Fintan McCarthy: ‘Rowing is training every day. It is not going to the Olympics’

The Olympic gold medallist is working hard in preparation for the world championships

Fintan McCarthy: ‘I just loved it, the Olympic Games. It was like a dream’

Fintan McCarthy: ‘I just loved it, the Olympic Games. It was like a dream’

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“We had a pretty good start. Sometimes we don’t. First 500 metres we just settled into the race. The Germans and Italians, they went out. That always happens. So we were third at the 500m mark. I was glad there was no one else ahead.” – Fintan McCarthy on the Olympic final.

Swinging right at Ovens just outside of Ballincollig, west of Cork city, the road begins with a rise up the slope of the Lee valley and winds around past the golf club to a clear point. The high hedges either side, the stone walls and trees in the fields below eventually give way to sky and water.

On Inniscarra Lake nothing is moving but for three white boats cutting through the water at the far side, a motor launch behind throwing up white funnels of surf.

The background is rolling fields, hills of green rising from the lake’s black edge and into a grey shroud of a canopy spitting rain. Slim specks, the scene and the mood are of isolation, an absence of any other activity. There is nothing there but the boats.

Like bright toothpicks they glide in the direction of Magoola, with Farran Wood high to their left at the top of the valley. But nobody looks up. Almost everything is still as a picture in dull, unchanging spring light. The only moving parts are oars dipping and pulling, bayonets stroking along the surface.

The National Rowing Centre is where Fintan McCarthy comes to train. Little has changed since last summer, when he became the first Irish rower to win an Olympic gold medal, with Paul O’Donovan.

Inniscarra Lake is where they gather and plot and bide time until the next event, which this year is the world championships in September. You might think lightweight Olympic champion confers some kind of permanent status. Not here.

The gold medal may be part of the aura, but for McCarthy and the others it is all about resetting, renewal, not entirely erasing the past but placing the grandeur of an Olympic gold where it belongs. After every world event there is always a fresh campaign. The seat on the lightweight boat is not permanent.

Fintan McCarthy at the Irish Rowing Championships 2021 in the National Rowing Centre, Inniscarra, Cork on August 22nd, 2021. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Fintan McCarthy at the Irish Rowing Championships 2021 in the National Rowing Centre, Inniscarra, Cork on August 22nd, 2021. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

“Oh yeah,” says McCarthy. “There’s always competition. It’s good. It keeps everyone training. It was good for me because Gary and Paul [O’Donovan] were in the boat for so long and I just . . . trained.

“It’s open, yeah. It’s wide open. There’s four of us there at the moment and any two of us could be in it. Paul, Gary, myself and my brother Jake.”

Two sets of brothers – the O’Donovans and the McCarthy twins – all from Skibbereen, make for an interesting competitive dynamic. But in this corner of Ireland there is a rowing ideology simple in its reach.

It is to have no fear of being the best in the world. It is about having no hesitation in pushing open the door. Mostly it is to wear the Olympic medals lightly. In the last two years McCarthy has been crowned European champion, World champion and Olympic champion.

“It’s been that way most of our life now,” he says of training with and against his twin Jake. “It’s funny because we were talking about it the other night. We didn’t really have a lot in common until we both started rowing.

“It has brought us way closer together. It’s something not many get to experience. He might have started about a year later than me. I was 15. It has been 10 years this year.

“For years Inniscarra used to be where our competitions, when we were younger, always took place. We’d only go up there if we were racing.

“That drive in used to be synonymous with ‘oh, we’re here now’ nervousness and excitement. I still get that the odd time. It’s everyday normal now, yeah, it’s my office.”

Like any office, there is a routine involved. He has become enamoured with the “professional athlete thing.” A full-time rower has an essence of respect and ability, which he recognises. Having finished a degree in physiology in UCC a few years ago he has been experimenting with a life of rowing with few other complications.

More study was an option. But at 25 years old, grabbing a clutter-free career that gives him more licence and freedom was more persuasive. Last year he lived with Jake, who has the “distraction” of studying finance. Now Fintan lives a short drive from the lake. His discovery has been the more simple challenge of rowing without interference suits his personality.

“I love it, the professional lifestyle. It’s the dream really,” he says. “One of the things I was thinking of during the New Year was to go back and study. But you probably won’t get an opportunity to do this. Definitely not forever. Probably not past the next Olympics.

“I think I’m doing the whole athlete thing pretty well. I’m definitely better if I have one sole focus. It might never be like that again for me. In rowing you have to work at it every single day and even then it might not work out. Only one person wins an Olympic gold medal. We all train upwards of 15-20 hours a week.”

Sitting in the cafe picking small crumbs from his chocolate cookie, Cork’s decorated king of world and Olympic rowing sits unrecognised in the corner, wearing his medals lightly.

“We don’t start going or doing anything. Our base pace was set in the beginning and we continued with the base pace, which was faster than the German and the Italians when they came down off their fast start. Our base pace is quicker than their base pace. In the second five hundred we came through Italy, which I was happy about because sometimes we don’t get them until after the halfway point. It was us and Germany at the halfway. I thought, okay, we are through.”

After the gold medal win at the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo Bay, McCarthy understood his life fundamentally changed little. A five-minute slot on The Late Late Show was daunting. But he grew into the media demands. Otherwise, day-to-day for the Olympic champion was almost unchanging. Partly he made it that way.

“Sure everyone in Skibbereen knew who we were already,” he says.

He also came to understand that although the six minutes of winning an Olympic final was thrilling and satisfying, it was also infinitesimally compressed compared to hours on the water and the years of grind.

For such a short amount of time to complete the race, the 6:6.43 was a decade of rowing in drizzle, weight-watching and social denial. Making the human body a machine to motor a boat has an expensive lifestyle cost, timewise a net taker.

