Coming fourth in the Olympics didn’t change this fearless quartet, time did

Neville Maxwell, Tony O’Connor, Derek Holland and Sam Lynch recall Atlanta 1996

Nobody remembers fourth? It’s always been a lie, of course; one of the shiny, hollow aphorisms of sport and life that places a premium on the straightforward glory of winning.

In the Olympics; in that bloated, four-year extravaganza when the world colour-schemes achievement and talent into gold, silver and bronze, fourth becomes particularly tricky. A small army of fourth-place finishers are out there, in all sports. Some missed out on medals through milliseconds or bad luck or bad planning or cheating rivals. Many came close enough to taste it and wonder about it for the rest of their days.

In 1996, among Ireland's brightest Olympic medal hopes were the rowers in the lightweight coxless fours crew: Neville Maxwell, Tony O'Connor, Derek Holland and Sam Lynch. They were forthright and driven. They were smashed broke and always hungry. They were well brought-up polite boys. And they were savagely competitive on the water.

Everyone knows there is something beautifully insane about team rowing. Frederick Nietzsche, of all people, probably nailed it best: "When one rows it is not the rowing that moves the ship. Rowing is only a magical ceremony by means of which one compels a demon to move the ship."


That’s what they became together for a short time: a demon. They were only together for about a year and have yet to sit down together to talk about a mad, mad year when they gave it their best shot. This is their story.

The boat

Neville: It was brilliant crack. That is the best way to describe it. We wouldn't have been on anyone's radar. That whole year was really tough but Jesus, it was exciting. The whole team we had around us . . . the ambition was to actually win. We were in Strängnäs in Sweden. When we started off there were probably 12 guys going for the four [places]. You were looking at everyone and you were saying: right, who has a chance of making this boat. You had a feeling about who was good enough and that you were good enough. But you had to stay healthy. It is hard to describe. The previous year, Tony's back went in the world championships in the pair. We were in silver-medal position in the final and we had to stop rowing. The men's lightweight four, who had Derek, were in a good position and the tiller snapped. And then all of a sudden we are thrown into this group of 12 for the Olympic qualifiers.

Tony: In lots of ways we were fairly innocent lads. That was my third year on the team. Neville was like the old man, he had been there since 1991. At the time Niall O'Toole was the only one at that level anywhere. But we had world class coaches. Weeks and weeks in the snow in Scandinavia. The lakes were frozen so we had to row on the sea. We became hard bastards over those few years. We would cycle in the snow and back again. The rowing machine sessions were tortuous. Fifteen two-minute pieces, then 20, then 25. Our coaches, Thor Nilsen and John Holland, watching us. We'd ask them: "What is the physiological reason for us doing this?" And they'd say: "Ah we just wanted to see if ye could handle it. If we tried it with other crews they wouldn't do it because they are more talented." Okay. Fair enough. We are feckin' idiots.

Derek: It was sort of a resort seaside town. There weren't many around at that time. We stayed in a hostel and had our meals there. We ran every morning. We had three sessions a day. It was weights and running. It was a little bit crazy. All I remember in the hostel was after dinner, we would go for a walk into the little town. Maybe have coffee. We would read books. There was no internet. There was a TV and a lot of the programmes were in English. We got a video from an Xtravision type place a few times. But it was mainly eat, row, sleep. There was no mobile phone contact. We were there for five weeks. I was only a kid really and I thought it was amazing, what I wanted to do. We were naive in a way. It was about breaking barriers and thresholds and what you could push the body through. It was just intense.

Sam: Ah Jesus. There was a big divide in age. There was all the kids – Derek, Gearóid Towey, myself. We were all turfed into a room and honestly, it was like a school tour. Clothes and books everywhere. I was a bit of a bookworm; this was pre-computer age. So I had a bag of training clothes and a bloody suitcase of paperbacks. Strewn all over the room. It was slightly feral. We were all relatively smart guys as well. I wouldn't say it was great fun. Lots of hard work and lots of boredom, loneliness, fatigue. Those camps in December and January of that year: I was never as tired. You would get dinner time on a Tuesday and it would be seven o'clock and you be falling into bed just dreading, dreading the next day. That was the start of the week.

