IT’S NOT just his current hairstyle that makes Paul O’Donovan stand out from the crowd, it’s his relentless pursuit of perfection.
Sporting a fine head of hair that wouldn’t have been out of place in biblical times, odds are that O’Donovan could walk on water too, if he wanted to.
Instead, he prefers to row on water – and he does it better than anyone else.
At the 2021 European Rowing Championships in Italy he added to his collection when he powered to glory in the lightweight men’s double alongside Fintan McCarthy. It’s another gold medal at a major championships.
The 26-year-old phenom now has to use two hands to count his gold medals – four at senior World level and two at European level. Then there’s his Olympic silver medal from the 2016 Games in Rio when Paul and Gary broke the glass ceiling, won Ireland’s first-ever rowing medal at an Olympics and took the sport to heights it had never reached before.
But the man hailed as the greatest rower Ireland has ever produced takes it all in his stride.
Back in 2016, after Paul won Olympic silver in the lightweight double and world gold in the lightweight single within weeks of each other, former world rowing champion Niall O’Toole told the Star that he thought the Skibb man ‘is the greatest Irish rower of all time’. (If he was the greatest then, what is he now?!)
Paul’s reaction to that compliment?
‘I’d say they’re only talking shite, are they? We’ll have to see what Dominic says,’ he quipped.
Since 2016 he has rubberstamped his standing as the best rower Ireland has ever had, adding three more world titles and another European gold.
He is, easily, one of the greatest Irish sportspeople that this country has. He’s one of our most decorated athletes, too. Four world titles (two in the single and two in the double). Two European gold medals. One Olympic silver. And he’s still only 26 years old. He’s not finished yet, either.
The Olympics in Tokyo are now less than 100 days away and the Irish lightweight men’s double – a West Cork effort – is smack bang in the middle of the medal conversation. Then there is the Paris Olympics in 2024, too.
By the end of 2024, how many hands will the Lisheen man need to count his gold medals? He’ll surely have run out of fingers by then. His toes will be needed.
But it’s not just his staggering medal count that marks Paul out as one of Ireland’s finest athletes, it’s also the transformative effect he – along with Gary – have had on Irish rowing. Like how Katie Taylor has changed women’s boxing, or how Stephen Roche brought cycling to an entire new audience when he won the Tour de France in 1987, the O’Donovan brothers have taken Irish rowing to lofty heights, on and off the water.
Paul and Gary have normalised winning while raising standards. There’s an expectancy now that Irish rowers will be in the hunt for medals at the major championships. Last weekend six Irish crews reached A finals at the European Rowing Championships and two brought home medals. Already, four Irish boats are qualified for the Tokyo Olympics and two more are still in with a chance. Leading the Irish rowing charge in Japan will be Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy.
But what makes Paul so good? Mentally and physically, he is the best in the business.
Again, it’s that pursuit of perfection. He’s been like that since he was a kid. When he was learning to write in his national school days, if Paul spelled a word wrong in a sentence, he’d erase the entire sentence instead of the incorrect word. It meant extra work, but he justified that to his mom, Trish.
‘It’s not right, mom.’
That quest to be the best is engrained in who he is, and it takes him to places where other athletes don’t or can’t go to, and allows him push himself right to the edge and then push further, and further again. His strength of mind is on a different level.
Ahead of the 2017 World Rowing Championships in Florida where he would successfully defend his world lightweight men’s single title, Paul ripped it up at a training camp in Banyoles in Spain. As experienced as coach Dominic Casey is, he had never seen anything like it. Morning and night Paul was on the water, and everyone took notice of his quality and quantity. As other Irish rowers came off the water in the evening, Paul stayed out there for an hour longer, or more. He’d come in, have fish or pasta, go to bed, and repeat it all the next day. Not a bother to him. There’s a reason he is the best lightweight rower in the world.
‘I think we all look at Paul as a freak of nature,’ 2016 Irish Olympic rower Claire Lambe told this week’s Star Sport Podcast.
‘He really is phenomenal. It’s not just his physiology, it’s his attitude as well. We’re all well aware of that in his interviews, he’s chilled, he says it as it is. He has the whole package.
‘Technically he has some unusual technique that probably wouldn’t be the model form of what we’re coaching, but he grips up the water, is phenomenal on the catch and then he has the power to carry it through. He is an all-rounder in rowing.
‘With the results he has to his name, I don’t know many Irish athletes that are four-time world champion and an Olympic medallist.’
The one medal he doesn’t have in his collection, yet, is Olympic gold. And while the Irish lightweight men’s double is hotly tipped for big things in Tokyo, rowing is a sport of fine margins so the stars still need to align for this to happen.
Getting the season off to a good start with European gold suggests Paul and Fintan are in a good place right now, but their next outing – World Cup II in Lucerne in mid-May – will give us a better indication of where they stand ahead of Tokyo.
The good news too is that Paul – who sat out the 2020 international season because of his college studies – is only warming up the muscles, says 2004 Skibbereen Olympic rower Timmy Harnedy.
‘Paul is only getting up to speed … there is a lot to come from him yet. I think that double will get faster,’ Harnedy says – and if that double gets faster, then they’ll be the crew to beat in Tokyo.
Earlier this week, after being blown away by Paul’s long, flowing locks down past his shoulders, Ryan Tubridy quipped that the Skibb rower ‘could be on the West End in a rocking production’, but it’s likelier that Paul will take centre stage in Tokyo and add to his standing as one of Ireland’s greatest sportspeople.