Holy medals, lighting candles and strong nerves: here’s how our Olympic athletes’ families will last the pace

July 23rd, 2021 7:00 PM

By Emma Connolly

Trish O’Donovan, proud mum of rowers Paul and Gary, gets into the Olympic spirit even if she couldn’t get to Tokyo due to the pandemic.(Photo: Emma Jervis)

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Here we row! the Skibbereen crew, runner Phil Healy – and their families – are all set for the Olympic games

THE families of West Cork’s Olympians were all set ‘to take over Tokyo’, but instead Covid rules put paid to that and now they’ll be lighting candles, pacing the floors and looking on from home with a mix of nerves and excitement.

And while they say it’s devastating they won’t be there in person to see their loved ones perform at such a high level, they agree what’s most important is that the Games go ahead.

Trish O’Donovan, mum to 2016 Olympic silver medallists Paul and Gary, said she and husband Mick had ‘hoped against hope’ they could travel to Japan.

‘We’re gutted, totally heartbroken to miss it,’ she said. ‘It’s soul destroying. You spend so many years going to as many events as you can, and then when the biggest one of all comes around, you can’t get there.’

She said there were many people planning to travel from Skibbereen in support of the local rowers: ‘We would have had a right shindig and Skibbereen would have taken over Tokyo!’

She also admitted it was ‘bitter-sweet’ that Paul will be in the boat, while his brother Gary is a substitute, and said: ‘As their mum, it’s hard to say otherwise, but that’s sport. You have to take the good with the bad. What’s important is that Gary and Paul inspired so many other rowers, who asked “If they can do it, why can’t we?” and as a result we’ve never had so many athletes on boats.’


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That’s something rower Fintan McCarthy’s mum Sue relates to. Fintan is competing, while a back injury meant his twin Jake had to bow out.

‘From a professional perspective the boys can handle it, from a mum’s perspective it’s agony,’ she said.

‘But they agreed that whoever got there, would do it for the other,’ she said.

With Japan eight hours ahead, most events will take place in the dead of night, and with Covid restrictions, there won’t be the usual events organised around races.

Sue, her husband Tom, 19-year-old daughter Caitlin and Jake will watch the races from their home in Aughadown and will follow their usual tradition of sending a family selfie to Fintan after each race. Sue’s mum Barbara will also tune in from her home in Cheltenham.

‘I’ll be on tenterhooks. I’ll want to watch and feel like I’m in the boat with him, but on the other hand I won’t even be able to look,’ said Sue.

Jake (24) said this will be the longest he’ll have been apart from his twin: ‘It will be five weeks until he’s back and I do miss him. Hopefully the next time I see him he’ll have an Olympic medal.’

Ready for the Games - rower Fintan McCarthy’s family Sue, Tom, Caitlin and twin brother Jake with Albie the golden retriever sending their support from home in Aughadown. (Photo: Anne Minihane)


Jerry and Mary Hegarty with their son Dermot overlooking the Ilen River just outside Skibbereen set to cheer on daughter Emily and her crew. (Photo: Anne Minihane)


Eleanor Casey, mum to Aoife, as well as Mary Hegarty, mum to Emily, will both be lighting candles ahead of their daughters’ rowing events, the lightweight women’s double and Irish women’s four, respectively.

Eleanor will be lighting a Christmas candle that came from their parish priest in Lisheen Fr Donal Cahill, who is a big sports fan.

Her husband Dominic is Rowing Ireland’s lightweight coach, so she’s doubly invested in what’s going on in Tokyo, and admits she possibly knows too much about what’s happening. But she said her top advice, and it’s what she has told all athletes that she’s been involved with, is to think of the race ‘as just another 2km distance, and to go out and do their best, and they can’t do any more than that.’

She’ll be watching with a mix of excitement and nerves with her children Niamh (24), Caoimhe (18) and Dominic (15).

Meanwhile, Mary will be keeping up the tradition of her mother Nana Kit, who passed away last December 12 months.

‘She was a great woman for lighting candles so I’m keeping that up. I’m the typical nervous mammy! I’ll be pacing the floor before it starts and hoping for the best,’ she said.

Her daughter Alice (27) is working as a doctor in Perth, and at home with her in Moonagh, Aughadown will be her husband Jerry and son Dermot (21) a UCC nursing student. ‘Nana Moonagh’ lives a few miles away and will also be keeping an eye on proceedings.

‘I think it’s like waiting for the Leaving Cert to begin, they’re happy it’s finally here now,’ said Mary.

Athlete Phil Healy is West Cork’s only non-rowing competitor. Her mum, also Phil, said her daughter was already a winner in her eyes, and admitted feeling emotional even talking about her reaching this level.

‘She’s achieved her dream and it doesn’t get any higher than the Olympics,’ she said.

Eleanor Casey with her children, Niamh, Caoimhe and Dominic pictured at Skibbereen Rowing Club. As well as daughter Aoife competing, her husband Dominic is Rowing Ireland’s lightweight coach. (Photo: Anne Minihane)


Working as a nurse in a GP practice during such a difficult time, the mum of four said going to Tokyo would have been incredible, but she had resigned herself for some time that  it wasn’t going to happen.

Like Sue and Trish, she’s disappointed her daughter Joan, also an accomplished athlete, didn’t make it to the Games, but said she was a great support to Phil.

The family met in Joan’s house in Cork before Phil’s departure and Phil Snr took the opportunity to bless her with a medal of Our Lady, which she’ll have in her hand during all her events. It’s a tradition of hers.

On event days she says she’d be scanning Phil’s demeanour to make sure she’s okay: ‘Who knows her better than her mother? We’re very close and we’re just so proud that she’s got to this level. It’s unreal, but she’s a very focused person, has put in huge work, and has given it 110%.’

And as Trish pointed out, they’ll all hopefully have the Paris Olympics in 2024 to look forward to.

Ballineen Olympian Phil Healy’s family display the Olympic flag as a good luck message to Phil, who flew out to Tokyo on Friday. Included are her father Jerry, brother Pádraig, sister Joan, brother Diarmuid, mother Phil and Joan’s partner Fintan. (Photo: Andy Gibson)


Elaine Crowley and Máire Keating helping out at Skibbereen Rowing Club’s pop-up shop on North Street. (Photo: Anne Minihane)


The first event with local interest takes place in the early hours of Saturday morning when our rowers are in action. Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy, in the Irish men’s lightweight double, and Aoife Casey, in the Irish women’s lightweight double, will race their heats, which start at 2.20am. These are followed by the women’s four heats which will see Emily Hegarty and co take to the water. That will kick off an exciting week of action for Skibbereen’s rowers at the Games.

‘Everyone in the club is very proud of all our representatives at the Olympics, they are all great ambassadors for the club, the town and the region, and we’ll be cheering them on from here at home,’ said Sean Murran, chairman of Skibbereen Rowing Club.

Local sports fans have to wait until Friday week, August 30th, before Phil Healy takes to the track.

Putting up signs in support of the Olympic rowers all over Skibbereen were club members Tony Walsh and Sean O'Brien. (Photo: Anne Minihane)

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