Neville: It was an eight-month process. It was survival. Who could cope mentally and physically. The mental aspect was huge. It was a no-tracksuits type of group and it took a while to whittle down that group. I won't say we selected ourselves. We trained 12 or 13 times a year and we did things we never did before in terms of training sessions. We did these ergometer sessions. A flat out 5km test, flat out, everyone against each other – and against your own time. One day we were told we were doing two with a 15-minute break. It was impossible. But everyone did it and most people got personal bests. So you were breaking down barriers. A couple of guys left the camp who maybe should have made the four but just decided they couldn't cope with this. Training camps aren't fun. It might sound like it is nice. But you are just training to get faster and faster. It is not a fun zone. Until everyone is in the boat, it is only then that you know.

Sam: Neville was strong but I was probably the strongest in that group. But I was struggling technically to transfer that. It was when I switched to sculling that things became much easier for me. So that made the day-to-day stuff very difficult for me. Because when I was in the boat, everyone knew I was in the boat. I am probably closest to Neville now out of that four. Whereas we used to f**king kill each other that season. Tony and Neville were really good technicians and Derek was a good technician. I wasn't. I irritated the shit out of Neville. He got so pissed off. He was much older – like he was only 25 but he seemed it. And it would be: "Would you stop doing that!" I'd say: "Go f**k yourself, don't talk to me like that." It was a defence thing as well because he was pretty cutting when he wanted to be. He would tell you you were shit. The problem was: part of me was like f**k you, I am better than you. And part of me was going: ah no, he was right. But you were tired all the time and hungry. And fatigued. So there was a level of stress.

Tony: Derek in the bow was certainly the most fiery. Wore his heart on his sleeve. He was never happy and demanded more and more. I remember this warm-up race in Elberton. The crew was going crap. We did some piece against New Zealand and they hammered us. Next thing: Splash! Derek was swimming away from the boat shouting: "F**k da lot of yez." To be fair to him he wasn't a bad swimmer. He got about a hundred metres from the boat but the problem was we must have been two miles from the nearest bank. He stopped and looked around. Turned back and climbed sheepishly into the boat and said nothing. Sam was a little like Derek. He was the youngest but didn't come across like that. Sometimes he did. Like a wide eyed kid. But he was very reliable in his consistency in training and quietly asked the best of us. He was a settling influence. Nev would be the one who'd fly off the handle and get grumpy – mostly with himself. Of all of us he asked the most of himself because we had to get to 70 kilos. Like Neville was 6'3". We were all tall. Eleven stone. We were always hungry. Once a month, you would go to the local shop and buy the good stuff. But every four weeks I would detour to the cake aisle and get one of those Cadbury's gateaux. I would demolish the lot. Halfway through I would feel sick. But you had to do it.

Derek: The whole journey was just amazing, even the hard parts. We barely lived in Ireland that whole year. We were in Spain three weeks on and one week off and then four weeks on and a week off. There was quite a big group of lightweights that time. It was a constant grind. And it was hard. And it broke a few people.

Tony: We raced the Cologne regatta in May. The two crews came third and fourth. They changed them up and that was the four that became the crew for Atlanta. We rowed well and the coaches said: "That is the crew for the qualifiers." Everyone else went home and we stayed in Cologne for a training camp. We'd been training for two weeks and hadn't washed kit and it could have walked down itself. I went down to the launderette independently but all four of us ended up there. And I just remember us sitting there in the launderette chatting and knowing we were the four who had a chance to go to the Olympics.

Derek: Having my dad [John Holland] as coach . . . I think it made it harder. There were clear boundaries. And I didn't want to be seen as a favourite. But Thor was the director and sort of in charge of selection. Dad was coaching the three teams. We weren't sitting around talking about it when we were at home but it was difficult. Everyone did their talking on the water and when it did come to it we won our race by a country mile so there was no disputing the team. Thor just said these four are staying. You don't know what to say to the others. They were told to keep training for the world championships in August. I know what it is like because I went through it later on. There is not much anyone can say. You have to accept it. But when you have put your life on hold, there is no back-up for them. That was it. In other sports, there would be a mechanism behind them to release them back into normal life because that is one of the big struggles with sport. Because it is devastation for guys who don't make it.

