This article originally appeared in our 24-page 'TAKING OVER TOKYO' OLYMPICS magazine which is free in this week's Southern Star. Get your copy in shops across West Cork or online via the Southern Star digital edition ➡️ http://bit.ly/
Fintan McCarthy has proved to everyone – including himself – that he deserves his place in the dominant Irish lightweight men’s double. KIERAN McCARTHY spoke to the Skibb man ahead of the Olympics
FINTAN McCarthy is not a fan of the unknown. He likes organisation, to know what’s happening and when. On race days he plans out his own timetable, detailed to the minute. That structure gives him security and confidence.
Ahead of training camps Fintan makes a checklist. Again, it’s comprehensive. Nothing is left to chance. One by one, as he packs, the list is ticked off. Tick. Tick. Tick. The beautiful monotony only a rower understands, endures and enjoys.
His twin brother Jake, a few minutes older and also a world-class rower, is the opposite.
‘I just look at Fintan’s list, see what he needs and throw a few things into my suitcase,’ Jake laughs.
‘Everyone has their own way of doing things – and Fintan likes to plan, days, weeks and months in advance. It works. He makes sure he misses nothing. If you don’t eat or drink enough, it could be detrimental, so it’s critical to know what you have to do, need to do and when. Fintan covers all the bases.’
But even with his forward-planning, not even Fintan could have foreseen what has unfolded over the past two years. In early 2019, Fintan’s ambition – and Jake’s, too – was to force his way into the Irish lightweight men’s double that was owned by the O’Donovan brothers, Gary and Paul, who had won World gold in 2018.
It seemed a big ask.
Gary and Paul, from the same parish of Aughadown, as the McCarthy twins, were the Irish lightweight men’s double. They held those seats since 2015. Won Ireland’s first-ever Olympic rowing medal in Rio 2016. Became bigger than rowing itself, but kept winning. They were the best in the world. No-one was good enough to oust either of them.
But Fintan, like Jake, wanted a seat in that boat. Ideally, together, like they’ve always been.
‘Rowing has definitely brought Jake and myself a lot closer together,’ Fintan (24) reflects.
‘We are really good friends now.
‘Go back to when we were younger we were always at each other and fighting, and we didn’t have a lot in common until we started rowing together. That’s when we found some common ground.’
Obviously, they have always been close. They’re twin brothers. They finish each other’s sentences. There’s a competitiveness there, too. It was Fintan, when he was 15 years old, who started rowing first, a full year before Jake who then wanted what his brother had.
'I'd usually be going soccer and GAA training but when Fintan started training more than me I didn't like it too much!', Jake told the Star before.
Before long, both were hooked. For Fintan, rowing just fitted him. Soccer didn’t. Neither did Gaelic football. In his own words, he was terrible, to the extent that he told Ilen Rovers he was U10 when he was actually U12 so he wouldn’t have to play with his own age group. With rowing – and Skibbereen Rowing Club – it was different from the start.
‘We all have a running joke, that it’s all the rejects from other sports that end up in the rowing club,’ Fintan smiles.
‘It’s not that I wasn’t sporty, but I hadn’t found anything that I liked or was good at, so when I finally did find rowing it was motivating because I could see that I could get better and how I could get better. That’s what brought out the competitiveness then because I knew that I could be good and I wanted to show people I could be good.’
Quite soon, two brothers from Aughadown were making waves on the water with Skibbereen Rowing Club, and that has a familiar ring to it. By that stage, the early noughties, Paul O’Donovan was already the best junior sculler in Ireland and had finished fourth in the single at the 2011 Junior Worlds. Fintan was at a different stage in his development as a rower.
‘What was different for me is that with rowing there were people telling you “you’re good”, and I hadn’t had that in any other sport before,’ he explains.
‘There were people in the club winning championships so we knew it was the place to be if you wanted to be good at rowing. When you have those people telling you “oh wow, that was a good score on the erg” or “you looked good in the single today”, that really spurs you on to get more out of it. It’s motivating that way.’
With both Fintan and Jake rowing, the twin brothers from Foherlagh, just north of Kilcoe Church, had a shared interest. The same passion. More to relate to and talk about. They’ll admit they’re obsessed. Even now, they live together in Ovens, a ten-minute drive from the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra. Two more Tokyo Olympic rowers, Aoife Casey and Margaret Cremen, live in the same house. Fintan and Jake just can’t switch off from rowing when they’re home. It’s rowing, rowing, rowing. Again, the monotony only a rower understands and enjoys. Rowing brought them closer together. And success followed.
On The Southern Star Sport edition of July 23rd, 2016, a photo of Fintan and Jake dominates the front page. They had won the intermediate men’s double scull at that year’s Irish Rowing Championships at the National Rowing Centre. That was an historic weekend for many reasons. That was the weekend when Skibbereen Rowing Club, after winning 13 national titles, officially became the most successful rowing club in the country, overhauling Neptune. Skibb now had top spot all to themselves. They still do. It was also the weekend that Fintan and Jake won their first national title together. A flag-in-the-ground moment in Fintan’s journey.
‘I had won the senior quad the day before the intermediate double and that was my first win, that was with Shane O’Driscoll, Mark O’Donovan and Kenneth McCarthy. That was the Saturday, and then Jake and I won the inter double on the Sunday,’ Fintan explains.
‘I had been at the World U23 Championships the year before but I had never won a national championship before 2016, even at junior level, so it was huge for me to get the first pot in the bag. It was even better to win it with Jake that year.’
That was the summer that Gary and Paul O’Donovan won Olympic silver medals at the Rio Games. That was another key moment in Fintan’s story. He was in the Paragon Bar in Skibbereen town on Friday, August 12th, 2016: the day that transformed Irish rowing. He watched his club-mates break through the glass ceiling and win Ireland’s first-ever Olympic rowing medals. Fintan was 19 at the time, preparing for the upcoming World U23s in Rotterdam. It showed Fintan what was possible. He trained the same as Gary and Paul, with the same coach, Dominic Casey, on the same river in the same club. If they can do, I can do it.
Still, in a sport where fractions of a second decide legacies, Fintan had ground to make up if he wanted what Gary and Paul had. It’s a hard trek from base camp to the summit, but he was buoyed by what he was seeing in his own improvements. The Cork Regatta in June 2018 stands out.
‘That was our last year as U23s, Jake and I, and we were selected for the World U23s in the double. We had a race against Gary and Paul at Cork Regatta and they only beat us by a second. We had led them for two thirds of the race, that was definitely a big one,’ Fintan recalls.
‘We had training sessions where we would have kept up but obviously they would have been faster than us. It became a case of “Oh, I only have this much to go” whereas when we were younger they were hammering us.’
Then in 2019 there was a change in the Irish lightweight men’s double. Gary fell behind after suffering a hand injury early in the year. Fintan, flying in Irish training and trials, passed the Olympic medallist out – as well as his brother Jake – and took a seat in the boat, alongside Paul. That was the changing-of-the-guard moment. The O’Donovan brothers were broken up, but there’s no room for sentiment here.
‘It is brutal because you know how you would feel in that position, but I was really proud of myself and all the work that had paid off,’ Fintan says.
Now he had his seat in the fastest lightweight men’s double in the world and alongside the best lightweight men’s sculler. There are only three years between Fintan and Paul, but there was, and is, a gulf in experience. Time for Fintan to step up.
From the start, Paul and Fintan in the double just worked. In their first regatta together, World Rowing Cup II in Rotterdam in July 2019, they won silver. Since then, and in the three international regattas they’re competed in together, they have won every single race, be it a heat, A/B semi-final or A final. Ten race wins in a row. Three golds. Devastatingly dominant.
Those three regattas yielded World gold and Olympic qualification in 2019, European gold and World Rowing Cup II gold this year. Now, the teenager who watched Paul win Olympic silver in 2016 is gunning for gold alongside him at the Tokyo Games. Jake, who was also in the running for the seat in the Irish double before a back injury suffered in early 2020 dashed his chances, isn’t surprised to see Fintan in his current position.
‘At the start Fin was never the fittest or the strongest, but he was able to move the boat well and go fast. He has always had that ability to feel the boat and move it. Technically, he’s very good,’ Jake explains.
‘He got every ounce of efficiency out of what he had, and now he is fitter and stronger, one of the strongest lightweights around. Combine that with what he had before, it’s pretty phenomenal.’
