THERE’S a big TV in the lobby of Residencia Deportistas La Cartuja in Seville that is rarely switched on.
On Friday, March 13th, as the group of Irish lightweight rowers checked out of their regular accommodation when they’re on training camps in the Spanish city, they noticed the TV was on and a lot of Spanish athletes were glued to the broadcast.
‘You got the sense that what they were watching was very serious,’ Fintan McCarthy says.
And it was – that day the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced a state of emergency that came into effect the following day, as coronavirus spread and gripped the country.
‘In the few days before we left, we did talk about getting an earlier flight and getting home,’ says Fintan, part of the Irish lightweight training group in Seville along with his twin brother Jake, Gary and Paul O’Donovan, Aoife Casey and Margaret Cremen.
‘We flew home that Friday and we went into isolation then for 14 days.’
At that stage, the four Skibbereen men – Fintan, Jake, Gary and Paul – were gearing up for the big trial in early April to decide the crew selection for the Irish men’s lightweight double bound for this summer’s Olympics.
Last week, the Games in Tokyo were postponed until 2021.
‘For the few weeks before the announcement we had been expecting it,’ Fintan says.
‘The organisers had been saying they were ploughing ahead but it was becoming obvious that wasn’t going to happen, especially when you saw all the other major international sports events either cancelled or postponed.
‘It wasn’t a shock but it was disappointing all the same, we had planned the season to be in top form for the Olympics – but that’s gone now.’
The pause button has been pressed. Everything is now on hold. McCarthy had been counting down the hours to the Irish trials. He felt in great form and was ready to earn his place in the double.
At last year’s World Rowing Championships, he partnered Paul O’Donovan to world gold and also guaranteed Olympic qualification – and the 23-year-old was keen to build on that this year.
He admits that the competition is fierce. Paul O’Donovan is a four-time world champion and an Olympic silver medallist and his older brother Gary is a former world champion who also holds an Olympic medal, while Fintan’s twin Jake is right in the mix too and pushing hard.
The Irish trials this month would have been intense.
‘All the boats were going quite well in Seville,’ Fintan explains.
‘It wasn’t Paul coming out on top all the time. All the doubles were really close in speed. Gary and myself would be a similar speed to Jake and Paul, Paul and myself would be similar to Jake and Gary, and Jake and myself were similar to Gary and Paul.
‘All of us are in really good shape and in top form, but we’re not going to get to see the outcome of that now. Well, not for another year.’
Shane O’Driscoll, another Skibb rower, could come back into the conversation for the double too, so when the competition starts back up again, it will be incredibly close. Only the best will advance.
Looking for a silver lining, Fintan feels he has one. Instead of having 16 weeks to go to the Olympics, he now has an extra year to wait, with the Tokyo Games confirmed to start on July 23rd, 2021.
‘I think I will get a lot more out of another year of training, maybe more than most because I haven’t been rowing as long,’ Fintan explains.
‘I started rowing after the London Olympics in 2012 so that’s only eight years, whereas Gary and Paul have been rowing for 15, 16 years at this stage.
‘Hopefully, another year will see me improve and get fitter, but it’s frustrating because I’m in top form these days.
‘I’ve never been faster than any of the guys on the erg (rowing machine) and I was second after Paul in the erg test so I am in really good shape. I can’t build on that momentum and we have to step off the gas a small bit now – you can’t go 16 months of intense training because you will burn out.
‘I think the plan is to have a bit of a rest, then start ramping up the fitness again, but we’ll make out a plan first and take it from there.’
With the National Rowing Centre now closed, and Skibb’s high-performance athletes deciding not to use Skibbereen Rowing Club since last week, home in Lisheen has become Fintan and Jake’s temporary training centre. They can roll the ergs into the floor in the sitting-room and work away, but they’ll ease off these weeks.
Fintan’s not a fan of the unknown. He likes to know what’s happening and when, and have his training planned out for weeks and months in advance, but now he will have some more spare time on his hands, he will also look to life outside of rowing.
He has a physiology degree from UCC so he has options to explore and plan what he can do after the Olympics.
Rowing-wise, Fintan feels he will be even better by the time the Games roll around in July 2021 and that’s good news for the lightweight double’s odds of bringing home the gold.