Sam Lynch’s voice rang out so clearly even the visitors around the statue of Christ the Redeemer, far, far above on the Corcovado, must have heard him. On the lake, it was 1,500 metres into the women’s lightweight doubles semi-finals and Lynch, a veteran of both brilliant and dark days in Irish rowing, couldn’t contain himself, following the boats along the closing sprint.
"C'mon Ireland," he shouted at the top of his lungs, an exhortation that pistol-cracked through the sunny morning and the background cheer of the crowd. It was piercing in its urgency. Lynch is a rowing lifer and after all his wife was on that boat. After so many years of almost making it, Sinead Lynch was not just confirming herself as an Olympian, she was, with Claire Lambe in bow, closing in on an Olympic final.
“I couldn’t,” Sinead would say later, when asked if she could hear her husband’s voice at that moment.
“But I can only imagine how nervous he was. He gave a little team talk yesterday and told us we are good enough to get through, and once Sam tells me something I believe him, even if it’s, like, crazy.”
Maybe not so crazy in the broad tradition of Irish rowing. But after a tragicomic opening week for the Irish Olympics story, this was a dream hour of high accomplishment.
The Irish women had hardly left the water after their exceptionally smooth third place finish (7.18.24), when Gary and Paul O’Donovan were off in the lightweight men’s doubles. The Cork men also finished a fairly effortless third place.
Here in Rio, the Irish crews were just smooth. The teams spent almost two hours warming down and recovering and when they finally made their way out of the complex, the Skibbereen men looked like a couple of likely lads strolling along the
“The race?” said Paul, when asked to recall it.
“Oh, em, I suppose . . . we knew the French are very quick starters and the British are as well. But ourselves and America, we pace it a little bit more . . . the first 10 or 20 strokes we go pretty hard but then we settle and we knew that if we stuck in there with the Americans that we’d kinda truck on through the middle.
“We knew all year that the British have been kind of dying through the last 500 so we had that in the back of our minds that we have a good finish and they have a slow one, so we knew we could come through them in the end. We ended up third. We’d have liked to have won the thing. But sure there’s another go at that tomorrow anyway.”
There is that. The O'Donovan brothers may well follow the Casey brothers from Sneem as famous sibling oarsmen and in Olympic lore. They are about as far removed as imaginable from the Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, ("the Winklevi" from The Social Network movie), the American crew who rowed in Beijing and who received some $65 million from Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg after they claimed he stole their idea while at Harvard.
The O’Donovan’s contribution to the cyberworld is so far confined to the interview they gave to RTÉ after their qualifying heat. It captured imaginations.
“Chrisht, that interview went out of hand there,” said Paul in mock alarm.
“We didn’t think that would happen at all. We walked away thinking that was grand like, three of four questions. Tis after doing this spiral thing anyway on the inter-web and everyone was talking about it then.”
Authentic west Cork
The brothers better get used to being talked about. They are Jamaican-laid-back and varnish a deep articulacy in an authentic west Cork accent, and they have the Corkonian gift for taking the world on its own terms and being slightly amused at what it has to offer.
And although they are sauntering through these Olympics without a care in the world, it would be hard to measure just how much of themselves they have left at the Irish training camp in Farran Wood in Cork, on black, icy mornings and the many, many evenings when nobody beyond their family and friends ever thought about their existence. The same is true of Lynch and Lambe.
“It feels like we can pay them back something by getting to a final and it is so, so brilliant,” said Lynch, an Olympian in her 39th year as well as a mother and, like her husband, a general practitioner. Her family has suspended routine life for the last year. Lambe, 24, has postponed her engineering studies in order to row for Ireland.
Even as they celebrated, all four rowers had Sanita Puspure, their singles sculls team-mate who just missed out on a final spot, at the forefront of their minds. “We feel like we are a three-boat trio,” said Lambe. “Her hardship is our hardship and she was absolutely jumping for joy at our result.”
On Wednesday evening, Puspure landed into the O’Donovan brothers quarters armed with a box full of sunglasses.
“And she threw a load of them at us because she had been down at the Oakley store, so she has been keeping the mood up,” says Gary. “It would be easy for her to be down and miserable, but we are one big team and she is really keeping the spirits up.”
For most athletes, this is a big, once-in-a-life moment: an Olympic final. Perhaps because it has arrived quickly, the O’Donovan boys seem ridiculously unfazed by being there.
“It doesn’t really bother us that we are in an Olympic final. ’Twas kind of in our heads all year that it was going to happen. I know we didn’t act like it. We kind of kept it cool. But it is more natural now that we have made it thankfully.It is just another race. We will go from start to finish as fast as we can.”
Despite a rich European and world tradition in rowing, no Irish rower possesses an Olympic medal. No Irish boat has featured in an Olympic medal race since Athens. Sam Lynch was in that fours boat. He knows the rarity of these days. Sinead Lynch and Lambe won't go in as medal favourites in their race, which starts at 2.32pm and that suits them fine.
“They are crews we have raced before and obviously they are all in pretty good shape, but they are not unbeatable,” said Lambe. “We are all weighing in at 57 kg. There are no superhumans out there. We are ready to take them on.”
As for the O’Donovans, their time of 6.35.43 was third-fastest overall. They nodded agreeably at the news that they will row in lane one.
“Not bad. We’ll take it!”, said Paul cheerfully, slinging a bag over his shoulder.
“Number one! We will try to keep it going. But we’ve to run for a bus, anyway, now . . . ”
The O’Donovan brothers row for their Olympic medals at 2.44 this afternoon.