Busy preparing for the international season that’s approaching, Mark O’Donovan chats to KIERAN McCARTHY about how he wants more from rowing and how the changes to Olympic lightweight rowing have affected his chances of competing in the 2020 Olympics
MARK O’Donovan describes himself as a little more insane than your average rower.
There’s a good reason for that, too.
He wants more from the sport than your average rower and to get to where he wants to be needs a mild dash of insanity to compliment the rest of his rowing repertoire.
Mark has seen rowing partners come and go – but he’s been the one constant over the years.
‘I rowed with Steven McCarthy for years, his older brother Kenneth was very successful at the time – and still is, to be fair – and I would have been over at their place a lot when I was younger,’ he recalled.
‘Seeing Kenneth’s success and lifestyle, it seemed desirable to me so I dragged some of the lads (Eric, Brian and Steve) out rowing with me and they did well for the years they were at it – but I ended up being a little more insane and I stuck at it because I wanted a little more from the sport. And I still do.’
At 28, Mark is the oldest of the Skibbereen Rowing Club international men’s quartet that includes his pair partner and housemate Shane O’Driscoll (24), and Olympic silver medallists, Gary (24) and Paul (22) O’Donovan.
Those extra few years give Mark a head start in life, he laughs, but he’s gracious enough to admit that Gary and Paul passed him out on the water in the meantime.
The gap is closing, though.
At an Ireland assessment before Christmas, Mark and Shane both finished ahead of Gary, while Paul was exam-tied at the time. Normal order was restored at the Indoor Rowing Championships in UL in January when the O’Donovan brothers were the fastest two lightweights – but again Mark and Shane impressed at the Rowing Ireland regional trials last month, the fastest in the men’s pair.
The signs are good for the 2017 season that includes the World Cup regattas, the European Championships in late May and the world rowing championships in September, explains Mark.
‘The last block of training has really stood to us, we (Mark and Shane) are the fittest that we have ever been and the rowing is coming on massively well,’ the Poundlick, Skibbereen native said.
‘We’re a hell of a lot more physical this season than we were last season, our technique has come on a fair bit too so that’s moving the boat better and faster. Rowing is a very technical sport and we’re better together as a pair now so hopefully we can show that in races.
‘We are pushing more weight in the gym, we have a lot of positives at the moment so let’s hope our results show that.
‘The target this year is simple: get to the start line, go fast and stay going all out as long as we can.
‘We want to do the best we can but things have also changed in lightweight rowing so we’ll see who turns up and we’ll try and beat them all.’
More on those changes to the lightweight rowing world soon.
At the world senior rowing championships in Rotterdam last August, Mark and Shane finished fourth in the A final of the men’s lightweight pair, just outside the medals. They had finished seventh the previous year.
They’re getting better and they’re getting faster. And they want to start winning medals now.
‘We’ll have to go for the worlds in Florida in September because it’s been a while since I got a world championship medal. I need to get another one and it needs to be gold at this stage. You’d accept anything at the time but we need to win a world championship,’ Mark said.
Back in 2010, Mark picked up a silver medal at the world U23 championships in the Irish lightweight quad alongside Niall Kenny, Michael Maher and fellow Skibb rower Justin Ryan.
He has good memories of those July days in Belarus – but, like we established earlier, he wants more.
‘We are not here to win a few national championships or collect green jerseys, we want to be winning medals and we want to compete in the big events – and that includes the Olympics,’ he said.
‘Of course I want to row in the Olympics; how I get there, I’m not too sure yet, but that’s the goal.’
Events in Tokyo at the FISA Extraordinary Congress last month have knocked off course Mark’s dreams of representing Ireland at the 2020 Olympics. The same goes for Shane.
The decision was made to remove the men’s lightweight four from the Olympic schedule and this leaves just one lightweight men’s event at the Games: the double that Gary and Paul O’Donovan are all over at the moment.
Mark and Shane tried a late bid to qualify a lightweight four for last year’s Olympics in Rio; it came to nothing.
And now their options have been lessened.
If Mark or Shane progress to such a level that they outperform either Gary or Paul, then the double could be shaken up, or there is also the option to go heavyweight.
For this year, Mark and Shane will stay in the lightweight pair … but decision day will arrive at some point.
‘The lightweight four is an interesting event to watch and I’d have liked to compete in it more than I have. The standard is so tight and that’s what makes it interesting; you’re guaranteed thrills and spills,’ he said.
‘I know why they have decided to make these changes and they are done for the right reasons – but there’s no getting away that it’s a decision that affects me and other lightweight rowers.
‘Myself and Shane will take stock of where we are at the end of the season.
‘The options will be to either stay lightweight or go heavyweight. I’m sure my better half would prefer if I went heavyweight for aesthetical reasons, but who knows how fast we need to go to compete against heavyweights, it’s not a massive jump but we would need to up things a little bit. Having those extra couple of kilogrammes would help us increase performance too.’
The jump from lightweight to heavyweight is a real, live option now.
‘If you don’t make the lightweight weight then you are categorised as a heavyweight,’ Mark explained.
‘When you are rowing crew boat of a lightweight boat the average has to be 70kgs, so one fella can be plus or minus. When you can’t make that anymore, you’re heavyweight. Heavyweight rowers generally range from 80 to 95kgs, some of them would be above 100kgs but not too many.’
With a background as a strength and conditioning coach, Mark knows better than most what’s needed to make that jump. It’s a decision for another day.
Mark loves his coffee more than most.
He picks a coffee machine as the world’s greatest invention.
His latest Twitter post (@manthonyrc) is a photo of ‘one bad ass’ espresso.
If he was stranded on a desert island and could pick any three things in the world for company, he’d plump for a coffee machine, an unlimited supply of Maher’s Italian blend … and some XO Hennessey (for those lonely nights).
But if you were to believe his pair partner and housemate Shane – who we contacted this week looking for some inside information on Mark – then he slips into his pyjamas and furry slippers every evening and sips on green tea.
‘A sure sign he’s getting old,’ Shane reliably informs us, before revealing Mark’s penchant for topping up his tan on training camps.
‘Any glimpse of the sun and the top comes off. He says that “you can’t be too tanned”’, again according to Shane, but we smell a stitch-up in play.
Sharing ‘the mansion’ in Dripsey with four others, Mark and Shane spend a lot of time together on and off the water, and before this they shared a tiny apartment above a pub in Coachford.
‘That was a bit claustrophobic at times, but we made the best out of a bad situation. We get on well, we work well together and we’re both working towards the same goals,’ said Mark, who has rowed internationally with Shane since 2015.
‘He’s the only one who has stuck it out with me,’ Mark laughs, ‘he’s the only hardy one of the lot of them!’
Building a career outside rowing is also important to Mark who does some work for Rowing Ireland delivering coaching courses while he also goes around the country to clubs giving talks at different workshops on whatever topic a club feels they need development in.
But it’s rowing that takes top priority these times, and whether he stays lightweight and tries to get into the double or switches to heavyweight, Mark’s ready for the challenge.
‘We’ll do anything that we’re needed to do. We’ll see what happens over the next period of time. If we do very well at the first World Cup regatta that will lead us in nicely to the Europeans and that puts us in a good position,’ he added, before the time comes to weigh up his options … over a strong cup of coffee, of course.