Sports Editor Kieran McCarthy looks at the similarities between Paul O'Donovan and Paul Griffin, both iconic Irish rowers
PAUL Griffin bumped into Paul O’Donovan a few years back at the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra.
It was a brief encounter, a few words passed, and they both moved on.
They didn’t really know each other then, and they still don’t now, but they knew of each other.
One, the toughest man to pick up an oar for Ireland, the other now ranked as Ireland’s greatest ever rower, and he’s still just 23 years old.
O’Donovan would have known that Griffin is an almost mythical figure of Irish rowing, a man who former world champion Niall O’Toole admits was ‘fucking terrifying to row behind.’
Former Irish Olympic rower Griffin, from Fossa just outside Killarney, was at his peak in the mid-noughties.
O’Toole is bang on: he was terrifying.
Before Griffin went to war, you’d notice his eyes first. Beyond intense. They were piercing, glossed over, almost welling up. He was setting the tone there and then.
He was a force of nature, much like O’Donovan is now.
Griffin was in the Irish lightweight four that finished sixth in the A final at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, alongside Skibbereen’s Eugene Coakley, Niall O’Toole and Richard Archibald. Skibb’s Timmy Harnedy also shared the four with Griffin, as did Richard Coakley briefly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, at a time when back home in Skibbereen there used to be war on the River Ilen.
Four young bucks in a quad – Paul and Gary O’Donovan, Shane O’Driscoll and Diarmuid O’Driscoll – were hell bent on racing, and trying to beat, the club’s senior stars, including the Coakleys and Harnedy, training in their singles.
Thirteen, 14 years old at time, Paul, Gary, Shane and Diarmuid were fearless against some of the country’s top rowers who were also being pushed to their limit at international level by Griffin.
They didn’t know at the time, but Paul, Gary and Shane were been driven on by Paul Griffin’s commitment and insane work rate; his insatiable drive to go faster and faster, no matter what it took and how hard it hurt, had an effect on anyone he trained with.
Those young teens weren’t just racing Eugene, Richard and Timmy, they were racing men, some of whom were being taken to dark places and new heights by Griffin.
‘He was fucking terrifying to race behind, in the sense that you knew he was going to take you places where your body didn’t want to go,’ Niall O’Toole explains.
‘You knew with Paul in front of you it was going to be really hard but you trusted him completely to give everything.
‘I think that’s what it must be like now for Gary O’Donovan as well to have Paul in front of him.’
Paul Griffin and Paul O’Donovan are cut from the same cloth; that thought has been whirling inside my head for a long time now.
I’ve known Griffin from national school (two classes ahead of me) through to covering his prime time rowing days, while O’Donovan’s been a regular on these sports pages for many years.
It always struck me that they have more than their first name in common, more so than any other two Irish rowers in recent times.
It’s not just the similar back stories – humble backgrounds, making the best of basic facilities their clubs provided to get onto the international stage, exceptional athletes, etc. – it’s their mentalities that unite and elevate them, and separate them from the rest.
Both Pauls are quiet, letting others be heard before them until it matters, but it’s their actions that those around them take notice of.
They have a presence in a room that’s different to other rowers, that comes from their confidence, knowing they have put in the hard graft. Put Paul, Gary, Mark and Shane in a room. Paul moves differently and talks differently to the other three. He’s the youngest of that gang but he’s the most self-aware and confident, too. He’s also more clinical and stubborn.
Both Pauls are also measured. Every decision revolves around the same question: will this make me faster or not?
‘I rowed behind Paul Griffin at the Olympics in 2004,’ Niall O’Toole explains.
‘He has a very similar mentality to Paul O’Donovan. It’s their quiet, single-minded determination, they won’t say a lot. But they don’t need to. Their approach to training and racing says enough.
‘There was a steely deepness to Griffin’s personality. He wouldn’t say a word all day but when he was about to do some work, you’d know that look and you knew we were in a for a rare old time.
‘It’s probably the same for Gary O’Donovan now.’
Both Pauls bring a physicality and strength to their respective boats. Pain is almost enjoyable to both, a sign they’re moving in the right direction.
‘I don’t believe in it,’ Paul once quipped, before Gary added, ‘It’s there but Paul is ignorant to the fact that there is pain, he is in denial about the whole thing.’
There were days when Niall O’Toole avoided Griffin when they were training on land, either on the ergometer or the bike.
‘If you were feeling tired, you’d say I’m not going beside this flaker because I feel a bit ropey. For that hour you’d be at the pin of your collar, you’d be right on the edge,’ he explained.
‘With training programmes there are intensities – low intensity and high intensity.
‘It could be an hour, an hour and a half session on the ergo, and Paul, beyond any other athlete in the group, had only one speed – that was flat to the mat. Whatever he did, it was balls to the wall.’
Gary also knows what that feels like – that determination and commitment to go to well and always find that something extra that could be the difference in a sport with a tenth of a second could separate first and fourth. Ahead of the Rio Olympics, Gary told us: ‘I had to learn to keep up with his (Paul’s) physical strength coming down the race course. He is immensely strong. It’s insane.
‘We’ve had races when we’re coming towards the finish, when you would be at your limit, and I would think that I can’t do much more, but then I feel this huge surge of power coming from Paul. Out of nowhere the boat starts lifting up. That gives me the drive to find some more.’
Niall O’Toole has an interesting theory that can be applied to both Pauls.
‘I think with all athletes, really tough athletes, you don’t start off like that in the sport, you learn behaviour that suddenly becomes part of your personality over time,’ he said.
To understand Griffin’s personality you need to understand that his body shape and size was not suited to rowing.
He didn’t have the talent of O’Donovan but that didn’t hold him back.
He had no right to be as successful as he was – and that lightweight four was one of the best boats in the world for a period in the mid 2000s.
Griffin went against all the rules.
‘He’s a small guy with small levers and small legs in terms of length and leverage. Smaller guys have smaller lung capacity, too. Rowing is all about being long, staying in the water as long as you can, longer people had that advantage over Paul,’ O’Toole explained – but Griffin used those obstacles to define himself. He felt he had a point to prove to everyone.
Every training session, every time on the water, he brought an intensity that didn’t only level the playing field, but elevated him. He trained at an intensity that no one else trained at.
He was a self-made rowing lunatic, hardened, made of steel, and the decisions he made to get to the top became an innate part of his psyche. They became the norm for him. That’s what made him special.
(Griffin also tried to qualify in cross-country skiing for the 2010 Winter Olympics but came up short).
Paul O’Donovan’s decisions also define him. He is obsessed with rowing. When he was young he had an idea that he could be the best, so he poured everything into rowing to get to the top, and now at the summit he gives everything to stay there.
Like Griffin’s personality evolved because of his decisions, so is O’Donovan’s.
He is driven to be the number one. That means more to him than medals and the adulation that follows; you can see that by how flippant he can be in interviews afterwards, playing down his achievements.
He hates losing. One line from the Pull Like a Dog documentary captured that when, after admitting he finds it hard to watch the 2016 Olympic final where Gary and himself won silver, he said, ‘We lost the Olympics, it’s hard to take.’
He needs an edge, like Griffin did to prove he could row at the highest level, and O’Donovan is continually driven to prove that he is the best in the world, and that is shaping his personality, how he carries himself and how he is perceived by others.
Griffin is the hardest rower I’ve seen, O’Donovan is the best – and they both changed the rowing landscape in Ireland by their personalities and their similarities. It’s a pity they came along in different eras.