Born to row and not to run: Paul O’Donovan will mix up his off-season with some cross country

The now five-time World champion was back in UCC on Monday resuming his final year in medicine

Somewhere in the suitcase on the floor behind him is Paul O’Donovan’s most recent gold medal, won with Fintan McCarthy in the lightweight doubles at the World Rowing Championships last Sunday.

He’s said before that rowing for him is not about the medals, there’s no need to say it again.

Everything moves quickly on. O’Donovan is speaking via zoom from his student accommodation in University College Cork, wizard hair tied tightly back, in immediately fine form. It’s a modest-sized room and he appears as comfortably cool with it as always.

He came straight here from Racice, his final year in medicine now underway and no time to lose. Counting all the medals he’s won – Olympic gold and silver, now five World Championship gold, three European Championship gold and two silver – is simply not in his interest.


“Yeah I think most of them are in a box,” he says. “I have one in the suitcase here behind me, then at the end of the year, when I’m clearing out my college stuff, they go home in a box. So they’d be in different boxes from different times. Not on the mantlepiece anyway, no, no.

“And yeah, back to school since Monday. It’s my final year, hopefully, and I want to make sure it is my last. So keep the head down and pass the exams at the end of the year, don’t be back repeating, that would be a total disaster.”

O’Donovan is officially now in the off-season, although he won’t stop rowing; part of the balancing act between training and studying is that one must never override the other. The coming months won’t be much different.

“I think most of the team take three weeks off, won’t do much, but I’m a bit more restricted with college and the time I can give to training, so there’s no point me taking three weeks off, losing most of my fitness, then not having the time to build it back again.

“So I’d be straight back into it this week, one session a day, then just maintain the higher level with a lot less training throughout the college term.”

This time last year, a few weeks after winning Olympic gold in Tokyo with McCarthy, O’Donovan was found running the Cork Novice Cross-Country in Riverstick, finishing 16th for Leevale AC in a field of 38th. That’ll be part of the plan for the coming months too, distance running a surprisingly neat compliment to his rowing, even if in his case distantly less successful.

“Yeah, I did a few cross-country races with Leevale, last year, and that was good fun for sure. Just not easy at all. Sure I was laughed at at those cross-country races, being lapped on the course and everything. Which is probably a good thing in a way, not getting too carried away with yourself. I’m not sure that I was anyway.

“It’s good for your cardiovascular fitness and endurance anyway, a bit of running, so there’s certainly no harm in it. I think it gets you to think about motion in a different way, and how your body moves. Then you can take little bits and pieces from that, like in running what way you’re tilting your pelvis, try that out in rowing then, see if you can get a bit more power out of the stroke, which is good.

“A bit of impact as well can be good for the bones, and the density of those, so positives from that too. Especially if you’re looking to go a long career in running, it’s good to mix things up a bit as well.

“And it’s good to meet new people, hang out with some of the athletics guys, talk about some of the training they do, and the challenges they face.”

So he’ll check in with Donie Walsh at Leevale in the coming weeks, knowing full well by now how to get right the balance of his daily routine.

“I think they do complement each other, from rowing quite hard, at a young age, you build up a good work ethic, then learn to apply that then in the study. You can’t do nothing all year, then train two weeks before a big regatta and expect to do well.

“I was a bit that way in school in the early years, trying to cram before exams. That gets you by some bit, but there’s lots of information in this course [medicine], so I tackle that like the rowing, and be consistent with my studies all round. And become a bit analytic and critical as well, figuring out the best way to study.”

He’s an ambassador for the new National Dairy Council campaign, From the Ground Up and, as the son of a farmer, doesn’t need to preach the benefits of the natural, wholesome diet always begining with milk.

“I wouldn’t be religious about things at all, I just try to eat healthy anyway, I think later in life your body will probably thank you for it. My favourite meal to eat anyway would probably be a salad, which is strange. I’d prefer that to fast food and pizza and that kind of stuff anyway.”

The next Olympics may just be 22 months away, still he hasn’t ruled out a return of his brother Gary, just a year older at 29, even if McCarthy looks set to partner him to Paris and beyond.

“Gary is not done with this sport at all yet. He’d some illness there, and bits and pieces last year, and sat out the latter half of the season. But he’s been back in the boat now recently, training way and aiming for next year. He’s shown in the past he’s a really talented guy, could definitely feature again in the future.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics