GRAINNE O'Donovan learned very early in her rowing adventure that she needed to work harder than everyone else if she wanted to make a name for herself.
In 1990 she went to the national junior women’s trials with the best score on a rowing machine in the country – but she wasn’t given the chance to sit in a boat at Blessington.
Grainne, who stands at almost five foot two inches tall, was dismissed because of her size.
‘I wasn’t allowed to sit in any boats,’ she says.
‘I was like, “Okay, I am never going to be in a crew boat because I am too short and too small so the only way I’m ever going to get anywhere is on my own steam”. That toughens you.
‘You realise what you have to do. You have to focus. Every training session counts, every stroke counts, you have to break it down to the small things and make sure you are better than everyone else in every aspect.’
The pocket rocket from Carrigfada in Skibbereen soon proved her doubters wrong. Between 1991 and 1994 Grainne won ten titles at the Irish Rowing Championships, including an incredible four title haul in 1993 – winning in the senior single and double and the junior single and double, with Margaret Berry her partner in the double.
‘Of course I was disappointed after those trials in 1991 but I didn’t use that to motivate me,’ explains the Skibb woman who now lives in Glenville.
‘It’s not about proving to others what you can do, it’s about seeing how far you can push your own body. If you focus on things like that then your mind becomes clogged up and you can’t focus on what you need to focus on, which is getting the technique right in every stroke, hearing that boat run, making sure your body is in the correct position …’
Grainne made every stroke count at the 1991 Irish Rowing Championships that came after her snub at the national trials. In the women’s junior single scull final she was up against the hotly-fancied Jane McGuire, also the defending champion and who was heading to the World Rowing Junior Championships.
Grainne met the challenge head on over the 2000-metre course.
‘Nobody expected me to do anything,’ she recalls.
‘I said I’d go out, give it my all and see what happens. She had a really fast start and I was behind already. I was in the worst lane too, it was the far out lane in Blessington, but I just kept thinking, technique, technique, power through, power through.
‘I remember coming up to the 1000m mark I was level with her. You get this feeling, it’s a hunger in you, that you want to prove to yourself. It’s not about the other competitors, it’s about yourself. I wanted to see how far I can push this. At the 1000m mark I could have relaxed and won the race but it was about how much can I beat them by.’
Grainne, who had only turned 16 years old a month earlier in June, won that race. She had announced her arrival. What she lacked in height she made up for in mental strength.
‘Ninety percent of it is a mental battle against yourself. I didn’t have the stature or the size or the weight, so I needed to have my technique absolutely perfect and I had to train myself to be tougher, to go through the pain, to be able to dig deep. It was mind over matter,’ she says.
For the next few years Grainne was exceptional. Her attitude to training was spot on. She pushed herself more and more. Soon, everyone noticed this five foot two inch Skibbereen rower. At one national training camp Thor Nilsen, a legendary figure in world rowing, commented that her technique was the best in the country. She was a perfectionist. Wicked strong, too.
She competed at the World U23 Rowing Championships in 1992 when she was 17 years old. At the weigh-in she packed her backpack with spanners and adjustable wrenches to push up her weight from 48kg to over 50kg.
‘I used to feel embarrassed. You had girls trying to make the 59kg weight and I was way under it. People thought I was there as a cox. You had these strong, well-built German girls at six foot and then you had me,’ Grainne says, but on the water she more than held her own. Only 17, she finished seventh in the world at those U23s.
But by the time she rowed in the World Junior Championships in Norway in 1993, she was already feeling the effects of pouring so much into the sport.
‘I had the Leaving Cert in the same year as the World Juniors so I had school and study and then training twice a day. We didn’t get driven anywhere so we cycled everywhere. There was a lot of expenditure that led to me getting burned out and the whole system breaking down,’ she explains.
Between 1991 and ’94 Grainne was in a different class. She was a serial winner that put Skibbereen Rowing Club women on the map.
She credits her parents, too, as their support gave her a routine and stability that she could build on. Grainne’s adventure had started when Denise Ní Chinnéide, Nessa Cotter, Carmel O’Sullivan and Carina O’Donovan all joined the club, so she did too. First, Mary Bohane coached them, and so did the late Denis McCarthy, as well as TJ Ryan, before Dominic Casey took over as their coach. Those few years, at national and international regattas, Grainne was on fire, but then the candle burned out after 1994.
‘It took me a long time to come back. Mentally and physically my body was broken down,’ she says.
‘I was a cox in 1996 when the men won the novice four, and I rowed again in 1997 and won the women’s senior single and double sculls at the championships.
‘I remember winning the single, there was one girl ahead of me and after passing her out and going towards the finishing line, it was almost a ‘what is this all about’ moment. Rowing against yourself and pushing your own body to the limit is what the challenge is but it wasn’t enough for me anymore. Okay, I could push myself, but it wasn’t like before. I needed more. I wasn’t getting the kick out of it that I needed.’
She carries no regrets though. Grainne won 13 Irish Rowing Championship titles and is rightly remembered as one of the best, and toughest rowers, the club has ever produced.