‘For this to happen, you could never imagine what this means to Damien’

From the archives: Along with the O’Donovan clan, Mary Hannigan watched transfixed as their son, Damien, lifted gold and delivered on a promise made to his mum Mary

Damien O’Donovan on his way to winning a gold medal in the 100m freestyle at the National Aquatics Centre, Abbotstown, Dublin, Ireland. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Damien O’Donovan on his way to winning a gold medal in the 100m freestyle at the National Aquatics Centre, Abbotstown, Dublin, Ireland. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Fri, Jun 21, 2013, 07:40

“When the ceremony is over he makes his way through the crowd, straight to his mum. The pair embrace, wrap their arms around each other, everyone stands back, there’s a hush. ‘Love you, love you, love you, love you,’ ” whispers Mary O’Donovan, her son Damien squeezes her tight

“Who’s the gold medal for?” asks coach Trevor Devlin. “For Team Ireland . . . for my family and for . . . WEST COOOORK,” roars Damien O’Donovan as he punches the air, so loudly, so proudly they very probably could have heard him in his home town of Bantry . . . if there was any one left in Bantry.

How many of you are here? “Well,” says Damien’s auntie, Siobhán, “there’s his mother Mary, father Teddy, sisters Laura and Emma (and Laura’s boyfriend Patrick – don’t forget him, see the way they’re looking into each other’s eyes), brothers Barry and John-Alan, me, first cousins Siofra, Emer and Doireann, more cousins – over there – neighbours, friends and there’s . . . ” Ink running dry. Siobhán “Yes?”

Let’s do it the other way: who’s not here? “Well, Damien’s other brothers Ted and Mark are back home, but apart from that . . . ” Bantry has migrated to the National Aquatics Centre in Abbotstown? Nods all round.

“We left home at five o’clock this morning,” says nine-year-old Emer, who should be wiping the sleep from her eyes, but she’s not. Her cousin’s extraordinary triumph in the 100m freestyle (division 21) well and truly woke her from her slumber and now she’s glowing with pride. “He’s brilliant, isn’t he?” she smiles.

It was difficult to decide which was the more thrilling: the race or watching the faces of the O’Donovan entourage in the stand opposite. At 25m all five swimmers were neck and neck, including O’Donovan and fellow Team Ireland member Peadar Connolly. At the end of the second and third lengths O’Donovan trailed the USA’s Samuel Beverage and, it seemed, would have to settle for silver. No problem with that, was there? Well . . .

His coach in Dunmanway, Clive Seawright: “I said, ‘Damien, look, you’re an Olympian, you always will be, it doesn’t matter what happens’, and he just said, ‘I’m still going to get a gold for you, Clive, and for everyone else in the universe’.”

“Gold was the only colour he wanted,” said Devlin, one of five coaches working with the swimming team. “All week we tried to tell him even if he didn’t get gold ‘it’s that you’re here and that you’re participating’, but his Mum said to us ‘if he doesn’t win gold we’ll actually have problems getting him out of the water’.”

Mum? Is this true? “If he’d won silver today he’d have held his head down. We kept telling him, ‘we’re so proud of you’. Saturday night I thought I would burst with pride, but he gets this glazed expression and won’t listen, gold or nothing. Yesterday, when we left him, he put his thumbs up and said ‘Mum, gold tomorrow’, and 1 started saying ‘but Damien . . .’ and he knew what I was going to say, so he says, ‘no Mum: gold tomorrow’, and he turned and walked away. I was terrified. ‘Stop thinking about gold, Damien, stop’. But there was no telling him.”

The last length. O’Donovan digs deep. He catches Beverage. He passes Beverage. Half a length left. His family almost leap into the pool to carry him home. Beverage rallies. Neck and neck, again. Beverage seems the stronger. Damien? It’s the competing that . . . good God, here he comes again. Stroke for stroke. O’Donovan and Beverage. The wall looms. Beverage still looks the stronger. The USA is going to overtake Bantry. Damien, Damien, Damien: silver is wonderful. Damien? He throws a glance at Beverage. He bursts . . . again. The wall. They touch. But who touched first? Bantry fixes its eyes on the board, the wait is interminable. Finally, first place O’Donovan, Damien, Ireland.

“I can t believe it, I just can’t believe it,” says Mary, delirious with pride. “I’ve swum that race in my mind 900 times, and every time I saw him coming last, fifth, fourth, I never dared to dream that he would touch the wall first, never dared to dream.

“If you knew the way this guy has dreamt about this. He won two gold medals last year and a week later we were driving somewhere and he just turns to me quietly and says, out of the blue, ‘Mum, my dream came true’.”

Some time later Damien O’Donovan receives his medal. He hasn’t seen his mum since winning the race. He dances on the rostrum, beats his heart with his fist and then points to his mother. When the ceremony is over he makes his way through the crowd, straight to his mum. The pair embrace, wrap their arms around each other, everyone stands back, there’s a hush. “Love you, love you, love you, love you,” whispers Mary O’Donovan, her son Damien squeezes her tight. They release their grip and take a look at each other, they smile, and they embrace again. Everyone looking on is enriched.

“He just worked so hard and dreamed about this,” says Mary. “For this to happen, you could never imagine what this means to Damien. And the way he did it – a minute and 35! Up to yesterday a minute and 46 was his fastest 100m, he swam 1 minute, 42 yesterday and I thought, ‘that’s it, he won’t get a medal’. To go and swim one minute and 35 . . . oh my God, it’s phenomenal.

“I have never seen him swim so beautifully. He did everything perfectly. I was roaring . . . but he did it all perfectly,” says his coach Seawright.