‘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
“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.”