From Lisheen to Olympic medalists – Gary and Paul O’Donovan winning hearts

The West Cork brothers have come a long way from facing rowing club suspensions

Friends and family of the O'Donovan brothers watched the last tense few minutes of their race in Skibbereen Co Cork. Video: Provision Photography


The lads with the wisecracks; the athletes who spend thousands of hours driving their boat through fair weather and foul seeking the edge. With the O’Donovans, it’s not either/or. It’s both.

When they were just kids, their father took Paul and Gary into Skibbereen from their home place in Lisheen – a church, a school, a pub and a creamery – and took them rowing. It was love. Within a few years, they would be part of Dominic Casey’s medal-making machine, pushing a medium-sized club in west Cork to the very top of the Irish title ladder.

But the spirit was there from the start. The japes and messing caused some to laugh, some to say enough. Amazing as it seems, Dominic Casey – the man who would coach them to Olympic glory – once called a meeting to have the boys suspended from Skibbereen Rowing Club. Wiser councils prevailed.

Un-noticed by the world outside rowing, Paul established himself amongst the top young athletes in the country. At 15 he became the junior single sculls champion of Ireland (an under-18 grade). In the 2011 World Junior Championships he placed fourth. In the 2013 World Under-23 Championships – at just 19 – he took bronze. The following year, he took fourth place in the senior World Championships.

All of these were in the lightweight single sculls, a non-Olympic event. The young man was clearly of Olympic class, but there was no obvious candidate to team up with to form a lightweight double scull.

Certainly not Gary. In physical type, Paul is the blocky one, Gary the rangy one. In personality, while he is the elder brother – he was born on December 30th and their father Teddy jokes that if he’d only waited two days he could have had more underage success – he is the joker of the two.

While Paul was making his name on the world stage, Gary was hitting it in spots, showing the ability but not the dedication. It turned out the club suspension was only in abeyance. After a few too many drinks and a missed race, he was sanctioned.

It all changed four years ago. As Gary tells it, he was out on the beer with friends watching the Olympic Games in London when he turned to them and said: “I’ll be there when it comes to Rio.”

His mates were right to laugh. Rowing at the top level is a ferociously demanding sport. Only a fairy godmother or a wizard could turn such bragadaccio into a prediction.

Re-enter Dominic Casey.

The little man of few words runs the best club in the country and the best club regatta – Skibbereen. The loyalty shown to him by those he coaches and those around him is bottomless. At the 2015 Irish Championships, Justin Ryan was taking up a new job in Aldershot in England on the Monday morning but competed – and won – for Skibbereen just hours before flying out. Why cut such a big move such tight space? “Dominic” he said.

Skibbereen had produced Olympians, but Casey had not coached at this level. And the time frame was mad. The best way to qualify a lightweight double was to be in the top 11 at the 2015 World Championships. It woud be their first season together – Paul and Gary had not competed together in this boat before.

In their first big test – the European Championships – they reached the A Final and finished fifth, taking out Turkey in a race won by France. But they could only finish 13th at the World Cup in Lucerne – their only other regatta before the World Championships.

Those Championships, on the green waters of Aiguebelette in France, was where they grabbed hold of their destiny. They knocked out New Zealand in the semi-finals. In the B Final, they would qualify if they finished anywhere but last. And that was where they were until the final push. Paul was all but gone – big brother drove him on. They had qualified for Rio. And knocked out Greece.

Paul tells a story of how, when they were learning to row, Dominic told them nothing of lactate build-up. The pain in your legs and arms is because you’re not doing it right, he would say. So they drove through the agony – and when they discovered it was a physical thing they were already used to it. Paul tells that story with a laugh.

Between Aiguebelette and Rio, the O’Donovans have driven through pain and skipped up the ladder. In a camp in Seville, they did 5,000 kilometres of water work – that’s 3,000 miles of catch, drive, finish, recovery. They met the young German crew, who had been ahead of them. They beat them. On through the events of the season and the crews above them came tumbling down: Norway fell at the Europeans, where the Irish won gold; Britain, Austria and Poland followed.

And then, yesterday, South Africa, the one big crew which, apart from France, they have not beaten as they rose.

The O’Donovans may make front pages with quotes like “pull like a dog” but there in the midst of the firecrackers and the laughs, one refrain was repeated with unblinking calm: “our goal this year is gold”. They went into the final with that attitude and it put these young men in the annals of Irish sporting legends.

When crews win rowing events, the strains of Beautiful Day ring out. U2 and the boys from Lisheen come from different parts of Ireland, but wasn’t it Bono who said: “We don’t take ourselves seriously. We take what we do seriously”. Olympic medal? Better than “shteak”!

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