Sam: I was a bit of a bolter to be honest. The older guys were in control of what was going on and marking their times. I remember the Tuesday before the Cologne regatta. We were in bits. The older guys took notes. I had no idea. I just kept racing and did what I was told. I would have been much more meticulous – like you would expect an Olympic athlete to be – when it came to Athens. Also you have to remember it was so cold. Sweden in March! It was awful. Cycling out and back and then four degrees on the water. The town we were in was lovely but I vowed never to go back there. And I love it now because I spent so many summers there in the singles. I rebuilt myself there.

Tony: We had some legendary evenings which ended up the middle of the next morning. We would time them if we had just the one Sunday session. You would never manage two. There are bars and clubs of varying quality around Europe that saw the best of us. You had to. And you'd meet teams from other countries and you knew them – rowers, kayakers, cyclists. You needed that release because you are seeking perfection. And . . . you never reach it. I was reading Seán McGowan's book recently, about his solo Atlantic crossing. I rowed with Seán when he was 15. The book was about himself. He was having hallucinations and he described to the younger Seán this row he had at the age of 15 and the hair stood up on my neck because I remembered the row he was talking about. Because I have only ever had three good rows in my life.

The race

The Atlanta Olympics rowing final took place on Lake Lanier, off the Chattahoochee river on Sunday, July 28th. It was an extraordinary week for Ireland at the Olympics. The country went swimming-daft when Michelle Smith added a Friday-night bronze to the three gold medals she had swept up. Francie Barrett, the boxer, was eliminated from the games on the Sunday. Sonia O'Sullivan's 5,000m on Sunday night was the marquee event: it was to be her coronation. But there was smart money on the rowers that morning. They would finish fourth in a time of 6.13.51. The USA, who placed bronze, finished in 6.12.29.

Neville: We had a conversation with the crew about the race plan and pattern. We left it late in races. We had a certain style. We would get faster as the race went on rather than being number one out and it freaked some people out but we were okay with it. Then when we came to the final there was a bit of a discussion that we had to be a bit further up. There is an old adage: don't lose the field. Because you are giving up easy ground. And we did our strategy. But when it came to racing the race, we just burned oil a little bit too early

Derek: I don't remember us sitting down prior to that race saying this is what we are going to do. These are all the things I have learned. I just felt that maybe Thor or John had said: "Look, yes, ye were slow out of the blocks in the semi-final. And I don't want ye now to blast out of the blocks and destroy it. Just go out normal." We sort of went out very angry. And we paid the price. We didn't have that sprint at the end and we were a massive sprinting crew. We could go sit half a length down and go through crews. But for some reason . . . it wasn't nerves. We were so relaxed. But we also wanted it too much.

Sam: At 1,500 metres I still thought we were going to win a medal. We had a poor heat. We had a good repechage. We were always comfortable to get into the semi-final. And I know we were third there but we had the Danes, the South Africans, the Australians, Germans and the Italians. The South Africans were flying at that regatta. So that race, we really got it under control but all four of us knew we would qualify. It was one of those races. It was brilliant. So then the final, we just didn't handle it as well. We went off way too hard. It's a toss-up between Tony and Gags [Towey] as to who is the best technician I have ever seen. They were just fantastic. And I remember having a thought at the start: No, this is not how we row. Because when Tony is rowing well, then we are rowing well. And I looked at Tony and thought, no Tony doesn't row like this. We are not controlling this. This was 500 gone. And then you look around and go: Okay, but we are winning the f**king thing. At 1,000 we had a rhythm. The Danes had moved away. It was us and the Americans. And I felt I was really struggling physically. At 1,500 I felt we could do it. But that last 250 were just awful. We were so inefficient in the first half that all of that energy we expended came back to bite us. We were rowing in treacle.

Derek: I wouldn't have any regrets on that year apart from the final because we made a massive mistake. We did something we never did which was blast out of the blocks. And we paid for it.

Neville: We all felt strong. But it is tough. It is an Olympic final. At halfway in most of those races anyway, your heart rate is through the roof and you are producing a lot of lactic acid. But it felt good. The field just seemed to have that fraction on us. You are trying to make sure that nothing breaks down. Look, the Danish were brilliant. They went on to do huge things. The Americans and Canadians were almost on home water really. You know what? We gave it a good crack. We did it clean. We didn't leave anything behind. That group of guys has all done well in terms of medals. Sam went on to be world champion a couple of times in the single time. Derek is a brilliant coach. Tony is a brilliant coach. You can sit back and say if only we did this. But you know, we did everything.

