PAUL O’Donovan refers to himself as an introvert. In his own words, he ‘doesn’t like talking to people, really’. He’s more comfortable standing at the back of the room than being at the centre of it – but his exploits on the water make him hot property on land.
Everyone wants a piece of the Skibbereen man hailed as the greatest rower of his generation. A photo, a quick word, a hand shake, a sound bite, an interview. That attention has ratcheted up even more after his latest headline-grabbing heroics on water: winning Ireland’s first-ever Olympic rowing gold medal alongside Fintan McCarthy in the Irish lightweight men’s double at the Tokyo Games.
Pre, during and post Tokyo, he has endured more media interviews in the past month than the last three years combined. They are jobs he has to do rather than wants to do, but, like training for a big regatta, he still extracts as much as he can from these experiences.
‘The media stuff is alright. You are asking the questions and I am talking about stuff that I know about. It’s easy enough for me to give an answer and I am a bit more used to it now given the last few years,’ O’Donovan says.
‘It’s good for me, to do a bit of interacting and talking with people. It’s good for me to push myself out there, and practice and develop some skills for talking to people because if I didn’t have that I’d spend the whole time in my room on my own and that wouldn’t be good for me either. It is positive in a way to push myself to do things that I am not naturally good at.’
The deserved fanfare that has surrounded his Olympic gold medal won’t have surprised him as much as it did when Gary and himself rocketed into stardom with their historic Olympic silver medal at the Rio Games in 2016. Back then they were blindsided by The O’Donovan Brothers’ Mania, but Paul, 27 years old now, is an experienced campaigner five years on.
‘I suppose people do treat you differently,’ he says.
‘You could be wandering around the town here and there might be someone on holidays and they spot you, come over and ask you to take a picture. Like if I had never been to the Olympics, I don’t think they’d be doing that to me, picking a randomer and taking a picture.
‘You are treated differently, but I am getting used to that aspect of things now, since Rio a couple of years back. For some of the rest of them, like Fintan, it was their first time at the Olympics and he’s coming back with a gold medal so it will be interesting to see what it’s like for him, the experience of it.’
He adds: ‘Everybody is well-meaning and what have you and I suppose my nature is that I’m introverted and I don’t like talking to people, really. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. But it’s all right, like.’
The intimate homecoming function hosted by Skibbereen Rowing Club at the HQ of its new sponsor, Spearline, draws a nod of approval, too. It was a small gang of club members, athletes’ families and friends. At a stretch there were 50, even if that. That suited him just fine. Compare it to the homecoming that packed Skibb town in August 2016 when, in the end, Paul and Gary retreated upstairs in The Corner Bar just to get some peace and quiet.
‘Celebrating is definitely a good idea. It is important to do that,’ he says. ‘It depends on your definition of celebrating as well. Some people think going around the place and getting pissed drunk is celebrating but the older you get, like myself, the less you enjoy that type of celebrating, the more you enjoy spending time with friends and family.
‘Especially with Covid, everything is low key. The rowing club organised a little bit of an evening there in town with a few from the club and with some close family and friends. It was nice and small, and you had the time to have a nice conversation with the people you haven’t seen in while whereas if it’s so big and there are tens of thousands of people that you can’t turn around and get the first word of a sentence before someone else drags you around; that’s a little bit more stressful for us.’
It’s hard to imagine O’Donovan being stressed. He’s never flustered. He’s a calming influence. Comfortable in silence, you get the sense that the highs are never too high or the lows too low. Instead, he’s rock steady, but always moving forward.
This weekend Fintan McCarthy and himself were in action at the Henley Regatta in England. Next weekend it’s the National Rowing Championships in Inniscarra where he will be racing in UCC colours, as he is on a Quercus Scholarship there. After that he’s back into the third year of his studies to become a doctor. Like the water he rows on, he doesn’t stop either. During this round-table interview, for FBD, he even chats about the Paris Olympics in 2024, stating it’s ‘definitely the long-term target’ before joking he has only three years to prepare for it. Despite the stunning collection of medals that he has snaffled up (Olympic gold and silver, four World gold, two European gold – and that’s just the headliners), he’ll keep doing what he does better than anyone else.
‘Rowing is a game of volume, really. Whoever can do the most volume of training stands the best chance, to an extent. There is a lot of time commitment, but you get used to that, it becomes a way of life and you don’t know any better. We’d be doing a bit of racing in training and that adds a bit of excitement, too. It’s not something that I dread and think, “God, this is misery”, I think it’s brilliant, like. I’d do more if I could,’ he says.
O’Donovan’s aware, too, that he is the poster-boy of Irish rowing. It’s not a job he applied for, more a title he has been bestowed with. But that’s fine because he also knows that the general interest in rowing wanes between the big events. Rowing is fashionable right now after two Irish boats won Olympic medals, but its popularity will drift, again, until the next big event or awards season.
‘It doesn’t bug me at all to be honest. I think when you’re even just starting out in the sport, we know ourselves that there wasn’t any kind of media interest in it. And we still enjoyed it and we wanted to do it despite it. And that’s absolutely fine,’ he explains.
‘I suppose that’s what makes the Olympics very special, that it is only every four years and everyone gets excited about it – that’s all the sports, not just rowing. If it was every six months or six weeks, something so big and so exciting, and all the media were swanning about the place writing so much about it then it would cease to be the same kind of thing and probably have less of a significance.’
Interest levels are high right now, and no-one generates more interest in Irish rowing than O’Donovan. That means more interviews, but, as self-deprecating as he is, he’s impressive in this sphere, too. Well able to do his talking on water and on land.