Sports Editor KIERAN McCARTHY sat down with two-time world rowing champ Paul O’Donovan to find out what drives this Lisheen man to achieve great things
HE CAN’T remember where exactly he was when he heard the news but Paul O’Donovan, in his constant mode of brutal honesty, remembers his reaction.
First thought: Stupid decision.
Immediate follow-up thought: Why the hell has he quit?
For the last few years Jeremie Azou has been one half of the French crew that have dominated the men’s lightweight double and severely dented Paul and Gary O’Donovan’s gold medal haul – but Azou, just 28 years old, announced his shock retirement in October.
Four weeks on from that news and Paul’s still puzzled.
‘He quit,’ he says, ‘I don’t understand why.
‘Why the hell would he quit?’
In his blog Azou said he was tired after a decade competing at international level and that he has fully achieved all his sports ambitions, but it’s hard for Paul to wrap his head around the thought of walking away from rowing.
Azou feels he has nothing more to achieve, racking up Olympic, world and European gold medals over the last few years, but Paul, 23, five years Azou’s junior, is a two-time world lightweight champion that’s not satisfied with just that.
He wants more.
But Paul is a different animal to most sportsmen.
Since he was a young lad in Lisheen he has obsessed about being the best in the world, and now that he is, he wants more.
‘Maybe it was cockiness at the time but I thought I could be the best,’ he says, ‘and I want to follow through on that and prove to myself that I can do it.’
Even now that he is the best lightweight single sculler in the world, winning back-to-back titles in 2016 and ’17, he’s on the hunt for the next high.
He wants complete domination.
Take the lightweight double, for example. For all the adulation and awards that Paul and Gary O’Donovan receive, they have still only won one major gold medal in that boat, at the 2016 Europeans – but the French didn’t compete in that regatta.
Azou, meanwhile, won it all – Olympic, world and European gold. He went unbeaten in the lightweight double for three years, winning every round of racing at every international regatta that he entered since 2015. It’s sensational form, and that’s the dominance that Paul is chasing.
Perhaps that’s why he won’t allow himself to really enjoy what he has achieved, because he’s not where he wants to be.
If he retired in the morning, like Azou, how would Paul sum up his rowing career?
‘You certainly wouldn’t be disappointed with it, you know,’ he says, after collecting yet another Celtic Ross West Cork Sports Star of the Month award last week, this time in recognition of his gold at the Worlding Rowing Championships in Florida.
‘It’s been good, I suppose.
‘As a kid you think of winning five, six, seven Olympic gold medals – that’s pretty ridiculous anyway to think of that many – but I think I can do a bit more in the next couple of years.
‘I’ll stick at it as long as I can and as long as I am happy with it.’
Maybe Paul is being too hard on himself (even though he admits he’ll appreciate it more when he’s older). Here is an athlete that is widely recognised as being the best rower Ireland has ever produced and he’s only 23. He has an Olympic silver medal and European gold from the double and two world gold medals in the single, but he’s not satisfied, and that’s hidden behind this calm exterior he shows to the watching world.
‘I don’t give a shit about most things,’ he says flippantly, but rowing isn’t ‘most things’, it’s a defining part of his life and that’s when he can get frustrated and make his feelings known to those around him.
That’s why losing the 2016 Olympics, his words, rankled him.
Even though himself and Gary won Ireland’s first Olympic rowing medal, a magnificent silver, and became the darlings of this country, Paul didn’t achieve his target.
‘The lads say that I am the one who is always brutal and honest to people, and I follow through on that with myself,’ he explains.
‘(Childhood friend) Diarmuid O’Driscoll is always a man to bring you back down to earth throughout all the years and especially when I was coming fourth at world championships.
‘He’d be like “pathetic, you’re fourth” and if we came second, he’d be like, “sure you’re only the first loser” or “you lost that”, so from listening to him too much I’d be harsh on myself then,’ Paul smiled, his dry sense of humour at work.
‘But it is the truth, we didn’t win the Olympics, we lost it.
‘Obviously we are very happy with a silver medal and we know it’s a big achievement. But I have said it before when I hear people say it’s a dream come true because who in the hell dreams of winning a silver medal? I never did.
‘When everything you thought about is winning gold and then you don’t, the honest assessment is that you lost.’
That’s also why medals mean little to Paul, instantly tucked away. He is constantly looking forward, looking to the next stroke, the next training session, the next challenge, the next medal.
‘What’s won is won,’ he says.
‘If you spend too much time looking at medals and what you have achieved, you’ll fall behind.
‘(Our coach) Dominic Casey has always had that attitude, that you need to keep looking forward and moving on.
‘Ya, you have to look back, assess things and see what you can do better but you need to plough forward after that if you want to achieve your ambitions and get better.’
And Paul’s assessment of his 2017 season that bumped his medal haul by one gold (world lightweight single), two silver (European and World Cup Regatta, lightweight double) and one bronze (World Cup Regatta, lightweight double) is very much a standard Irish answer.
‘It’s been fine,’ he says, but it’s his off-the-water activities that have hammered home an important lesson to him.
‘After the Olympics last year we did a lot of different things and they were all experiences on their own.
‘Just because you see us in the papers at a function or on the TV once a month, people think we have a great life – but it’s not all it’s made out to be, not for me anyway.
‘Having done it, I realised that I’m very happy doing what I was doing before it all.
‘Doing all the bits and pieces last year, going on TV shows, making documentaries, that made us realise that we are much happier rowing.
‘It was good to have all those other experiences to clarify that in your own mind.’
Adapting to life in the public eye has provided its own difficulties, but Paul’s taking it in his stride, despite the constant scramble for his and Gary’s time. They’re wanted men.
‘I don’t take too much notice of that side of it,’ he says.
‘I try to keep doing what I have been doing, rowing and study for college.
‘Our lives are pretty boring for the most part, we’re losers in that regard, but we’re happy doing that.’
‘There is good and bad to it (being in the public eye). It’s no better a life than the people who aren’t on television or in the media.’
Strip it all away and there’s rowing, college and family, three pillars of Paul’s life these past few years and each helping the other and offering the balance that he needed.
He was recently named UCD’s youngest Alumni Award winner having studied physiotherapy in the capital, another honour for the mantle piece at home in Lisheen, and these days he’s spending time doing some literary research in UCC on shoulder pain management; it allows him practice his own researching skills.
Physiotherapy remains a big part of his life but, interestingly, not sports physio. He never took to that side of it, but that’s understandable, it allows him escape sport and live life outside that bubble, too.
He’ll also escape the harsh early months of 2018 here at home, as after Christmas, Paul, Gary, Shane O’Driscoll and Mark O’Donovan, Skibbereen Rowing Club’s elite men, will swap the Irish winter for the New Zealand and Australian summer and an extended training camp where they will also race in both countries national championships.
‘There’ll be no distractions down there,’ Paul explained.
‘During the winter here at home we spend a lot of time on the rowing machine but over there we will be able to get on the water so that will be a nice change.’
‘Things like this might give us a big more longevity whereas if we just lived in Cork for the next few years until the Tokyo Olympics and did nothing else, it might be too much rowing in the one pace and you could end up fed up with rowing and be like Jeremie Azou and quit when you’re in your late 20s.
‘We want to stay rowing into our 30s if we can.’
They plan to meet up with many of the Irish rowers now living in New Zealand and Australia, including Sean O’Neill on the South Island in New Zealand and Skibbereen’s Richard Coakley and Gearoid Towey in Sydney.
The hope is that the groundwork laid down under early next year will power Paul and Gary to greater things in the lightweight double in 2018 – and with Azou stepping out of the French boat, it boosts the Lisheen lads’ chances of success. That said, Pierre Houin remains, having joined Azou last year.
‘I definitely think we have the potential to beat the French, whatever crew they put out,’ Paul says.
Azou and Houin have had the measure of Skibb’s finest in recent times but all that could be about to change, as Paul feels the Irish pair are on an upward curve, given they were 11th in the world in late 2015 and now they’re rated as one of the crews in their discipline.
Next year will bring another glut of opportunities to beat the French, as we edge closer to Tokyo 2020 and the next instalment of the Olympics.
‘It’s always there. Some days you think about it, most days you don’t – but there is no point thinking about it too much and obsessing, you’d go demented that way,’ he explains.
‘Thinking about Tokyo and winning gold, the strokes that I take tomorrow will have little relevance on that.
I could break my leg tomorrow and miss the entire of next season but still get back in the boat in 2019 and train hard for the Olympics and win it.’
As a sportsman, Paul knows his career will be defined by the Olympics and how he fares, and his ruthless streak will also acknowledge that France without Azou – and even though they have top-quality replacements lining up – helps his quest to become number one.
‘I want to do the best I can and win what I can when I can,’ he says, adding that he wants to race at a few Olympics, not just one or two.
So while he is chasing the medals and dominance Azou had – and his French rival is also a trained physiotherapist – Paul’s mentality and inner drive, which elevate him above others, won’t allow him contemplate retiring from rowing in his 20s.
Circumstances could change, of course, but here’s a fella obsessing with being the best since he was a child, so one Olympic medal won’t satisfy him and we’d guess an Olympic gold wouldn’t satisfy him either; he wants more.
He wants it all. You wouldn’t expect it any other way. And he always has Diarmuid O’Driscoll for motivational advice, too.