TEDDY O’Donovan is the proud dad that introduced his sons, Gary and Paul, to rowing – but he never imagined that one of his boys would develop into the best in the world and now an Olympic champion.
‘You never think it would happen, not by any stretch of the imagination,’ Teddy reflects.
‘When the boys started rowing I was no different to any other parent at that stage, I wanted to get them involved in something so they’d have an interest in their teenage years and not get into any trouble. If that’s all it ever did it would have been a job well done, wouldn’t it?’
Teddy was a rower himself. He rowed and coached with Skibbereen Rowing Club. He has that connection with the water, passed down from his mother’s people, he says, who were fishermen. As a kid, Teddy, growing up in Kilkilleen in Aughadown parish, was mad to get in a boat. Many years later, so too were Gary and Paul.
‘I’ve been there from the start, from the first day I took them on the Ilen to their first international regatta in 2008, and I’ve watched every step along the way. I have seen their progression,’ Teddy notes – and all those moments joined together led to the Sea Forest Waterway course in Tokyo last Thursday morning when Paul, alongside another Skibbereen rower Fintan McCarthy, surged to gold at the Olympics.
It was glorious and historic, Ireland’s first-ever gold medal in rowing at the Games.
Teddy watched the drama unfold at his sister Regina Coombes’ house. It was an incredibly special moment for this dad because he saw his boys’ potential first. He lit the fuse and watched it catch fire. It exploded in Tokyo when Paul, the best lightweight rower in the world – and some, like three-time Olympian Niall O’Toole, say Paul is, pound for pound, the best rower in the world, full stop – got his hands on an Olympic gold medal. It’s the ultimate prize in rowing.
‘They were all going mad around the place afterwards,’ Teddy laughs, but that’s not his style.
‘I don’t do the excitement bit,’ he explains, but he does the pride bit, like every parent.
‘It’s incredible, really, what Paul and Gary have done over the years, and now what Paul has done in Tokyo, but in one way it’s no real surprise to me either. Paul is an athlete apart, and that’s right from the word go,’ Teddy says.
In Something in the Water, the story about how Skibbereen Rowing Club conquered the world, there’s an anecdote about Paul as a kid that resonates now after he, and Fintan, dragged and pulled the Irish double to gold at the Olympics, holding off a determined German challenge.
‘Physically, Paul is a beast. He always was. He has raw power. When they were at Lisheen National School, they’d travel with Teddy to the local Co-op when he collected rations for the farm, things like dairy nuts and calf nuts. He would back his trailer into where the dairy nuts were stockpiled. However, Paul had no interest in lifting bags of dairy nuts a short distance. Instead he’d walk to the opposite end of the store, wrap his little arms around a twenty-five-kilogramme bag of calf nuts and do whatever it took to carry it to the trailer. Bull-headed and stubborn, he’d get the bag there on his own.’
Paul is incredibly strong. He has broad shoulders, like his dad Teddy, and is built for power and endurance. Paul ticks all the boxes, Teddy says.
‘His physiology is the main thing. He is phenomenally powerful. His power-to-weight ratio is phenomenal. That alone would count for nothing if he didn’t tick every other box,’ a proud Teddy reasons when asked why his son is the best of the best.
‘Mentally, he is phenomenal, too. To be the best or to make the top level in any sport there is a full line of boxes that characterise the traits that are needed. Paul can tick off every one of them. It’s hard to quantify, really.’
Even that drive that Gary and Paul both have, Teddy has often wondered where his two boys get that fiery competitive edge. He never had that drive. Instead, he needed to be pushed, but Gary and Paul are different.
‘To get to the level they are at, you have to enjoy the mundane, enjoy the training, enjoy the wet mornings, and be able to get the satisfaction out of that day-in, day-out daily grind. You need to be able to enjoy it or you won’t be able to compete,’ Teddy says.
He saw from very early that his two boys enjoyed the sport and they still do. Both of them have Olympic silver and now one has Olympic gold.
‘I was confident Paul and Fintan would win because they have that finishing ability and power,’ Teddy says, and he knows that he has played his part in this story.
Teddy isn’t Paul’s coach now. That boat, figuratively, sailed many years ago when his boys felt they needed a new voice. Like a teacher teaching their own, it gets difficult, but Teddy had sunk the foundations for Dominic Casey to work on. Teddy knows though he’s played a crucial role in Paul’s – and Gary’s – incredible rise from Skibbereen to best in the world, and now an Olympic gold.