FINTAN McCarthy shouted a few words of encouragement during the lightweight men’s double sculls A final at the European Rowing Championships, but admitted there probably was no need.
His partnership with Paul O’Donovan has evolved to the level where words are not necessary.
‘We know what a race feels like and go to that place every time,’ Fintan explains.
They’ve done it so often in the past, they just know what to do. There is a familiarity to their brilliance.
The deadly duo has competed together 18 times in the Irish men’s lightweight double at international level, and they have won the last 15 races in a row. This winning streak has reaped a rich, golden crop of medals. Five major golds in a row – 2021 Olympic, 2019 World, 2021 and ’22 European and 2021 World Cup II.
It’s a ruthless and relentless dominance of the men’s lightweight double.
‘There is no major plan or pre-race talk, it’s just kinda ingrained in us at this stage,’ explains Fintan, reflecting on their European triumph.
‘There isn’t any communication in the race, really. I shouted out a word or two coming through the halfway mark when we got through the Italians. In the last 200 metres, it was just to keep the pace going. It’s not needed really. We both know what each stroke should feel like. It has got to that stage where we could probably do it with our eyes closed.’
The chemistry is undeniable. Two men from the same parish, Aughadown, and same rowing club, Skibbereen, who grew up on the same river, Ilen, and learned from the same coach, Dominic Casey, have combined their powers to make the best lightweight double in the world, as it was in 2019 when Fintan earned his seat alongside Paul, simply untouchable.
What makes their exploits at the recent European Rowing Championships in Munich even more remarkable is how little Fintan and Paul have rowed together this year. Both raced in singles at different World Cup regattas, and Paul spent time in Australia on work placement for his medicine studies. There was a stage earlier in the summer when the plan was to keep the double moving without Paul this year, as he focussed on his studies. The plans changed.
Fintan and Paul were reunited ahead of the Europeans and the end result was the same: gold and glory. They will defend their World crown at the 2022 World Rowing Championships in the Czech Republic in September (18th-25th). Again, they will be the men to beat. Similar to the Europeans, the build-up won’t mirror 2021 when they spent every available hour together in the double. While Fintan is on a training camp in Spain now, Paul is back in college at UCC, but they will make this work in the weeks ahead. They also know now that even with little time together, while not ideal, they can still work their magic.
‘I’ve been trying to think about it the last few weeks, what’s working for us. It is quite strange that you’d be doing so well with that little preparation. Not many people might choose to prepare that way, definitely,’ Fintan says.
‘It’s cool to be pushing the boundaries of what everyone does, changing it up, seeing that doing something different does work for us and just seeing where those boundaries are – how little we need to do or how much we need to be together.
‘We have both improved individually this year which has made the double faster. That is a different way that we have found of making the double faster, by training by ourselves, whereas last year we would have been in the double all the time.
‘The last few years have definitely stood to us and it’s cool now to be trying new things and new ways to go faster. The Europeans were one of our biggest (winning) margins ever, and I was a bit surprised by that, but from the few sessions we had done we knew we had a lot of speed. It was nice to put that together with minimal prep.’
Fintan’s own growth must be factored in, too. There’s a general acceptance that Paul is the best lightweight rower in the world, but it’s Fintan that has given the Irish men’s lightweight double the push it needed to dominate. Since he won his seat in the boat, it has lifted off the water.
‘Fintan’s really stepped on his game and he’s the one really dragging me along. He’s been rowing really well, really smooth, good timing, lots of power, endurance – he has it all,’ Paul said after their commanding four-second, clear-water triumph at the Europeans.
Former world rowing champion Niall O’Toole has pinpointed Fintan’s form this year as the reason the Irish lightweight double is pulling away from the chasing pack.
‘The big improvement in the boat this year has come primarily through Fintan. He has kicked on,’ O’Toole explained. ‘Fintan is really the person who has brought the boat to the next level. All of his numbers are through the roof in the last year. We talk about Paul a lot but the story this year is Fintan and his improvement.’
Slightly lost in the summer of sport was Fintan’s performances at the 2022 Irish Rowing Championships in July. The 25-year-old won both the lightweight men’s single and the senior single sculls. Both firsts for him. Confirmation that he’s improving. In his senior singles win Fintan beat Paul into second place. That’s a head-turning result. Admittedly, Paul’s season has been disrupted, but Fintan achieved what no-one at World Cup III could the previous weekend, and inflicted a rare loss on Paul. All pieces in a jigsaw that now, and rightly so, see Fintan acknowledged for what he brings to this boat. The year after an Olympics is the time for rowers to dip their toes in other waters, but Fintan took a different approach. It’s paying off.
‘I took in another year of rowing this year, just to see how far I could go,’ he says.
‘Obviously in an Olympic year it is all about the double and you are pushing the double as much as you can to try and win the Olympics, so it’s been really fun this year to just have an opportunity to focus on myself and where I can improve individually. It has worked really well. I have learned new ways of training that work better for me. It was really nice to get those single sculls titles and I had a World Cup in the single too, and just learned from each race. I think that has brought the double on as well.’
From those titles at the national championships to his silver medal in the single sculls at World Cup II to his training battles with the Irish women’s lightweight double, the signs show that the Fintan we see now is an improved version of the Fintan who won Olympic gold in the summer of 2021.
‘The mental side is big as well, just proving to myself throughout the years that I should be there and that we are doing something pretty special within the category. It’s been good to see that development,’ he says. While that progression can be measured in his huge haul of medals, that’s not how Fintan looks at it. He rows because he loves it. It’s fun. Importantly, it still is. There’s an enjoyment in the grind and pain that other rowers can relate to.
‘It feels like you are moving towards the best version of yourself and the boat every time. It is more about that than thinking about the winning and the medals, and that’s just a by-product of enjoying the process and just making sure we are stepping on,’ he says.
Another by-product of their success, and one outside of their control, is the pressure on them. There’s an expectation now that the Skibbereen men will power to victory whenever they line up together. That perceived inevitability adds its own pressure, but it weighs lightly.
‘We know it’s there. There is no point in trying to say it isn’t,’ Fintan says.
‘People do expect things from us, but I really don’t think we pay that much attention to it. It is a privilege to be in our position, that we are doing so well in every race – but it does put a target on our backs. Everyone is trying to see what we are doing and how they can beat us.
‘We know that pressure is there, but we are just focussed on improving ourselves and seeing how we can get better and be more efficient. We don’t pay too much attention to what everyone else is saying about us.
‘We enjoy it as well, and it does take the stress and pressure out of it.’
There will be an expectation on the Skibb men at the Worlds next month, but they won’t flinch. They’re getting stronger, finding new ways to win in a year that they haven’t shared the double too much.
They are extracting the most out of the boat with as little preparation as possible, and they are still winning. No wonder they don’t need to talk in the boat, their rowing does it for them.