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Gary O’Donovan interview: ‘I get to row with the fastest man in the world’

Brothers’ jovial personas hide focus and work rate which allows them take on the best

The catch. That is the blade entry into the water.

Father Ted wins a £200 bet. Himself, Dougal and Mrs Doyle depart Craggy Island for the mainland to pick up the winnings with Dougal and Ted taking in a trip to the Very Dark Caves. Ted is surprised to see Richard Wilson, from the BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave waiting outside. Thinking it would be hilarious Ted decides to go greet him with his catchphrase: "I don't believe it!"

A glowering Wilson, sick of the phrase, turns on Ted and starts to beat him up before others intervene and drag him away. Inside the Very Dark Caves a shaken Ted notices the stunning rock formations. Unaware Wilson is standing in front of him he utters “I don’t believe it”, triggering another mad cap assault.

“Pull Like a Dog.”

Gary O’Donovan’s weary grin is the fault of his brother Paul, twice lightweight single sculls world champion, lightweight double sculls world champion, Olympic silver medallist and European champion. He said it after they won silver at the Rio Olympics, the two of them endearingly faux underwhelmed with their success, both spontaneous and fresh as a rock pool. Gary had never heard the words before. Never. Then Paul came out with them on television. Just like that. Pull like a dog. Out of nowhere.

“It was like a trivial set of words that randomly came out of his mouth,” says Gary. “Next thing it’s just taken over.

“You know that Father Ted episode when they have your man from One Foot in the Grave. People are doing that to us. You know, like I’ll bet they’ll find it really funny. If I go up to them and say it . . .”

The drive. You are pulling the oar through the water. Legs push. Body swings through. You get momentum. The arms pull the oar into the rib cage.

Gary is the older brother. One half of the duo who have laid claim to public affections with their playful intelligence. World champions of the unaltered, the grounded, they are Irish sport’s new western cool. Accidental tourists who wandered into stardom with their home spun wisdom and strings of colloquialisms. A proudly parochial voice confronting the world and winning.

They have perfectly framed one of sports enduring gifts, the marvel of small beating big. To the backdrop of conveyor belt superpowers hot housing gold medal operatives in sports labs, Ireland gave west Cork and west Cork gave Skibbereen and Skibbereen gave the townland of Lisheen. Two brothers in a boat and pull like a dog.

It all encapsulates what they are not as much as what they are. Interviews unspool to where they want them to go, drawing people in, conveying a sense of belonging and certainty of place. Most powerfully, theirs is a connection to their hinterland.

Teddy O'Donovan, their father, conducted the baptism into rowing and then some before Dominic Casey brought his wisdom. In recent years a fastidious application of physiology and biomechanics has been at the heart of their Rio success and last year's World Championship win.

“This was stuff we really had to think about,” says Gary. “Where are we going to get faster? How are we going to do better training? What do we need? What are the best training locations? It was new territory, a combination of absolutely everything.

“More time in the water. More training so your physiology is growing. Then we used physiologists to do better training. On the water we were doing the right heart rate zones for the right periods of time, doing the right training sessions at the right intensity, doing the right periods in the year to do the right training. The more strokes you take the better technique, the more oar feel you get.”

They may have been originally hand crafted and naturally organic products. But big ambition never held them back. Now the brothers are more a high spec, functioning algorithm than products of their vaunted “shteak and shpuds” or a jar of jam and bread before the race.

“We can get in a biomechanics specialist,” adds Gary. “He will rig up the boat with force metres and angles and measure our force application so that we are both hitting the same peak force at the same point in the stroke at the 90 degree angle to the boat. If we are set up and hitting a peak force too early we move ourselves back in the boat.

“If I put the oar in and Paul puts the oar in there would be two motions and the boat would jerk. The thing is to max peak force at the exact same time. When I have the most energy with the blade going through the water Paul has his most energy with the blade going through the water and you get a surge. Yeah, you can feel that.

