KIERAN McCARTHY looks at the overnight success story that was 14 years in the making
NOTHING could have prepared Gary and Paul O’Donovan for what was waiting for them when they returned home after their Olympic heroics in 2016.
That summer they left West Cork as two local rowers who could walk down North Street in Skibbereen to Kalbo’s Café and not be noticed, but they returned as Olympic medallists, history-makers, national heroes, rowing superstars and Irish pin-ups. It was a lot to take in. Too much, almost.
They were still so young – Gary was 23 years old, Paul was 22 – when their lives were transformed.
In Rio, after they had won Ireland’s first-ever rowing medal at an Olympics, silver in the men’s lightweight double sculls, another Cork Olympian, race-walker Rob Heffernan, told them that their lives would never be the same. They didn’t understand at the time. They were living in an Olympic bubble in Rio, far away from the O’Donovan brothers’ madness that exploded back home in Ireland.
But it didn’t take them long to discover that their lives had changed. They were swamped at Cork Airport when they landed back on Cork soil on August 29th, 2016, from Rio via Rotterdam where Paul added World gold in the men’s lightweight single to his collection. On the way down to West Cork that night there was a bonfire outside the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery for them. Driving through the next village, Leap, they were swamped by well-wishers, even though it wasn’t far off midnight.
The next morning, Monday, Gary needed a haircut before a press conference at Skibbereen Rowing Club that afternoon and then the homecoming event in Skibbereen that evening. Word reached their mom, Trish, that a gang of fans were camped outside Bernie Barry’s Whizzer Scissors salon in Ballydehob waiting for Gary. It was time for Plan B. Bernie came to their home in Lisheen. Life was a lot different to before. Even getting a haircut had changed. Later that night, after the homecoming, Gary and Paul were sat in the back of The Corner Bar in Skibbereen with friends. But they weren’t left alone. Everyone wanted a piece of the O’Donovan brothers. Eventually, they escaped upstairs and out of the heat of the spotlight, for a few hours at least.
Gary and Paul were catapulted into stardom. They had no say in it. They weren’t prepared for it either – or briefed about what lay ahead of them when they returned home after the Rio Olympics. Their anonymity was gone. That ability to walk down the street uninterrupted. Their rowing talents mark them out as amongst the best in the world – or, in Paul’s case, the best in the world. Let’s never forget that they are rowers, first and foremost. That’s their passion.
Speaking to The Southern Star in the months after the 2016 Olympics, Gary said, ‘It’s because of our rowing performances that we were put in front of a TV in the first place.’ They prefer rowing questions over steak-and-spuds queries. Ask them why was Gary in the stroke seat initially when they got in the Irish double in 2015 rather than what’s your favourite type of spud. They’re not rent-a-quotes, they’re world-class athletes, but they will be conscious too of why they became celebrities and why their personalities appealed to the masses. Here were two rogues from West Cork, churning out catchphrase after catchphrase in interviews, having the craic with the eyes of the world on them, and everyone fell for their blue eyes. They were on the back and front of newspapers. They were the biggest Irish sports story of 2016. And they’ve been big news ever since.
They also became their own brand and everyone wanted a piece of Gary and Paul, the two lads from West Cork who also rowed. That gave them a stage, though, to talk from, and spread the word about rowing. They were the best ambassadors Irish rowing could have asked for: world-class athletes who a nation fell in love with. They took rowing into the homes of non-rowing fans. They also took the mantle of the most famous brothers in Irish sport and tags like that can be tiring and distracting. But in recent years they do most of their talking on the water and not on chat shows – and they are still producing the goods where it matters.
Paul has won four senior World championship gold medals in four years (2016-2019) and Gary was in the double with him in 2018 when they showed the world, again, that they’re a powerful combination.
Gary lost his seat in the Irish lightweight double last year to Fintan McCarthy who then partnered Paul to World gold and Olympic qualification, but Gary (27) is working hard to win a seat in the boat again. Hard work is what put them on centre stage in Rio in 2016 and they’re used to that graft and blistered hands and violent cramps and a pain that spreads to their gums. And they enjoy that slog. That’s what they signed up for. That’s why they badgered their dad, Teddy, to take them out on the Ilen River for the first time in the summer of 2002. So, this is the overnight success story was 14 years in the making before they shot to world fame in 2016.
Gary was nine years old and Paul was eight when Teddy took them out on the River Ilen. He saw they had natural talent. And they were keen. It was in October 2002 that they got their hands on an Olympic medal for the first time. Great British rower Fred Scarlett had won gold in the men’s eight at the 2000 Olympics and he visited Skibbereen Rowing Club. Gary and Paul got to hold the medal. It was heavy but they wanted one.
In Something in the Water, Teddy explained, ‘It shouldn’t really have resonated with them so much, but it did. From that day on, they always believed they were going to go to the Olympics. Nothing was going to stop them.’
Fourteen years on they made history with an Olympic rowing medal – and they transformed Irish rowing, and put Skibbereen Rowing Club and the town of Skibbereen on the map. These were the same two lads who called to the Southern Star HQ in the weeks before the 2016 Olympics for an interview and weren’t recognised, at first, by a staff member. Fast forward a few weeks and everyone knew who Gary and Paul were – the brothers from Lisheen who won Ireland’s first-ever rowing medal at an Olympics.
And they’re not finished yet.