Paul O’Donovan, Olympic gold medallist, has an unlikely formula for his success – he has other things in his life.
O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy won Ireland’s first Olympic gold medal in rowing – and the first of any of the Ireland team – in Tokyo. The two, along with the Ireland’s women’s four, who took bronze, kindly made themselves available for interview by Zoom soon after landing at Dublin Airport, and even before they met their families.
O’Donovan agreed that he would be happy to get back to his medical studies and his student colleagues in UCC. The gold medal came after well over a decade involved in rowing, man and boy, and he put down his longevity to combining the sport with study. He is a qualified physiotherapist and has switched successfully over to medicine.
“I’m kind of looking forward to getting back to college life. A couple of months at this stage should be good enough to catch up with all the lads again.
“I get too consumed in [rowing], so it’s good for me to take a break.
“I think this can give you a bit more longevity in the long run. It’s good that I can combine the two now, whereas if I’d just been rowing full time for the past 10 years, like, I’d be getting to this age saying ‘Jeez, I can’t stay going at this forever, because when I do retire I won’t have anything to do’.
“So when you combine the two as you are going along you don’t have to worry a bit about getting older, which is important.
“[And] both of them are quite fun, too. So it’s a good job.”
Paul and Gary O’Donovan had taken silver in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and Paul said the course in Tokyo was similar to Rio. There was sea water and forest, with the tall buildings then looming into view. He said the rowers really liked it.
“It’s really cool, because it is out in the bay there in Tokyo. You’re rowing in seawater, then it looks like there’s a forest up the side and then big, tall buildings and stuff. So you don’t know if you’re in the ocean or in the forest or in the city – and what’s going on.”
He thinks the saltwater, which is less heavy than freshwater – helped in setting fast times. The Ireland lightweight double set a new world best time in the semi-final.
The seaside course did remind him of Rio “because that was right next to Copacabana beach, or whatever they call it!”
“There was mountains and stuff and all the big buildings of the city around it. And saltwater and stuff. It was pretty similar, yeh. A good experience on both accounts.”
Fintan McCarthy watched the 2016 Olympic Games at home. He said that his transfer into the Ireland lightweight double was greatly helped by the fact that Dominic Casey was his coach and the training was similar to what the O’Donovans were doing.
Casey, who is a man of few words, gave them no big speech before they competed in the final: just basic pointers like “keep it clean”, McCarthy said.
Afterwards, the message is even simpler. Paul chimes in: “Get the boat derigged before you go anywhere else!”
Paul O’Donovan had encouraging words for young people starting out in rowing and hoping for glory. “You have to have strong belief that it is possible,” he said.
“After the last time [Rio 2016] a lot of people realised that there is nothing special about us – a lot of hard work can get you there.”
The bronze medal for the women’s four in Tokyo also bolsters the belief that “absolutely everything is possible”.
“I think you have to be quite strategic about it as well: lay out your plan and your timeline and have a load of intermediate goals – ways of measuring your performance increments along the way to see if you are getting better.
“Try out a lot of things and see what is and what isn’t working. Listen to a lot of people and filter it yourself; see for yourself what’s making you better. Keep going that way. It’s a constant learning experience, really, and a bit of an experiment. You have to be measuring things in some way to get some accurate feedback as to how things are going and adjust accordingly.
“That in itself can be a fun experience.
“To surround yourself with good people (that) always helps too.”
Fintan nods in agreement.
“I’d agree completely with Paul. We don’t get many opportunities to race; most of what we do is training. So we really do need to enjoy the training and enjoy the journey.
“I think, as well, it does take time. [Don’t] be in any hurry to do things straightaway. Just keep chipping away. Enjoy the journey!’
Even after their long flight, the women’s four were full of cheer, scrunchies in place and bunched close together as has become their trademark.
The bronze medal for Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty came after a final where they fell away early from the top two crews, Australia and the Netherlands, and then won their battle with Britain.
Lambe agreed that this had not been part of the race plan.
They knew that other crews would “try to push away from us at the start” since Ireland, who are aerobically very fit, would have more in the second half of the race.
“We kind of let [other crews] get away a little at the start. Luckily, we backed ourselves coming into the second half. We knew we had a strong finish. Luckily, also, we were beside GB. We could see them in the corner of our eyes.
“We changed our tactics a little bit then, and tried to wind a little bit earlier [than planned], go a bit harder and go for the line. And luckily it paid off in the end.”
The Tokyo experience may have been different to that at other Olympic Games, but they still savoured it.
As it was their first they had nothing to compare it to, Hegarty says, and they “soaked it all up”.
Even though they couldn’t leave the village, “we still enjoyed every minute of it”.
“It will potentially be one of the most amazing experiences of our lives, [even] if we never go again.
“It was a massive experience. Covid or not, we got the best out of it that we could.”
They loved the camaraderie of the village. When they returned with their medals they were given a standing ovation, which moved them.
They have also become conscious of the fact that they are among a very small group of Irish women to have won medals at the Olympic Games.
“Prior to our race there were four previous Olympic medallists. We doubled that number to eight in one race,” Keogh said.
Close as they have all become, they look forward now to going home separately and meeting their families and friends.
Covid times have – at the very least – postponed any big joint celebration.
Galway women Fiona Murtagh and Keogh joke that if they tour Ireland the western capital will be a runner to host the first leg.
And out the six go into an Ireland which is full of thanks for their great achievement.