The 2021 version of Fintan, now 24 years old, is fitter, faster and stronger than what we’ve seen before. He’s broader, too, filling his frame. He’s a powerful unit. The unseen hard work is paying off.
‘He has put on a good bit of lean muscle mass which is important to the boat. You want to have as much muscle mass as possible but at the same time too much fat will slow you down. That’s why lean muscle mass is important because you don’t have any extra muscle mass weighing you down when you are on the water. He is up there with the strongest and fittest lightweight rowers in the world now,’ explains Jake.
It helps, too, that Fintan is in the boat alongside the top lightweight men’s rower in the world.
Paul O’Donovan has taken Fintan to places, mentally and physically, he never thought he could go. But that’s what life is like when you’re sharing a boat with a four-time world champ who is the best in the business.
Fintan wants to hold his own in the double – and he is. He doesn’t want to be pulled around the rowing course by Paul, he wants to move the boat faster with Paul.
‘He is at such a level that when you are trying to match that every day it just pushes you further,’ Fintan explains.
‘I am trying to be as good as him in the boat, and he is the best in the world. It’s not that I need to prove anything to Paul, but I want to make sure that I’m not slowing things down because we know that together we can be really fast. That pushes me in training to make sure it’s not just Paul’s unrealness that is the reason we’re doing well.
‘We’ve formed a good relationship in the boat, and, Jesus, he has pushed me to new levels, training wise. I don’t think I could have done the training I have this summer if I wasn’t sitting behind him.’
The results speak for themselves. Ahead of Tokyo, they are World and European champions, and they are the lightweight men’s double everyone else has to beat. They are gold medal favourites, too. Their rivals must be wondering how do we beat the Irish. That brings its own expectations, but these Skibbereen diamonds aren’t weighed down by pressure. There’s a grit and hardiness to Skibb rowers, and the simplicity they employ also helps. Keep it simple, like their coach Dominic Casey preaches.
‘At this stage there is a bit of an expectation but I don’t pay much attention to that,’ Fintan says.
‘We still have to go out and do it. If anything, it makes it a bit simpler. If we go out and do X, Y and Z, do what we have been doing and get a little better here and a litter better there, we should have a good chance of winning – and that is nice. At the same time, you don’t know what will happen between now and then. Anything could happen. Even on the day. It’s focussing on the day to day, and whatever happens is meant to happen, whether we win or not.
‘Obviously, this is my first Olympics but our approach has worked so far. I haven’t bigged up any race that much. Even at home during trials I have been very clear on what needs to happen in a race and what I need to do to make the boat go fast. I focus on that rather than the occasion or the result.’
Ominously for their challengers, Fintan feels the best is yet to come for the Irish double. They missed out on last year in the boat because of Covid and Fintan hopped into the single scull and Paul focussed on his college studies, so they’ve only been back together since this year, yet they’re still dominant. Worth noting that in the single scull in 2020, Fintan won bronze at the European Rowing Championships, highlighting he can shine on his own. It was also an extra experience. But now it’s all about moving that double faster than ever before.
‘I think we can put out a better performance than we have done in the last few regattas. We definitely stepped on a lot between the Europeans and the World Cup regatta, and we have had more time then we did between those two races.’
He takes confidence from the training they’ve done. They’ve trained really bloody hard, he stresses. They have an incredible body of work done and they are as prepared as they can be for the Games. They’re still finding more speed and they’ll hit Tokyo in top gear. There’s confidence there, too, from their races together. They can win from the front or coming from behind. They row to race, and race to win.
It’s been a whirlwind few years for Fintan. Surreal is the word he reaches for. There was a stage when he found it hard to believe how far he has come in such a short period, but now he knows he deserves the success he’s enjoying. He has earned it. It was a hard slog, but there’s a strange satisfaction in the pain and hurt that rowers are drawn to. Training and racing with Paul has taken that pain to a whole new level, but Fintan hasn’t baulked. Instead, he has stepped up and made the best lightweight double boat in the world even better. That takes someone special. Mannerly, polite and pleasant on the outside, the beast within him has been unleashed.
And now he’s gunning for gold in Tokyo to crown an extraordinary rise. Perhaps it was part of his grand plan after all.