It was the strangest type of homecoming for Ireland’s triumphant Olympic rowers.
There was no phalanx of media or film crews and no expectant crowds when the gold and bronze medal winners arrived into Dublin Airport on Sunday after their long journey back from Japan.
A small gathering of family was waiting for the four members of the women’s fours and their two male teammates on one side of the airport’s VIP section.
Eimear Lambe's family, who come from only down the road in Cabra, brought along a large Irish flag and the family wrapped themselves in it. Aifric Keogh's extended family too was there.
All six medallists posed for photographs together, but media interviews were conducted on a scratchy Zoom line.
“There’s nothing special about us,” insists Paul O’Donovan, one half of the gold-medal-winning pair in the lightweight double sculls, the other being Fintan McCarthy.
The people of Ireland and the rowing fraternity internationally would beg to differ with this rare outbreak of Corkonian modesty.
“You have to have a strong belief that it is possible. A lot of hard work will get you there,” he explained. “You have to be quite strategic about it and have a load of intermediate goals. Try out a lot of things and listen to a lot of people.”
The ever quotable O'Donovan said the course in Tokyo Bay was similar to the one on which he had raced to win a gold medal in the Rio Games "that was right next to the Copacabana beach or whatever they call it".
He said he now needs a break from rowing – "I just get too consumed in it" – and he will be suitably diverted from it when he returns to his medicine studies as a Quercus Scholarship winner at University College Cork this autumn.
“If I had been rowing full-time for the next 10 years, I’d be saying that I can’t do this forever. When I do retire, I won’t have anything to do. It just means that you don’t have to worry about getting older,” the 27-year-old, who now counts as a veteran in rowing terms, said in relation to his dual focus.
Source of inspiration
Both O’Donovan and McCarthy were wearing masks and sound so similar it was hard to tell which one was which merely by the sounds of their voices.
“Enjoy your journey,” McCarthy advised would-be young Olympians. The O’Donovan brothers’ silver medals at the Rio Olympics gave him the “inspiration to keep going with it”, he said, ironically leaving him to supplanted Paul O’Donovan’s brother Gary from Ireland’s final two for the rowing doubles.
Next up was the women's quartet Eimear Lambe, Aifric Keogh, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty, who won a bronze medal in the women's fours.
In doing so they doubled at a stroke, literally and metaphorically, the number of Irish women who have won Olympic medals.
They have been training in a bubble for months and endured the most stringent training regime of the Irish Olympic rowing crew.
“We deserve a break to spend time with family and friends. It’s been so long since we have seen anyone,” said Murtagh. “We have our own different journeys to go on.”
Since they began training for the Olympics in June last year, they have rarely mixed outside of their own training group due to Covid-19.
“We are just excited to go home and see family and school friends. Outside Christmas we probably haven’t seen our families except the odd weekend here or there,” said Keogh. “There were times when we needed time away from the group, but we knew the smart thing was to keep the group as safe as possible and stay within the bubble.”
Tokyo was a tough experience for all of them with the stringent pandemic-related restrictions, though they enjoyed it as first-time Olympians. “We still soaked it all up even if we couldn’t leave the village. Covid or not , we got the most out of it that we could,” said Hegarty.
They will now go their separate ways, Lambe to Cabra, Murtagh and Keogh to Galway and Hegarty to Skibbereen. O'Donovan and McCarthy will also return to the Cork rowing hotbed, where An Post has painted the town's postboxes gold in their honour.
The words “Congratulations Paul and Fintan” have been etched on to the side of the boxes as a permanent reminder of their Olympic triumph.