Tony: No, I have never seen that TV interview and yes, a lot of people have spoken about it. We promised Caroline [Murphy, RTÉ] we would go straight in because she was a bit of a champion of ours. The three medallists ducked in behind the pontoon and so did we, which was unusual. I do remember getting a bit irate because it was drugs and the Olympics and I was coming out of a system where there wasn't any of that. We would have dobbed our best friend in. No doubt about it. Maybe we were naive. But I do remember getting a bit angry about that. Then Nev was a lot more diplomatic – and hence he is on RTÉ now during the Olympics – but even now people say it. It was raw. I would love to see it but can never find it.

Neville. I think I saw it once. I would have no interest in looking at it. I knew at the time that in a relatively short period of time together – we were only actually selected three months before the Olympic final – that if we stayed together there would be a big chance for Sydney. But our lives became different in the following years.

One year later

Neville: It ended, I suppose, probably by the following year. We stuck together as a crew after 1996. We came back into training. Sam moved to Dublin to study in UCD. Tony and me were kind of working. The plan was to race the world championships in France. John was coaching the group and Thor was consulting. We identified that we needed more than four because otherwise we would get complacent. That started to happen. And no matter how we tried to expand the group it didn't happen. The level of intensity and expectation we had, we kind of ate ourselves a bit. We were tough on ourselves and had niggles and injuries. Then Sam became ill in training two weeks before the worlds. I think he had glandular fever. We tried the reserves, James Lindsay-Fynn and Mark Pollock, really good rowers but it didn't work. And then it was decided we would send a pair but not a four. There was no point going if we weren't going to win. And that was it.

Derek. Myself and Sam were quite young. We put our necks out in terms of two years on the line. We were quite naive looking back. We came back from Atlanta and had a bit of a break. There was no national rowing centre . . . we didn't even have a boat to train in. We were borrowing boats when we went away. The club I was in had two rowing machines back in 1997. The plan was to push on and train. I wanted to go back and improve on my education and I re-sat some Leaving Cert subjects. Training was going quite well but it wasn't the same amount as we had been doing previously. We didn't do much racing in the first part of the year. Sam and Tony had exams around the World Cup. We didn't perform in Lucerne and finished fifth in the final; I think we were in a bad lane. Then Sam was knocked off his bike shortly after that I think. It put a bit of a strain on things. He had this bad shoulder injury. And then we were on a training camp in Spain. All I really remember in the aftermath is that something wasn't right. Sam got ill. A week before the entries were made that year, Tony and Neville went as a pair and I was stranded as a spare for that world championships.

Sam: I don't think we raced a major championship again. The start of 1997 is the last time the four of us were on the water. It was the pre-worlds training camp. I didn't handle that year particularly well. I was the youngest by a few years, not much younger than Derek. I was 20 and he was 23. But at that age there is a big difference in terms of your physiology and the whole lot. And I don't know if I was sick or what I was. I remember that whole season being that we started off with such promise and it just fizzled out. It was awful, the worst year I ever had to be honest.

Derek: I was able to deal with the disappointment. It was the whole other side of it. But I haven't basically had a conversation with Sam since '97. He never came back to us to say what he wanted to do. It was just sort of, that was it, he never came back. He wanted to do his own thing I presume. We were all training away and doing our own thing in October and November of that year. Nobody had heard from Sam. A few people tried to make contact, I think. And then Brendan Dolan started with us. I think Sam was planning to go sculling, but that was it. That was the end of that.

Neville: I hadn't a rashers what I wanted to be. You get offered these jobs. But I do remember having a conversation with Ron Bolger, the MD in KPMG in 1996, about whether I would go for it or not. I was saying, look, we came fourth. We have a few medals as a pair. And he said: "Go for it. You'll be long enough working. Just do it and have no regrets." And it was the best advice I ever got. And they kept my job open for me. But I ended up going off on a different career tangent. I realised I couldn't work in that environment. I struggled. Just to come down after training.