But it is one he chose. There is no buyer’s remorse. When he and Paul arrived in Tokyo and went down to the rowing venue for the first day on the water, it exposed him to a feeling, if not the reasons why he was doing it.

“I just loved it, the Olympic Games,” he says. “It was like a dream. Definitely the first day I was there, it was: ‘Holy s**t – I’m here.’”

He has also had to discover how to animate the mundane, find delight and cheer in the feel of an oar or carrying a boat to the water and the sufferance of hours and days of training sessions together.

Ireland’s Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan in the Men’s Lightweight Double Sculls semi-final at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 28th, 2021. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Ireland’s Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan in the Men’s Lightweight Double Sculls semi-final at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 28th, 2021. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

“It’s a year of your life,” he says. “What you have to do in that year is training, just training. So you’ve got to find the joy every day. That’s what rowing is. Really, it is the training every day. It is not going to the Olympics. Being content with that lifestyle and being happy is finding those things every day and appreciating them.

“I learned after the Olympics that the racing is what we love to do. But it is so small in terms of six minutes of your life. People are going to watch you for 10 seconds and then forget about it. Rowing is training every day. It is not going to the Olympic Games. So you have to find joy and purpose.”

“In the third 500m it was us and the Germans pulling away. We’d usually be through the Germans coming into the last quarter. I remember I was only focusing on them. Everyone else was back and it was ‘they are not coming back’. I was thinking, keep going. Keep on the base pace. But we weren’t really coming through them. They went through 1k half a second ahead of us. We just nosed ahead at 1,500. In that sense it was a long 500.”

They don’t talk on the boat. Although the four – Paul, Gary, Fintan and Jake – train together and switch boats with each other, when the team is picked for an event, the pair selected stick together to prepare.

Paul and Fintan during the Olympic Games rarely talked during the racing. Paul is the stroke, the person who sets the tempo. It is his timing and pace that others follow.

A twice European champion, four times world champion with gold and silver Olympic medals, the most decorated rower in the history of the sport in Ireland stays silent throughout. McCarthy recalls Paul only once saying something. He uttered one word during a race in 2019.

“I’m quite adaptable so I like slotting in behind someone,” he says. “I think I’m quite good at being able to mimic what they are doing. It’s up to the person on bow to follow that. We know what to do.

“Other teams do talk. We don’t talk,” he says. “Sometimes I shout something just to gee myself up, get some adrenaline going. But that’s it. It’s not a conversation on technique or tactics or anything.

“Going under that bridge [in the Olympic final], I remember saying to Paul, ‘let’s go.’ I didn’t mean anything by it. We were going fast. I didn’t want us to go any faster. I remember Paul saying to me after that was way too early. It was more for a bit of motivation.

Ireland’s Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan celebrate winning gold in the Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls final at Tokyo 2020 on July 29th, 2021. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Ireland’s Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan celebrate winning gold in the Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls final at Tokyo 2020 on July 29th, 2021. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

“One race back in 2019, I think it was the world championships semi-finals and Norway was sprinting back at us. Paul just said ‘Norway’ and that was it. That’s about one of the only times I’ve ever heard him say anything.”

There is a race in Rome on April 8th. Paul won’t be there. Studying to be a doctor, he’s not currently in camp, although he will come into the reckoning over the summer.

“When we are going well, it’s easily the best boat I’ve ever been in,” says McCarthy. “We have seen some really good numbers in training. There is a feeling . . . you know when the boat is going well.”

The weight was never an issue. This year, though, as he gets older and the muscle develops, he has to watch it more closely. His mantra is if it isn’t hard to make it you are not making the most of your weight. You learn to grow into it.

If he is sitting on the scales at 67kg then he is giving away two kilos of muscle to the opposition. His walk-around weight is closer to 75kg. In Tokyo he raced at 69kg and his heart reached its highest rate, 201 beats a minute – a glitch, he thinks. It is regularly at 190.

“It brings camaraderie,” he says of the shadow cast by the scales. “We’re always kind of starving together and complaining and talking about the first thing we are going to eat after the race. We do a lot of hoarding as well. After the Olympics pizza was the first thing I had.”

“We don’t slow down. We tend to hold it steady and get faster at the end. The last quarter we started going. Then after about 10 strokes I looked over and the Germans went ahead of us again, which never happens. I remember thinking don’t look over again. Just stare at the back. Over the last 100 metres it was 50 strokes, so I counted out 50 strokes and crossed the line. Then I looked across.”

This week there is an Olympic ball to go to in Dublin. So now he’s breaking off to Evan G’s Menswear shop in Ballincollig for a black tie scouting expedition. It’s not all work. It’s not all life measured out in gold medals.

But he knows they are on borrowed time. Probably, the next Olympic Games are going to be the last for their lightweight doubles boat. They thought Tokyo was the last. Then with Covid-19 hitting it became too expensive to bring in the new event, a coastal rowing race, for Paris.

Ireland’s Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan with their gold medals at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 29th, 2021. Photograph: Steve McArthur/Inpho/Photosport
Ireland’s Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan with their gold medals at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 29th, 2021. Photograph: Steve McArthur/Inpho/Photosport

Current International Olympic Committee plans are to bring the coastal race into the roster for LA in 2028. The pair got an extra cycle out of it and McCarthy his gold medal.

He explains that in rowing the lightweight boats are not a great deal slower than heavier boats. It’s a discussion for after Paris about what, if anything, are the viable options.

“People have been nice,” he says. “People have said the gold medal brightened up their day or week. But at the end of the day rowing . . . not many people really, really care about it. At the end of the day, it’s just a race.

“But I’d do it forever if I could.”

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