THIS isn’t the first time that Mark O’Donovan has made national and international headlines.
Those who know him will vouch that he’s not backward in coming forward, and if he’s not writing his own lyrics to Jon Bon Jovi hits, he’s quipping that legal documents were used to light the bonfires around Skibbereen on Sunday and Monday nights following the famous five’s return from the European Rowing Championships.
But before he was ever turned loose on the national airwaves, and single-handedly trying to boost sales in the Irish sandwich market, Mark enjoyed 15 minutes of fame when a video of him training at the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra went viral in October 2015.
Impressively combining weightlifting and Irish dancing, to the backing track of an Irish trad tune, Mark’s unusual training regime snowballed online, having actually been recorded six months earlier on an Instagram post.
With dancing that only a mother could love, his legs took over once the music came on, but this week Mark is in the headlines for doing what he does best: rowing, and specifically winning a medal at the European Rowing Championships.
The same applies to Shane O’Driscoll, Gary O’Donovan, Paul O’Donovan and Denise Walsh.
That five Skibbereen Rowing Club athletes formed an entire national team at a major international championship, and all brought home medals, is a fantastic reflection on the club itself, and the committed people who make it tick.
It’s a point that Paul, with his quick wit, made to a crowd of familiar faces at the homecoming at Church Cross on Monday night, organised by Aughadown Community Council.
‘It’s fantastic to see the crowd out again tonight for this celebration of rowing in Lisheen and Aughadown and Skibbereen and Ireland, of course – but that’s just Skibbereen again!’ Paul smiled.
Skibbereen RC out-performed Russia, France and Great Britain, to name just three, at the Europeans.
That’s one West Cork club, nestled on the edge of the Ilen River, bettering entire countries.
Success is not new to this club – 163 national titles show that – but this was incredible by its own high standards.
‘They have thrown the gauntlet down to every other club in Ireland,’ Rowing Ireland CEO Hamish Adams told us this week, and it’s been like that for the last few years.
This isn’t an overnight success story. When Gary and Paul brought home silver medals from the Rio Olympics, and Paul followed that up with gold at the world championships, the country gasped in amazement that one club had produced two supremely talented athletes.
And while Gary and Paul stood front and centre and were the poster boys for Skibb and Irish rowing, they knew as well as anyone else connected with the club that there was more coming up behind, and indeed more went before them, too, like Eugene Coakley, Richard Coakley and Timmy Harnedy, all Olympians.
At the opening World Cup event in Belgrade and now at the Europeans, Mark, Shane and Denise have all rowed into the national consciousness by winning medals.
Last weekend Mark and Shane won gold in the lightweight pair, Denise brought home silver in the lightweight single sculls and Gary and Paul also took silver in the lightweight double sculls.
But the production line doesn’t stop there. Jake and Fintan McCarthy are two more to keep an eye out for, as is Kealan Mannix, and Aoife Casey medalled at recent European Junior Championships in Germany.
Orla Hayes brought home gold from the Ghent Regatta a few weeks back, too.
‘Now that rowing is getting more publicity, the other athletes are starting to get more recognition,’ Gary O’Donovan said.
‘It’s a long time coming. We have been working hard and now the success is finally there.
‘(Coach) Dominic (Casey) could see the vision years ago, he could see there was a great bunch of people there and he knew how to get us there and we knew if we listened to him we would be able to make it to the top – and slowly we are getting there.
‘There is a huge belief in the club and belief in the country that if athletes can train hard like all of us there is a huge chance they will be successful as well.’
Success breeds success, Skibbereen RC highlights that better than anyone else, with Dominic Casey central to the story now more than ever, as he is the Rowing Ireland High Performance coach charged with overseeing the lightweights in this Olympic cycle in the lead up to Tokyo in 2020. He’s guiding them at international level and they all are responding.
He is quite and assuming, but he demands high standards. He has an expectation of excellence that he wants his athletes to meet.
Translating his national success with Skibbereen RC to international level was a challenge that Dominic has proved more than equal to, and in the last 14 months, Irish/Skibb lightweight rowers have won two European golds, two European silvers, two World Cup silvers and a world championship gold – what incredible success for one club, not to mind an entire country the size of Ireland.
And there was also a fourth place at world seniors (Shane and Mark, 2016), two fourth places at Europeans (Mark, Shane and Denise in 2016) and three fourth places at World Cup regattas (Gary and Paul 2016 and ’17); seconds from dusting off podium pants again.
‘We always knew that Dominic is a quality coach, he has proved that at domestic level and now he’s showing it at international level,’ Hamish Adams said.
‘He now has the opportunity to work with us in a full-time role with lots of resources at his disposal; there is a large team of people working with these guys from strength and conditioning to physiology to medical to lifestyle, the whole gambit.
‘With all those resources and with the influence and coaching of Dominic you have seen that the rowers have been able to push on and that’s really positive.’
Not only have they pushed on, but Skibbereen RC and its rowing stars have brought more attention to the sport at home than ever before.
This club, because of its production line, is transforming the national perception of rowing and is the reason that RTÉ dedicated two mornings last weekend to live coverage of the Europeans.
And now the general public can see that there’s more than just Gary and Paul, with Mark, Shane and Denise all emerging from the shadows.
I remember talking to Shane late last August on the open-top bus that was snailing its way down North Street, Skibbereen, through the thousands of well-wishers that turned out in huge numbers for Gary and Paul’s homecoming parade.
Shane and Mark had finished fourth in the world senior championships just a few days earlier, but they were in the shadows, that result forgotten about, not registering with the masses because there was no medal to show.
Nine months later they’re on centre stage, as is Denise, a terrific role-model for young sportswomen.
The challenge for all now is to build on their success but in a sport where fractions create heroes and dash dreams, they know they’ll have to put the heads down and work hard. But that’s the way they have always approached it; that work ethic instilled in them from an early age at Skibbereen RC.
At the homecoming in Church Cross, Denise wasn’t there, she had a physio appointment in the city ahead of flying out to London on Thursday for the Metropolitan Regatta, while the rest were planning on getting back on the water on Tuesday.
They were already moving on to their next targets.
Dominic was quick to ensure the fanfare of the weekend was enjoyed and then quickly parked. He celebrates success but then targets more. Same goes for Skibbereen RC.
There’s more to come as four men and one woman from West Cork lead the way for Irish rowing.