World champ Shane O’Driscoll chats to KIERAN McCARTHY about his dream season
SHANE O’Driscoll hates losing. He really does.
Before 2017 decided to be the year that opened the door to Aladdin’s Cave for Shane and his lightweight pair partner Mark O’Donovan, the Kilkilleen man was fed up with losing.
Fourth here, fifth there, sixth over there, always outside the medals. It has become an all too familiar feeling, missing out.
He had nothing of note to show for his efforts.
‘I went through my U23 career and never got a medal,’ he says.
‘Paul (O’Donovan) got a medal, Mark got a medal and I do think of that, and up until May (World Rowing Cup I in Belgrade) I had never won a medal internationally at the top level. There was the Coupe, Ghent, but nothing on the world stage.
‘I was fed up with losing. I want to get something out of rowing.’
2017 was the year it all clicked for Shane, who has partnered Mark in the lightweight pair since 2015.
But this isn’t an overnight success story.
The Skibbereen Rowing Club duo didn’t medal in 2015 or 2016, with the latter a particularly tough season to digest – fourth in the C final at World Rowing Cup I, fourth in the A final at the Europeans, fifth in the A final at World Rowing Cup III and fourth in the A final at the World Rowing Championships in Rotterdam.
All that work and not one medal to bring home to Lisheen.
At that time, Gary and Paul O’Donovan were changing the face of Irish rowing with silver at the Rio Olympics and Paul followed it up with gold in the single at the worlds, while their childhood friend Shane was wondering what he had to do to bridge that gap.
‘We came fourth a lot that year and, I won’t lie, it hurt a lot,’ he admitted.
‘Mark and myself went back, we looked at a lot of stuff we were doing. Don’t get me wrong, fourth in the world is good but we had come fourth in every regatta that we rowed in 2016.
‘Even if we had got one bronze medal it wouldn’t have hurt as much but we had such a good season and had nothing to show from it.
‘It was a bit disheartening but we weren’t going to quit.’
These two went to great lengths to keep their rowing dream alive, even bunking up at the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra after the tiny flat they rented – Shane slept on a mattress on the floor – above a pub in Coachford closed its doors.
That was after the 2015 World Rowing Championships in France, Shane still remembers where he was when Mark broke the news to him they had nowhere to stay.
‘It was just after the world championships, and Mark rang me,’ he recalled.
‘“Come here, we have to move out our stuff, the house is gone.”
‘We moved everything into the rowing centre and lived there for a few months.
‘We lived a winter there.’
The National Rowing Centre, as modern as it is, is not a home. It’s fine for one night, not for three months, but that’s where the pair stayed from September through to December 2015 before they found a house in Dripsey.
‘It’s not a place where you would stay long-term,’ Shane admitted.
‘There is no television. You have a microwave oven. The facility itself is outstanding, there’s a massive kitchen, but it’s not somewhere where you want to live.’
‘There were bunkrooms there, it was fine for a time. If it wasn’t for that we’d had to have moved home to Skibbereen and travel up and down, so it was convenient enough.
‘We just got on with it.’
That attitude has served them well, and it was another development at the National Rowing Centre that also helped their quest.
In December 2016 Skibbereen Rowing Club guru Dominic Casey was appointed Rowing Ireland High Performance Coach for the lightweight rowers, and that worked in Shane and Mark’s favour. He knew them well, and their potential, and how to get the best out of them.
‘He gave us direction, he took us to the training camp last winter in Seville and that was a big change for us,’ Shane says.
‘We really started rowing the pair then rather than rowing other boats. Dominic told us then, “I want ye to win the European Championships this year”.
‘Now, Britain had won the world championships by almost ten seconds and we had come fourth, so for Dominic to say that, it was a big ask for us.
‘We thought about it, said we could do it and the belief started then.’
The Irish pair started the season well, winning gold at Rowing World Cup I in Belgrade, beating Great Britain into third. Shane had his first major international gold medal. Relief. Even Dominic was surprised.
Exactly three weeks later, Shane and Mark repeated the trick, this time taking gold at the European Rowing Championships in the Czech Republic. They proved they weren’t a one-hit wonder.
They made their mark. Shane and Mark meant business.
More gold followed at Rowing World Cup II and III as the momentum snowballed during the summer, with the World Rowing Championships in Florida in late September the chance to complete the clean sweep and the perfect season.
Driving them on was fear.
‘A very experienced coach asked me lately, “You must really love winning, the way you row, the way you race, our aggressiveness, and all that”. That got me thinking,’ Shane says.
‘It’s not that I love winning but I hate losing. I really do. Mark is the same. We really don’t like losing.
‘That was the fear in each regatta we did (in 2017), especially the world final, that we were going to be left behind in the first half of the race.
‘That fear of the fourth place is there, that feeling from those regattas when the other crews got medals, Gary and Paul doing so well, and we wanted to be up there with the lads, celebrating with them.
‘We never got complacent, we always kept our feet on the ground, we always had that fear of coming fourth.’
There was no need to worry.
Shane and Mark, like they had done all season, dominated the lightweight pair at the world championships, winning their heat and the A final. The dream season was complete. Five gold medals to show and a lifetime of good memories.
Before the worlds, however, Shane and Mark had already decided to move up to the heavyweight pair as their lightweight boat is not an Olympic event – and these two want to row at the 2010 Olympic Games in Tokyo. That’s now their target. They have started the process of adding weight and muscle as they get ready to compete with, literally, the big boys.
‘We have to do this. We want to go to an Olympics and this is the best way of going,’ Shane explained.
The 2018 season won’t harvest the success and gold medals that this past year did, but Shane and Mark know that. They also know it will take time to make their presence felt at heavyweight – but these two love a challenge.
‘Since 2015 we have been aiming to win a world championship in the pair and we pulled that off; that’s the end of that chapter, that goal reached. We put years of our life into reaching that target,’ Shane explained.
‘Now it’s a new chapter, similar to when we started out in the lightweight pair and every year we are going to build on it, up until Tokyo.
‘This is a bigger challenge than winning the lightweight world but we’re ready for it. Qualifying for the Olympics is our goal.’
Given the journey Shane has made to get this far, the sacrifices he has made and his steely determination, don’t back against him and Mark at heavyweight.
Remember, they hate losing