Tony: We were broke. Oh yeah, we were. In 1993 it was my first year on the team. We got a grant of maybe three grand for the year and thought it was great. Honestly. Me and Neville got a world medal in 1994. The grant money stepped up a lot around 2000 but I would have done it for free. The social welfare in Gardiner Street . . . I was a regular there. But my picture would be in the paper. We won some regatta. I popped down for my 45 quid the next week. And everyone behind the counter stopped and applauded, and I felt like a right prat. But it was kind of cool. We would have done it on the smell of an oily rag. You wouldn't do it for money. Did the money make a difference? Yeah. You could train smarter and better. But we still set good times and won races.

Neville: It is hard to row. The four of us have had this chat – to sit in a boat with people other than the guys you used to row with. There is almost a feel to it. And you will never get it again. Imagine getting to know Seán Kelly well and being asked to cycle a tandem with him. It might be great for you but it wouldn't be great for him.

Tony: I was just saying recently, I have no friends outside of rowing. Which is a real shame. I went to university and school and worked but my best friends are still the guys in that group for those three or four years. They were the ones who became godfathers to kids and went to weddings and in times of crisis, we are the people we ring. So there's something about that adversity we went through together. You could end up hating each other – and we did at times. I look back and think I probably wasn't the nicest person at times. Sometimes we didn't like each other but we always loved each other.

Now: Twenty four years later

Sam: If I am a hundred per cent honest, in my headmy rowing career started in 1998. Atlanta was a preamble to what I did. I look on my career as a failure. The world championships in the single were great and I enjoyed that a lot. But I went back to Athens to finish that whole thing. I don't wonder what it was all for. But I don't see it as a massive success either. Which is kind of why I have left it behind. I would say this is the first time I have spoken about it in a long time. When I start work, for example, people don't know I was a rower. People find out but it is not something I trade off or talk about. If it comes up, I will talk about it and be positive. But it is always tainted by a bit of regret.

Neville. It is difficult from a lives perspective. Derek has done a fantastic job up in Enniskillen and he has done wonders with that club up there. It has been a huge success as a cross society project. Sam is in Melbourne doing orthopaedic surgery. I live in Dublin, married with four children. Tony is in New Zealand. I spoke with him just the other day.

Derek: The last time we were together would have been August 1997 at the world championships, after that Sam kept his distance. It was just the whole knock-on effect. We never seemed to be around each other much or chat about it which is quite sad considering what we all went through and the journey we went through. They would know me inside out. I would have roomed with Sam for 2½ years. I know Sam pretty well. Tony and Neville would know each other pretty well. They know what makes me tick. So yeah. We know each other for sure.

Neville: I watched a video a few weeks ago on Twitter. It was this Australian pair who were Olympic champions. It was calm and they were just gliding. I sent it on to Tony and said: "This is it." It is about perfection. It is not about going fast. It is about: did you disrupt the boat as little as possible. It is about making it perfect. The ambition is to make 240 perfect strokes. That is the race. And you look at that and think: do I really want to go out in a boat and get battered around. It is enjoyable to touch it but I don't want to immerse myself ever again in racing.

Tony: I don't remember when we all last met. There have been weddings when Derek and Nev and myself have been together. Then I coached Derek for a couple of years. Nev stopped in 2000. I met Derek at Henley last year. We both commented on how much weight we had gained and hair we had lost. It is one of those things. You move through life and diverge.

Sam: I have four children now and a career I cherish and enjoy. There is a lot of good stuff going. I look back on it as not playing around in boats. But it was a very selfish endeavour I did until I was 28. It's not that it is not important. We all see it now in this pandemic that this stuff is really important. We don't have any sport and life is mundane. That is what gives it meaning. I liked it. But it was selfish. The skills I developed from it . . . I am not sure. Me and Neville are close now; we don't see each other but that is because we are two different men now than we were 25 years ago. And the traits we had to develop to become world champions, we were not particularly pleasant people, like. You are selfish, aggressive, cranky, kind of ruthless. You have no perspective. I am not saying you have no kindness but everything is black and white. If someone is a bad rower, then that means they are a bad person. Somebody is not as strong as you, that means you are better than them. There is no subtlety in it. And that is not how life is. So the skills I have as a rower I try not to use too much as a surgeon for example. And the parallels are similar in terms of the training pathway is arduous and confrontational. But you have to be a bit more compassionate, which didn't exist at all in rowing. It was absolutely ruthless and those are not life skills you want to perpetuate.

Tony: There's a guy Sean Colgan, an American here in New Zealand who was a member of the Olympic eight crew in 1980. They didn't go to Moscow because of the boycott. He told me that those nine guys, because of not going, became the tightest group. They have rowed together every year for the last 39 years and he knows that if they had gone and won a medal at those Olympics, they would have broken up. I asked him if he would change that and he said: not for the world. Look. We have seen the best and worst of each other. There are secrets between us that only we know. And we don't even need to talk about it. We know it. Yeah, when you go through those things . . . and it is the losing ones that bring you closer together.

Sam: Atlanta is one of those races. I am 44 now. I remember being really disappointed. But at the time you temper that with what is to come. In my 20-year-old mind, this chance would come again. Be a bit better and more mature and I would win a medal. In part it was like I had lost any other race but I regret that race far more now than I did that day.

Tony: I had a coaching itch so I got involved with New Zealand rowing. I wanted to win the Olympics with a crew from New Zealand and ended up with the men's eight at fairly short notice. It was real exciting. This time last year I took over, moved up the North Island. Plan was to take them through to Tokyo and to win a medal. I am 50-50 as to whether it's going to go ahead at all. It has been 24 years since my first Olympics so what's another year.

Derek: I retired after 2004 but the one thing I wanted to tick off was to row at Henley Royal Regatta and I did that in 2005. I got married that year and a job came up in Enniskillen looking for a rowing coach and teacher. I wanted to go into coaching to make sure that kids wouldn't make the same mistakes I had seen in the latter years of my own career. So I have been here in Enniskillen for 16 years. The head of rowing was the vice-principal after the Enniskillen bomb in 1987. He went across to St Michael's Grammer which was the boy's Catholic school and he got a few of the boys to come over and integrate with a few from the other side. He started that process and then when I arrived we began to open it to other schools. So any kids who want to come down and row are more than welcome. It'd be a shame not to share the school facilities. And it has blossomed and you have kids from both sides rowing and talking. It has been amazing. I had no idea what Northern Ireland would be like and I was hesitant. But Fermanagh . . . jeekers, it is just a beautiful place and a great spot.

Neville: There is a pathway there and it is a choice for people if they want to go down that route. And if they do, there is a good chance they will be successful. We were more hit and miss. Guys like Brendan Dolan, Tooler, all trained really hard as well. But we had no structure. We were rag-tag compared to now. The changes we made after Rio, there were a lot of sleepless nights. Because there was a lot of politics involved in making those changes but we knew if we didn't, we would be banjaxed. Like lightweight rowing is gone after these Olympic Games. So we had to make changes. Look where we are at. We were ranked number two in the world in the Olympic category after the last world championships. But when you step out of that sport, you think: f**k, that is a mad world.

Derek: I am at peace with it. I am very grateful for what rowing has done for me. Have I achieved all I wanted to? For me personally being the only one of the four, I came close and finished fifth at a worlds but never did pick up that world medal. And there are only two guys who have achieved an Olympic medal thus far. The last few weeks during the lockdown is my first training in rowing in 16 years. I got on a rowing machine because I am doing a charity challenge. So I have been on a rowing machine for the first time in a long, long time. And thinking about things in the past. I don't let it eat away at me. I am not in a bad place as a result of it. I could be in a lot worse of a situation mentally if I let it melt away at me. Rowing has made me strong to mentally deal with disappointments. The journey was amazing. Just the challenge of trying to get to the top of something.

Sam: You have to remember that this is all in the context of your early 20s. Myself and Neville laugh, we have this standard line: "Jesus, I have forgotten why I can't stand that guy." But now, there is nobody I can't stand. I would love to meet all of them again. Because it is not that important. It is a period of time in your life. It's a day. It's an event. You can put a context on where you are in your life. And you are meant to evolve a bit. I think now that for us, it would be really pleasant to meet up because it was a shared experience. But it takes that time to let all of that . . . settle.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times