THE bear was poked at World Cup III in July when Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy suffered a rare defeat – and we saw the reaction at the 2023 World Rowing Championships in Belgrade.
When the Skibbereen dream team, in their familiar Irish men’s lightweight double, were beaten by just 0.09 of a second in the A final at the World Cup event, heads turned. This was their first race loss in four years. The important context was they were just back in the boat together – and with a block of training in Banyoles behind them ahead of the Worlds, they fired a reminder that they are the best in the business.
The two men from the parish of Aughadown won their heat, quarter-final, and semi-final in Belgrade, and the signs were ominous for their rivals. In winning their A/B semi-final on Thursday, Paul and Fintan also qualified the Irish men’s lightweight double for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris; the boat will be back to defend its Olympic gold. That was one mission accomplished.
‘It’s nice for sure, to book the ticket now at this stage. That makes next year a bit easier and we can just focus on peaking at the right time,’ Paul said after their clear-water semi-final win.
Aiming for a hat-trick of world gold medals together, following their success in 2019 and 2022, Paul (29) and Fintan (26) defended their crown on Saturday afternoon. Fifth after 500 metres, they moved up to second by the halfway mark and had their sights set on leaders Switzerland. With 500 to go, Paul and Fintan were hitting the front in familiar style. Even though the Italians were moving fast now, the Skibb men weren’t going to be caught and they won comfortably in the end, in 6:32.09, ahead of Switzerland (6:34.38) and Italy (6:34.77).
‘We had a really good row and it's nice to be up there again,’ Fintan said afterwards.
‘This year is really good. It's probably been different every year we've been together. It's nice to have new challenges, and do things a bit differently, and see how it works out.’
Paul and Fintan are in an ideal position now. Olympic champions, back-to-back world champions, with the boat already qualified for Paris, they are the men to beat.
They’ll be joined at the 2024 Games by an Aughadown neighbour, Aoife Casey, after the Skibbereen rower and Mags Cremen qualified the Irish women’s lightweight double for the Olympics next summer.
With seven qualification spots up for grabs, Aoife and Mags regrouped after just missing out on the A final to win the B final on Saturday morning and take the last qualification place up for grabs. Ireland (7:03.39) were followed home by Poland (7:04.44) with Italy, Switzerland, France and Greece well behind.
'It’s a dream come true to be honest,' Casey said after their seventh place overall finish.
'We were confident that we’ve been building through the season. We started off with a few fifths and there or thereabouts, and we just kept the belief and kept the training going.
'It was tough in the semi-final that we didn’t get through and our confidence was a bit knocked, but our game plan was just to have our best race, have fun during it if we could, and see how it works out. We’re on cloud nine.'
The World Rowing Championships also saw a welcome return to the international stage for Skibb’s Jake McCarthy, who has had injury troubles in recent years. He finished fifth in the D final of the lightweight men's single, putting him 23rd in the world.
It was a memorable championship for the Irish lightweight group, coached by Dominic Casey, and the entire Rowing Ireland team as seven boats qualified for next year’s Olympics.