“Resting I don’t know what it is now,” he adds about his standing heart rate. “I did it years ago. It was either 38 or 48. Can’t remember. There was an eight in it anyway.”

The finish. Your hands come into the body at the end of the stroke and you take the oar out. The extraction.

Gary begins the conversation with “I” and it inevitably turns to “we”. Nothing much can be done in the boat without the other, both of them loaded parts co-joined. No seams. They rowed together as kids on the local Ilen River, their boat cutting down stream past the boat yard where Teddy their father worked and out towards the mouth of the estuary.

It was there they would turn to row back, take in some liquid and occasionally inhale the beauty around them, notice the silence. Often, especially as they got older it was just the two of them on the water, a detail Gary has become to cherish.

They have rowed all over the world, in London, in the US, in New Zealand where the wake from leisure boats, work boats and jet skies ensures an early rise to find calm water. Here there are just a few residents, birds taking flight, curious seals popping their heads above the water metres from the boat where the salt water meets the river.

“There’s lovely rolling hills and green grass. It’s pretty special,” he says. “People ask me the secret to our success. That’s some of it.”

If Paul is hard on me, he is not doing it to annoy me. There is no spite, no malice. He really thinks he needs to say it for the crew to go better

They didn’t decide to take on the world together. A year before the Rio Olympics trials were held. Paul was fastest, Gary second fastest. They earned their places.

Over the four years since they have become better at being brothers in the boat, better at being rowers in the boat. A simple goal binds them. This weekend while Paul was doing medical exams, Gary’s was competing at the European Championships in Lucerne. The bigger thinking is to win the Olympics. Gold next year in Tokyo.

Part of that big idea is being hard on each other. Gary calls it sibling honesty. Remarks can cut through conventional niceties. Time has taught them that between brothers nothing said is actually personal.

“Paul tells me to pull harder when I’m exhausted, it’s not because I’m his brother. He’s not being spiteful. I need to pull harder,” he says.

“Even if I think I’m pulling harder and he’s like ‘make a bigger effort’. Maybe a few years ago when we started out on the doubles campaign and he’d say ‘make a bigger effort’ I’d be like ‘ah now that’s Paul being an ass to me.’ Because I’m his brother he’s picking on me.

“If Paul is hard on me, he is not doing it to annoy me. There is no spite, no malice. He really thinks he needs to say it for the crew to go better. I say something to him, I say it because I think it is beneficial. No matter how hard we are on each other it’s not just to be a dick.

“We never come to physical disagreements. That’s a risky business. We’d hurt each other.”

The recovery. Getting from the finish to the catch. The technical sequence is hands lead the way. Get the body over, get your momentum onto your legs and then glide forward.

In a race Gary will tell you they use so much energy to fuel the body it starts producing acid. It’s the equivalent of an oxygen stressed muscle going on to Plan B. It’s “quite painful” he says. Mostly the legs. The pain is everywhere but the legs do most of the work in rowing.

He says it’s a burning sensation that kicks in during the first 30 or 40 seconds of a race which takes six and a half minutes. Then he says “you are just sitting in it and it gets worse and worse and worse”.

Paul is faster than Gary. If they raced in single sculls Paul would win, says Gary flatly. It’s an unadorned, unassailable fact of life. Because Paul is the proven fastest lightweight sculler in the world with “really good numbers when it comes to testing in the lab”.

“We are two individuals with an interesting dynamic in that we are brothers,” says Gary. “I’m delighted that I get to row with the fastest man in the world. I know if I can get faster, keep improving and catch up with Paul and pass him out, I know I am going to be the fastest rower in the world. It’s handy that way.”

No one can deny that might one day happen. This weekend Gary was alone in Switzerland, his plans coming unstuck as he failed to make the semi-finals in his first international outing in a lightweight single scull. But together is their strength, pulling for the common goal of Tokyo. That’s what drives them more than anything. Competitors and team-mates, adversaries and allies. Always brothers.

*Paul and Gary O’Donovan are part of Repak’s Team Green, which encourages plastic recycling.