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‘There is a lot of work for us to do yet. We'll both admit that.'

May 1st, 2018 1:00 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

A whole new world: World lightweight pair champions Mark O'Donovan and Shane O'Driscoll have made the step up to the men's pair, a heavyweight Olympic-class boat.

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MARK O’Donovan weighs more now than he has done in some time – but that’s all part of the plan.

These days he is walking around at about the 80kg mark, almost 10kg heavier than his race weight last year.

He’s definitely bigger than before, but whether he is better, he’ll have to wait and see. This is a work in progress.

Last September when Mark and Shane O’Driscoll decided to switch from the lightweight pair to the heavyweight pair, they realised the enormity of the challenge.

They dominated the lightweight pair in 2017, winning World and European gold as well as the three World Rowing Cup regattas. They were unbeatable. 

But the lightweight pair (a crew average of 70kg) is not an Olympic-class boat, and the Skibbereen Rowing Club pair desperately want to compete at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. That’s why they’ve moved to the heavyweight pair, which is an Olympic-class boat.

Suddenly, the two biggest fish in one pond are two smaller fish in a bigger and heavier pond. 

This year there will be short-term pain in the hope of long-term gain because the reality is that 2018 won’t return the same success they enjoyed last year.

‘We want to attack each race and see how we get on,’ Mark says. ‘The goal is to come in the top 11 at the world championships next year – that is the target for us. (Achieve that and they qualify for the  Olympics)

‘We are not looking for A finals straightaway this year but anything that we can take, we will. We want to be in the mix, up there racing with the heavyweights, that’s the goal for the first race. 

‘We will give it a good lash and trust in ourselves that we have what it takes to compete at this weight. We want to see where we are in the mix.’

Mark (29) and Shane (25) spent the first three months of the year on an extended winter training camp in New Zealand first and then Australia, along with Gary and Paul O’Donovan.

It was a fantastic experience, says Mark, who landed back home in Skibbereen bigger than when he left at the start of January.

‘We’re not massively bigger,’ he says.

‘We are carrying extra kilogrammes, we’re both around the 80kg mark so we’re up maybe eight or nine kilogrammes from what we would have been sitting at after our last lightweight competition.

‘It’s slow progress as it is, when you’re trying to gain muscle more than having too much excess fat that is going to come anyway. 

‘Hopefully with the amount of training we’ll do at high intensity, that will keep the excess fat down and we’ll lean up for the summer race so we’re not carrying too much dead weight in the boat.’

Mark admits that the Skibb duo will concede size and weight to their heavyweight rivals – but they won’t get hung up on that.

‘We’re two of the smaller guys compared to the traditional heavyweight lads so we are not going to try and match their bodyweights,’ he explains. 

‘We will be a lot lighter than them so we need to be as lean as we can be while still maintaining a good, healthy body fat to help us prolong the season better than we would have been at lightweight where you are more prone to being run down when you’re trying to make weight.

‘This gives us the opportunity to take the season on better and be healthier throughout it all.

‘We really will be looking to race at an optimal weight and we won’t look to pile on lots of extra weight. 

‘Over the coming years it will probably start creeping up due to getting used to working at a certain weight. Muscle mass takes time to put on and then to train that muscle to be aerobically fit, strong and powerful will be our second goal.’

Home in Cork for the past two weeks after their southern hemisphere three-month stint, Mark and Shane realise they have a lot of work ahead of them ahead of their first international season together as a heavyweight pair.

They raced in championships in both New Zealand and Australia, and that was an important learning curve too. From winning every race last year, they found themselves outside of the podium places but that’s to be expected.

‘There is a lot of work for us to do yet. We’ll both admit that. We have a long way to go,’ Mark says.

‘It was brilliant to be in Australia and New Zealand because we were competing against athletes who were world champions and Olympic medallists so we got to see where we stand against them. We know we have work to do. But it’s nor far-fetched what our goal is either.’

Thanks to the sun and good weather, the quality of training Mark and Shane enjoyed in New Zealand and Australia will have helped their transition as they were able to get on the water a lot more than would have been the case if they spent the winter training at the National Rowing Centre. The volume of training would have been similar – but the quality and standard they got under their belts was higher.

That’s just what they needed ahead of the biggest challenge of their rowing careers. They’re up against it but don’t write them off. They worked their way to the top of the lightweight pair in 2017 after two years where they didn’t win any medals on the international stage. Fourth place finishes haunted them – but they made a stunning breakthrough last year.

And now they’re determined to make an impact in the heavyweight world. 

Expectations will be lower this year, patience is required, and it’s all focussed on the long-term goal – the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

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