O’Donovan brothers seal hero status with brilliant silver in Rio
Skibbereen rowers deliver nation its first medal having already captured its heart
Ireland’s Gary and Paul O’Donovan celebrate winning silver medals in the lightweight double sculls at the Olympic Games in Rio. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Hear the boat sing! At around the 1,000m mark, the scale of the mad ambition and fierce heart of the O’Donovan boys revealed itself.
They had set their hearts on gold for Ireland, for Skibbereen; for the house. And in their own technical term, they were truckin’ on.
Gary, at bow, gave a quick glance over his shoulder and ascertained that the boys were right where they wanted to be: in the thick of things.
Seasoned rowing lovers in the stands in the regatta or watching at home in Ireland must have felt the quickening then and the accompanying dread as memories of earlier luckless crews and rowers – Neville Maxwell, Sam Lynch, Tony O’Connor, Paul Griffin – flashed before their eyes.
From another era, yes, but Irish rowing is such a tight community that the demon spirit surely made the young brothers from Skibbereen keep the oars smooth and in rhythm even as the pain began to burn in their chests.
One thousand metres out leaves a lot of room for anguish and disappointment but the Irish pair powered through with such accomplished conviction that they gave the peerless French pair of Pierre Houin and Jeremie Azou a huge fright over the closing hundred metres.
The French boat crossed the line at 6:30.70. Ireland finished within a second on 6:31.23. So much changed in that instant. Rowing at last had an Irish Olympic medal to match the national pedigree in the sport. Ireland had its first medal in Rio.
“Forever we’ve been into rowing,” said Gary peering back through a welter of celebrations and well-wishers and press conferences to the earliest days.
“Ah. Forever. Our dad used to take us in to watch the crews training and at the national championships we would watch the Skibbereen crews racing. They would all be wrecked after one race and then they would go out for another race, another race. We used to be amazed.”
The how and why behind this race may well be contained in that sentence. All week, the O’Donovan’s have been charming the nation with their post-race observations on RTÉ news, moseying towards glory in the best Cork accent since Niall Tóibín was doing stand-up.
Here is Paul maybe an hour after the medal ceremony, nodding when asked what it’s like to win a medal with his brother.
“Ah, it’s good, yeah. We are almost like the same person now at this stage. We spent so long together the past year and people think in interviews we are great craic because we are just excited that we have other people to talk to apart from ourselves.
“Because we are sitting at home there and we can only rest up in bed most of the time. And we can’t even talk to each other because it’s like talking to yourself, because we can only talk about things that we have done. Gary can’t say to me: ‘Oh, I did this earlier’ because I’ve seen him do it and I was there. It can get boring as well. But ’tis good craic as well schtanding up there on the podium with him. He’s a nice guy as well sometimes.”
As Paul quietened down, his sibling took up the theme of brotherly love.
“Yeah, we get on really well like. Great words from Paul like. Ah. We used to bate the head of each other when we were smaller, like. Two young brothers growing up. . .that’s the way things go. But as we matured and started to get a bit more successful in rowing, we realised that if we bate the head of each other . . . I need him to be in good form and health and . . . un-injured . . . so we realised we can’t be doing that anymore.”
As the younger O’Donovan riffed, the bronze-placed Norwegian crew of Are Strandli and Kristoffer Brun were giddy with laughter: Gary O’Donovan had already conducted an informal press conference with them through the microphones and Paul then issued the following reminder: “Kristoff, you said the pints are on you tonight.”
It turns out that the Irish and Norwegian crews get along famously. “We are good friends but we are enemies on the water,” said Strandli.
“Not all the time on the water, though,” Gary retorted.
“In Brandenburg the boys were warming up and they decided they’d go flat out for a concrete beam over in Germany but we saved the day and gave them a good old shouting at. Otherwise they might not have even made the race. We’ve got each other’s back.”
Most of this was lost in translation on the gold medal French pair, who sat in relief rather than jubilation, but it was clear the O’Donovans’ irrepressible energy and outlook has made them popular faces in their short time on the circuit.
They are a dream for rowing; the deadpan humour and pure west-Corkisms had a captive audience even before they thrust themselves into a different sphere of recognition with this race.
Irish Olympic medals are sufficiently rare as to be vividly remembered. The strange thing is that rowing had almost disappeared from public consciousness over the past decade.
Sanita Puspure was Ireland’s only rower at the London Games and the accomplishment of bringing three boats to an Olympics for the first time was perhaps overlooked. Yesterday was a historic Olympic regatta for Irish rowing as it featured two teams.
Sinead Lynch and Claire Lambe finished sixth in a dauntingly fast field and were hardly out of the water when their Cork team-mates came steaming through for the gripping finish to their race.
Only the five rowers and coach Don McLachlan know the depths of the commitment and concentration they have given to this day.
Rowing is a beautiful deception: from a distance, the rowers make it appear effortless, disguising the burn and the pain. There were hints of all that behind the smiles and off-hand delivery of the two boys.
The humour masks a deep-down furious commitment. What else could have sustained them on a transformation from last-gasp qualifiers to Olympic medallists?
They took the 11th and final spot by two-thirds of a second and then came within the same time frame of an Olympic gold. Between posting those times, they must have poured their souls into bettering themselves. At dinner and in the evening, they were happy to act the clown but on the water, the laughter stopped. Always.
“They are unbelievable lads, absolutely unbelievable. And fair play to them: they’ve trained their arses off all year. They have done everything perfectly,” said Lambe. This was just seconds after the O’Donovans had crossed the line: Lynch and Lambe’s rowing partnership ends with their Olympic final and that brought with it a torrent of emotions – pride and disappointment to the forefront.
But you should have seen their faces just then: like every Irish person, they were incandescent after what they had just witnessed. And who knew better than them what this had taken.
“When it is a fight, they can fight,” said Lynch.
So once he established that they were right in the thick of it at 1,000 metres out, Gary O’Donovan fixed his eyes on the brother and they just went for it. They rowed as hard and true as they could, just as their father had first shown them when he took them out in the water. And it didn’t matter then that they were on a lake in South America; that they were rowing underneath the shadow of Christ the Redeemer, one of the most celebrated landmarks on the planet.
“I kept thinking if we keep rowing well and pulling hard we can win a medal,” Gary remembered.
“And even if we don’t, we did everything we could to give ourselves the best opportunity.”
They never looked likely to allow that moment to slip. The closing few hundred metres were a delight: all the pomp and ceremony of the Olympics fell away and they might well have been racing at home in Skibbereen or on any of the thousand mornings at the training camp in Farran Wood.
Even in the past few months, driving up to training, Gary would sometimes check himself at the thrill he felt at being able to do this: to row for Ireland, for the family, for Skibbereen.
What a sight as they passed through the finish; the local crossing into the Olympian books. What a moment of splendour for Irish rowing.
The O’Donovans brought it all back home and they made it look simple and pre-destined. From Skibbereen to Rio: it is, after all, water from the same source.