PAUL O’Donovan isn’t subscribing to the popular theory that he is a shoo-in to take one seat in the Olympic-bound Irish men’s lightweight double.
He is regarded as one of the finest lightweight rowers in the world, but four-time world champion Paul insists the two spots in the Irish boat, bound for Tokyo in the summer, are up for grabs.
There are no guarantees, he points out.
‘Some people assume that I’m in the boat and that I have to think about being in peak shape in the last week of July for the Games but selection for the boat is really early and the boys are in better shape than they’ve ever been as well so it’s going to be really competitive to make the boat,’ Paul explains. The competition is fierce, the Lisheen man says – and he’s right.
Incredibly, it’s the parish of Aughadown, just outside Skibbereen, that is home to the four Irish rowers left in the battle for those two seats.
It was five men from the same parish before Shane O’Driscoll from Lisheen – his home in Kilkilleen is a few fields away from the O’Donovan’s family home – left the Irish lightweight training group last summer to start work as an engineer. Now, there are four left standing. Two sets of brothers from the same parish and who row for the same club, Lisheen men Paul (26) and Gary (28) who won that historic silver at the 2016 Olympics, and, a couple of miles north of them, the twins Jake and Fintan McCarthy (24) from Foherlagh.
Let’s not forget the mastermind behind Ireland’s lightweight rowing success, coach Dominic Casey, is also Aughadown born and bred.
One parish, an exceptional nursery for rowing.
‘There is a good calibre of athlete in our training group and whoever does make it knows that we are in with a shout of doing well,’ Paul says.
Realistically, the race for those two seats could even be narrowed down to three, as Jake McCarthy missed a huge chunk of 2020 because of a herniated disc in his back and he has only returned to training lately. Jake is playing catch-up in an Olympic year and has considerable group to make up.
That leaves three world champions from Skibbereen Rowing Club – four-time world champ Paul who won World gold in the Irish double with Gary (2018) and more recently Fintan (2020). The standard is exceptionally high.
Speaking to The Southern Star last year, Gary pointed out: ‘You could almost argue that the competition you face to get into the Irish lightweight double is tougher than the competition you face at the World Championships.’
Gary’s assertion is spot on, and we’re edging closer to discovering what selection Rowing Ireland will put forward for the international season. Training is going well, they’re getting out on the water at the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra, and they’re mixing and matching, trialling different combinations.
It’s expected that trials on the water are imminent and we’ll know the make-up of the boat by the end of March, just ahead of the start of a busy international season that includes three World Rowing Cups, the World Championships in Shanghai in October and, the big one, the Olympics in July. This is serious business now. The Games in Tokyo are less than six months away and those two seats in the Irish men’s lightweight double are yet to be assigned. In theory, the battle for the seats, and the increased competition after the emergence of the McCarthy twins, is good for the boat. Paul agrees, to an extent.
‘I don’t think it drives you on more, that it gives you more motivation and this type of thing,’ he says.
‘Everyone is going out every day to try and be the best that they can be and to win the Olympics. To do that, naturally you have to beat whoever is there. Even if there was no-one else here to get into the boat there are other countries that you want to try and beat, too.
‘There is no extra motivation from that, but maybe because there is a bigger group of us mixing things around a bit, each person has their own perspective of how the rowing stroke feels. When you’re mixing things around and chatting amongst each other on the water to see how to make the boat go faster, it helps with the learning from day to day, and seeing things from a different point of view.’
Paul has taken a break from his medical studies at UCC and is giving rowing his undivided attention from here until the Olympics. While he has his 2016 Olympic experience from Brazil to lean on, he doesn’t know yet how useful that will be, given that this summer’s Olympics will be different to the norm.
‘Can you tell if you can use your experience?’ he muses.
‘It’s only when it’s all said and done, when it’s all over, that you can look back and say that I did have experience to make the difference, because we don’t know what we’re facing into and how the Games will run. Only time will tell on that. Each Olympics is different, and this one will be too, but at the same time when you break it down to what we did for Rio, we treated it like all the other international regattas that we went to and raced at. The fundamentals of it are quite the same and then you have the bits around the outside that don’t matter and we try not to get sucked in and distracted by those.’
Paul’s not getting distracted either by all the noise surrounding this summer’s Games. Last Thursday it was reported that a private decision had been made by the Government of Japan to cancel the Olympics because of the pandemic, but the next day Japan and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) dismissed this and said the show will go on. There’s a lot of uncertainty for athletes right now, though Paul, always calm and measured in his demeanour, is just going with the flow.
‘The Olympics are pretty set at this stage so they’ll either go ahead or they won’t. We know they won’t be moved, so we don’t have to worry about changing things there. If they’re on we’ll go and do them, and if they’re not on we can do something else,’ Paul says.
‘In terms of the earlier rowing events, the organisers have experience of running regattas in these times. There were the Europeans in Poland last October and the European U23s last year too, so I think they should be able to go ahead with the others as planned.’
Looking beyond Tokyo, Paul is sticking around for another Olympic cycle. In December the IOC announced, to much surprise, that lightweight rowing will have its place at the Paris 2024 Games. It had been expected to be culled, but it earned a reprieve. Paul’s plan was to dip his oar into the heavyweight pond and mix it with the big boys, but now he will stay in the lane he has bossed since 2016.
‘No-one was expecting that, but I had made plans to keep on rowing anyway. It fits nicely now that my usual event is still there so I can still make a go of it, for Paris anyway,’ he smiles.
First, there’s Tokyo to look forward to.
Ahead of that he needs to guarantee his place in the Irish men’s lightweight double. He hasn’t raced internationally since August 2019 when Fintan McCarthy and himself won World gold, but that time away hasn’t dulled his intent. Instead, he’s focussed, ambitious and determined. At his peak, he’s amongst the best in the world. Hopefully he’ll remind us all of that again this summer.
- FBD Insurance ambassador Paul O’Donovan was speaking at the announcement of the recipients of the FBD Make a Difference programme, in conjunction with the Olympic Federation of Ireland. This fund will assist Olympic hopefuls in their preparation for the Games.