Olympic silver medallists Gary and Paul O’Donovan were put through their paces by Southern Star Sports Editor Kieran McCarthy at the recent Skibbereen Lions Club fundraiser for Skibbereen Rowing Club. Here are a few highlights from the night
KIERAN McCARTHY (KMC): How often do you watch the Olympic final and are you still a bit disappointed that it was silver and not gold? If it had been 10m longer, what do you think would have happened?
GARY O’DONOVAN (GOD): We’ve always gone out to win every race we’ve competed in and we’ve only won internationally once. We’ve come fourth in a lot of races, we’ve come fifth, we’ve come 13th, we’ve come all over the place internationally, really.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s the same boats we’re racing against all the time and in its simplest form the Olympics is just another regatta, 2,000m against the same guys we’ve always raced against and more often than not, we haven’t beaten them. To beat as many of them as we did is such an achievement on any day and to do so on an Olympic scale is something else. In fairness to the French, who won it, we can’t be too disappointed that we didn’t win – yes, it’s the gold but just because we didn’t win it isn’t too disappointing.
KMC: Six months on, is the Olympic final hard to watch?
PAUL O’DONOVAN (POD): Yeah, I don’t really watch it too often, I suppose I’d nearly be close to tears there towards the end, now and again there are clips thrown up and I’d turn away.
It’s the one thing we’ve talked about and dreamt about since we were kids and everyone asks if it’s a dream come true for us and I’d say, ‘Absolutely not, our dreams were shattered, we missed out on the biggest goal we ever set for ourselves!’.
We do appreciate too that it was a big achievement and people told us that it gave everyone at home such a boost. We do appreciate and celebrate it, because it was quite good all the same.
KMC: Is there a pressure of expectation on you now this year, given what ye achieved last year?
GOD: I’ve said it so many times already, we’re just going to try to win every race, the same as we’ve ever done and all of those external pressures are almost irrelevant.
All we can do is our very best and if we train hard and turn up to the races and do our best, we can’t do any better than that. Whatever the result is then, we’ll accept that.
KMC: Sometimes people forget that you’re still so young, Gary you’re 24 and Paul you’re 22. You left Skibbereen as two normal young fellas and came back as these celebrities – have you found that you’ve had to grow up really fast in that you can’t live the normal life of someone in their early 20s?
POD: I suppose we were fairly grown-up and mature and disciplined anyway…[laughter]. With the rowing, we weren’t the kind of guys who were going to the pub every day of the week anyway and we were meticulous about our time-keeping.
One thing that has changed is that everyone knows us now, strangers you meet in the street want to talk to you and congratulate you and wish you well. Sometimes you get bombarded with that but we deal with it well.
KMC: We’ve talked before about the sacrifices you’ve made, but you don’t see them as sacrifices? Explain that.
GOD: We’ve been in the rowing club for so many years and we’ve seen people come in and do great things but we’ve also seen people come in and maybe not achieve what they could have. Our peers and our friends, they’re going to the pub or the cinema on a Saturday night and if they thought they could be in the position we’re in, they’d love to have that opportunity.
POD: We’re just making different choices, it’s something that we love doing anyway.
GOD: We get to hang out with our friends at the rowing club and the rowing centre…
POD: …see some beautiful scenery while we’re out rowing.
KMC: Everyone is a rowing expert since the Olympics, but maybe just explain about the double sculls, why you each take your position and what it means.
POD: They’re very narrow but obviously the oars widen it…
GOD: It’s like a man on a tightrope with bars at the side, the oars keep us stable…
POD:…I sit at the back of the boat then, in front of Gary, and he follows me…
GOD:…from the front of the boat [laughter].
POD: I set the pace and he follows, but he calls the orders, he’d be telling me to slow down. If he’s feeling good, he might tell me to speed up, but that doesn’t happen too often.
KMC: What we’ve decided to do to mix it up is to get people who know Gary and Paul to ask a few questions.
Thomas Barr, Irish 400m Olympic hurdler: What was each other’s most annoying habit in the Olympic Village?
GOD: By the time we got to the Olympics, we were fairly familiar with each other! In the lead-up for about two years, Paul used to do this desperate thing. We’d weigh in two hours before a race and then maybe launch 30-35 minutes beforehand, but Paul would decide to come down and start adjusting the boat.
I like to have my warm-up routine pretty nailed down, 30 minutes isn’t too long so you’d have to have it fairly accurate and if you deviate from it, it could throw you off. Paul decided to deviate from it by changing the set-up of the boat and if he adjusted his seat I’d have to match it with mine. By the time we got to the Olympics, I learned to deal with that, I was taking deep breaths and not getting stressed.
POD: Gary has this awful habit, any time I want to go adjusting the boat…[laughter]…I’d be looking for one thing to make it go a little bit quicker and he’d be giving out to me!
KMC: To turn that on its head, what’s the best thing about each other?
POD: I think in terms of rowing, Gary’s always thinking about technique and that maybe makes me think a bit more about it. People are always saying that when we came together in the double, Gary made a massive step up to my level and improved his performance, because I was a little bit quicker than him at the time in the single, but since he has done that, he has pushed me on another level again, which mightn’t have happened if I wasn’t rowing with him. He complements me very well and I just have to pull hard then.
GOD: I’m very good to Paul, I give him a kilo to race with. When we race, we average at 70kg but nearly every race last year I was down at 69kg so he could go to 71kg. I’m sound that way. In fairness, Paul is good, like [laughter]. I’ve said it before, he’s probably the strongest lightweight rower in the world so an extra kilo is beneficial to maximise his strength and his power output.
KMC: Brothers fight too, and you’re no different?
GOD: We have this awful problem in the boat where we can’t balance it. You get on with it in training and kind of ignore it but the day before a World Cup regatta, where the balance is bad and nothing seems to be going right, it’s stressful.
You start questioning yourself and the other man in the boat, I reckoned Paul must be doing something wrong because I couldn’t be, and it escalates. In the stress of it all, you start shouting and maybe stop rowing. When was it that you stopped rowing and I had to row us home?
POD: A training camp in Spain!
KMC: Would you like to win another silver medal with your brother alongside you again, or would prefer to win a gold with someone else?
KMC: This is a story developing at the moment – in case people don’t know, FISA, the world governing body, recommended recently to take the men’s lightweight four out of the Olympic schedule for 2020. To put that in context, Gary and Paul are the fourth and fifth Skibbereen RC Olympians – Eugene Coakley, Richard Coakley and Tim Harnedy have gone before them, and they were all in the lightweight men’s four. These proposals would mean only one men’s lightweight category, your own one, so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that?
GOD: It was only announced last week, I was in the rowing centre with the other lads who train in Cork and it was a bit of a dig for us. After Rio, we had hopes that Skibbereen could have six lightweight men at the next Olympics and that’s gone now.There are other options too – we can go heavyweight, we can go up a category – it’s a challenge, but if you want to be the very best in the world you can go heavyweight and beat those guys.
Shane [O’Driscoll] and Mark [O’Donovan] are probably the most affected by it because they’re in the lightweight pair, but they’ll try to go heavyweight, that’s the grit that’s there in the club – they got knocked on Monday and Tuesday they were training in the club, planning to win the heavyweight.
KMC: Do you expect more competition now for the double scull?
POD: Yeah, but there’s nothing exceptional about the guys coming in from the four, they’re human beings like us and they’ll have to train, if we want to win it we’ll have to beat everyone anyway.