribute to Dominic Casey, the man overseeing their training regime, and all the other people who have helped them along the path.

“It’s no more than the club deserves”, Gary said of the attention now being paid to the place which has driven their success.

The Olympic silver medalists also shrugged off questions relating to some of the negative aspects of the Rio Games from an Irish perspective, not least the tickets scandal which led to OCI chief Pat Hickey being detained by the Brazilian authorities.

Paul, in typical deadpan manner, said he simply hadn’t heard that much about it, given he was in Rotterdam competing in the World Championships and winning a gold medal last Saturday.

In what was surely another quip but one which might also indicate the focus of the lads on the job in hand, Gary said: “When we heard Pat Hickey got arrested it was ‘who’s Pat Hickey?’”

Any external controversies certainly didn’t spoil their experience of the Games. “We had the best time ever”, Gary said, and who could doubt him, as he recalled messing about with boxer Paddy Barnes not long after he had been knocked out of competition, and revelling in the collegiate atmosphere among the Irish squad.

“I think Team Ireland as a whole did fantastic and this ticket thing you’re talking about, I don’t think it was reflected in the results whatsoever,” Paul said.

They also had a laugh at the idea of their becoming heartthrobs, Gary remarking that they would leave that kind of accolade to the aforementioned Paddy Barnes, while memories of Gary’s Skibbereen nightclub ‘epiphany’, when he is said to have finally decided to knuckle down and achieve his dreams, was remembered a little differently.

“I always thought I was going to go to the Olympics ever since I started rowing, that was my dream, but that day I decided I was going to do something about it,” he said. Dad Teddy and mum Trisha looked on with pride.

Were they ever rattled in Rio? “Not really, we were going out to try and rattle the rest of them,” Gary said. It’s a point worth considering — confronted by the unflappable, tireless, unerring drive of the O’Donovans, it’s little wonder other rowers are left in the slipstream. Their blueprint is simple: be passionate about your sport, make it fun, bring your friends. Throw in some homemade soup and brown cake made by your granny, and drive on.

As for ‘podium pants’, yet another donation to the Irish lexicon from the brothers, it was explained that these are longer pants courtesy of the high-performance unit, another form of motivation for people who seem like they are already crammed full of it. “We never doubted ourselves,” Paul said.

As Skibbereen and West Cork last night hailed their incredible achievements, talk has already turned to the future, with the World Championships in Florida next year and somewhere on the horizon, the Tokyo Games. Before all that, they will get back on the water as soon as possible and, come September 12, Paul will be back in college in Dublin and a little later Gary will begin a Masters in CIT. “It will be nice to get into a bit of a routine again once all this madness is over,” Paul said.

They might have to readjust that timeframe. The madness is nowhere near finished.

‘All of Skibbereen would have gone to the Olympics’

When it comes to their sense of fun the O’Donovan brothers didn’t lick it off a stone, and the following story might also indicate just how they are a product of their environment.

John O’Sullivan of Walsh’s Butchers in Skibbereen confirmed a story told by Andy Illsley, who was doing a roaring trade selling Pull Like A Dog steak sandwiches from his nearby stall. It seems an elderly man from Lisheen was in Walsh’s getting his meat and was asked if he was coming in for last night’s homecoming parade.

“Indeed and I am not,” the man said, or words to that effect. “Sure they only came second.”

Gary and Paul will probably see the funny side, and given what their mother, Trish, yesterday called their “unreal” focus, it’s possible the Lisheen farmer might have little option when it comes to attending future celebrations.

As it was, there was an undeniable sense of occasion in Skibbereen yesterday, a palpable buzz about the place as the town prepared to acclaim their Olympic silver medalists.

It was easier to pick out the shops that didn’t have a poster up offering congratulations than those that did, with Tricolours and Olympic flags hanging out of everywhere.

Andy Illsley said he had sold “loads already” of his Pull Like A Dog sandwiches, while John O’Sullivan admitted sales of steak in the butchers had gone up as well. “It’s funny, I suppose,” he said. “People just got the idea into their heads.” For Andy, the celebrations top off a busy period for the town.

“It’s a great end to the summer,” he said.

Everywhere you went, there was a reference to the country’s favourite rowers, from the flag hanging off the top of the new arts centre to the dog in the window of An Chistin Beag.

The Paragon Nightclub had a sign up advertising “shteak and shpuds specials all week”, while in Fields Supermarket the commemorative T-shirts celebrating the O’Donovans were flying out of the boxes.

“We’re nearly sold out,” admitted Ellen McCarthy. Little wonder — everyone seemed to be wearing one.

All the proceeds of those sales are heading back to Skibbereen Rowing Club, and sitting upstairs in the building yesterday, Trish O’Donovan explained the extent to which it is almost a second home for her sons.

“There are no birthdays celebrated,” she said when asked about the sacrifices made over the years as the lads followed their strict training regime.

“If you want to celebrate you come in here and bring them a ham sandwich or something.

“My mammy was 80 in February — they were away training,” she continued. “They miss all of these momentous occasions.”

Instead the family has simply changed its holiday regime, following the boys as they train and compete overseas, in the process often seeing more of whatever country they happen to be in than the rowers. “We get to show them the pictures,” Trish said with a laugh. “We have to do something for them.”

She freely admitted to being so overcome with emotion that she couldn’t sing the national anthem when Gary and Paul were on podium in Rio, having been gripped by anxiety beforehand, not allowing herself to consider that they might win a medal, worried that something cruel might happen like the boat capsizing with the line in sight.

She needn’t have worried. “They are so focussed it’s unreal, but it’s paying off,” she said.

And then some. Everywhere in town yesterday, people were discussing the O’Donovans, and reflected glory was everywhere to be seen.

Notwithstanding certain Lisheen gentlemen with exceptionally high standards, many close friends had travelled to Rotterdam to support the boys in the World Championships.

“Had the Olympics been any closer than where they were, all of Skibbereen would probably have gone,” Trish said.

At one point yesterday during the press conference the glow of the lightbulb hanging over the brothers gave Gary’s silver medal, hanging on his chest, a certain golden hue. Come four years’ time they will be in their prime. Maybe next time that customer in the butchers will have no choice but to take the spin into town.

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