Sports Editor KIERAN McCARTHY had one condition when he sat down to chat to the O’Donovan brothers at the Celtic Ross Hotel last week: he was only prepared to ask rowing questions, and not talk about podium pants, reality TV, The Late Late Show or odds on their next girlfriend. Here’s what happened...
‘YOU’RE getting us thinking now,’ Gary admitted, sitting back in an inviting leather chair in the grand surrounds of the library room at the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery, tucked neatly behind the reception.
And just like a library, it’s quiet here, no interruptions bar one (a mother and her two sons looking for a photo, which the lads, of course, oblige), and after the madness of the week before, the serenity is welcome.
The O’Donovan brothers, Gary (23) and Paul (22), are just after receiving the Celtic Ross West Cork Sports Star of the Month Award for August, and we’re halfway through an interview that’s concentrating on one thing only: rowing.
‘It’s because of our rowing performances that we were put in front of a TV in the first place,’ Gary offered up, before Paul finished the sentence ‘and it’s nice to talk about rowing again, rather than all the other stuff.’
Older brother Gary’s spot on: it’s the Lisheen brothers’ talent as rowers that has led them to fame, and hopefully fortune, not to mention Olympic silver, European gold and Paul’s world gold, but their next challenge is to keep their places in the Irish men’s lightweight double sculls boat.
The Irish Open regatta will be held at the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra on October 8th and 9th, and Ireland’s two most famous rowers will be in action that weekend – this is the first step of the trialling system for the Tokyo Olympiad.
Gary and Paul were back training last weekend, on a rowing machine on Wednesday before hitting the River Ilen on Thursday morning, as they got back to what they love: rowing.
But they both know they are now marked men.
‘Because the boat is so successful and we are winning medals, people want to get into it whereas before we were trying to make finals but we weren’t winning medals,’ Gary explained.
‘People know now that if they can beat one of us and get into the boat and make it faster, then they’ve a great chance of winning medals – that’s an incentive for everyone else to get into the boat but it’s no harm for us either, to push us on more. We want to stay in the boat and go faster.
‘This hasn’t happened all of a sudden, it’s been happening well before this, well before we won medals. Shane (O’Driscoll) and Mark (O’Donovan) have been pushing us all along and they have always been trying to break into the top boat. Not only are we unsafe in our boat but they’re unsafe in their boat because they are being pushed by the fellas after them.’
Paul jumped in: ‘This isn’t the final trial or anything, this is just the start of it, to open things up. It’s important for the group involved, we don’t want to close it off to them the first trial back.’
‘If we finish first and second we will be secure enough in the double for the next year, but if someone comes in and interrupts it, they probably won’t get into the boat straightaway but it might open up a seat race and lead to a few more trials. We’d be hopeful that we’d stay first and second,’ Gary added.
The have both admitted before that if either of them found a faster rowing partner, they’d jump ship.
‘You don’t have a choice. If someone is faster then you have to go, it doesn’t matter if it’s your brother or not,’ Gary offered.
What did make the Skibbereen Rowing Club stars go faster, however, was their decision to swap seats – Paul is in the stroke seat, Gary in the bow seat. When they got together in the double first, it was the other way around, so why the change?
‘When we originally got together Gary was in the stroke seat, there was no reason for it – Gary went stroke and we left it at that,’ Paul explained.
‘We did a few regattas like that and we didn’t do too bad, we came fifth at a Europeans, but then one evening we said we’d swap seats for a laugh, just to try it out. I was a way happier in the bow seat.
‘I was much happier in the stroke,’ Paul added.
‘Because I don’t have to look at the back of him,’ he quipped.
Gary then took over.
‘In the stroke seat you need to be a little bit more confident in what you are doing yourself. When I am following Paul I can see what he is doing, I can see what length he is taking and I can try and replicate that,’ he said.
‘Because Paul is so good in the single, he obviously knows exactly what he is doing and he is very confident in what he was doing, but with me, maybe not so much – I was unsure if I had the right stroke length or the correct rhythm, am I doing the right things so that Paul can follow me? I was questioning myself. But when Paul went into the stoke seat, we both know that he knows what he’s doing so I have to then replicate him from behind. I was happier there. Anyway when we were growing up Paul was always stroke and I was always bow; there was a preference there going way back.’
Paul also feels that his style and experience, despite being the younger of the two, was a help here, too.
‘What I noticed a little bit when Gary was stroking was that he wasn’t 100 per cent sure what he was doing with the stroke length and the rhythm; it was a bit variable then and I was having a little bit of trouble following him. I’m a bit more consistent so Gary can blend in easier with me then I could with him.’
The decision then to up the stroke rate in races is not a conscious one either.
‘You can feel it, you can sense it. If you give a bit a momentum, if the other fella has any bit of cop on he knows that the other fella is taking it on here and I must go with him,’ Paul explained.
Back on familiar water at home in Skibb last Thursday – the first time since they returned home from Rio, via Rotterdam and the worlds – they were relieved almost to be back doing what they love: rowing.
‘I couldn’t wait to get back,’ Gary said, ‘I had three and a half weeks off and I couldn’t wait to get back to the routine and the solid training, and trying to progress and get faster – and beat Paul this year, the same thing I try every year…’
And how’s that going for you, Gary?
‘We both seem to be plateauing at the moment, but we’ll see,’ Gary said, mischievously glancing across at Paul, still smiling.
For Paul, men’s lightweight world single scull champion, he has challengers on all fronts – in the double and the single. He’s a man on top of his game, still only 22, and he’s in no mood to rest on his achievements to date.
‘Why don’t I stay there (on top) now? There’s no point leaving now.’ Paul said.
‘A lot of people make that mistake, they take years trying to get to the top and when they get there, they think, “okay, I’ve done it”. But why don’t you try to stay there as long as you can, and keep at it; they’re the good times.’
The immediate priority is simple, Gary adds in, to stick to the double and win every race they are in for the next four years.
‘I enjoyed that,’ Gary said afterwards, ‘talking just rowing.’
Rowing, and how good they are at it, is what got these two grounded Lisheen lads here in the first place, and it’s what will keep them at the top as well.