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‘Life goes on all the same’: Olympic gold just another race for O’Donovan and McCarthy

Remarkable Skibbereen duo already looking ahead to Paris as they savour historic success

Few of us can ever begin to imagine being stuck in this moment. Olympic champion, Olympic gold medal winner, immortal in your own event and a rare and lasting place in the reels of Irish sporting history.

Before Thursday morning down at Sea Forest Waterway, somewhere in the outer vastness that is Tokyo Bay, only six Irish people, four men and two woman, had ever experienced becoming an Olympic champion, Olympic gold medal winner, since the country was first allowed to compete for itself as the Free State in time for the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

Now in joining those six – who between them had won nine gold medals – Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy get to write a special chapter of their own, the first Olympic champions, the first gold medal winners, for Irish rowing. Just 24 hours after the women’s four won themselves the bronze. No matter how many times it’s said there’s a magnificent ring to it.

One thing O'Donovan was repeatedly consistent on before Tokyo is that he doesn't row just to win medals; he rows because he enjoys rowing

As moments go these are utterly life-changing too, as the previous six Irish gold medal winners would have discovered in their own different ways: Dr Pat O'Callaghan in 1928 and 1932, Bob Tisdall in 1932 and Ronnie Delany in 1956, boxers Michael Carruth in 1992 and Katie Taylor in 2012, and swimmer Michelle Smith in 1996.


O'Donovan knows a little about that already, at 27 becoming just the third Irish man in history to win a medal in two different Olympics, adding to his silver also won in the lightweight doubles in Rio 2016, on that occasion with older brother Gary. O'Callaghan repeated his hammer gold medal wins with boxer Paddy Barnes winning bronze in 2008 and 2012.

Only after a low-key medal ceremony next to the waterfront, a soft rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann and the raising of the tricolour into the sweltering sky, O’Donovan spent a good deal of time telling us this moment was not about to change his life in any way.

Well, maybe for a few days it would, like when he gets back down to Skibbereen, McCarthy hailing from the same town, only after that it's back to business. It's only three years to Paris 2024 after all.

“I wouldn’t think it’s that big of a deal, winning the Olympics or something like that,” said O’Donovan, a model of rationalism as ever. One thing he was repeatedly consistent on before Tokyo is that he doesn’t row just to win medals; he rows because he enjoys rowing.

“People get too excited about it in my opinion. It doesn’t change who you are as a person I think, which is the most important thing. I’m not going to be going around the place thinking I’m better than anybody else around Skibbereen. Okay, I probably will be for a while [he laughs] but they’ll knock me back handy enough if I do get carried away. You’ve just got to put it into perspective.

“Over the years we would have been going to junior, U-23 and World championships and I have come away from most of them without getting medals. Life goes on all the same, and you still have the same friends and do the same things in life. It is not the be all and end all of the world. For sure winning is better than not winning, don’t get me wrong, but there is not a huge difference.

Deadly serious

“After winning the gold medal here, a silver medal last time, I probably am a little bit happier. Because, as a kid, you’re dreaming of winning a gold medal. A silver medal is nice but Fintan did the right job, straight to the top in his first Games so he must be pretty happy too.”

Indeed for McCarthy, only 24 and who five years ago watched from a bar in Skibbereen as the O'Donovans won the Rio silver, there's a maturity of attitude too which he clearly gleans a little from the man he shares the boat with this time. McCarthy may appear giddy around the whole process – heightened perhaps by his uncanny resemblance to a young Matt Damon – only he's deadly serious about the way he goes about his rowing business too.

“I was just so confident that we were the fittest we’ve ever been and whatever happens, happens, if we give it our best then it should be good enough to win, and if it’s not, then we gave it our best’.

"So it's confidence in our training and preparation rather than in confidence, 'we're the best, we're going to win', or whatever. I just knew that there's not much more that we could have possibly done to try and win this event. Obviously really proud to be bringing home the gold, but I hadn't really thought about it before. I think just for ourselves anyway it's really satisfying to have done it. Great to make everyone at home proud and put Ireland in the history books."

Is it too soon to mention Paris? O'Donovan will only be 30, McCarthy 27, and there's competition around to keep them on their toes

Words like pressure and expectation don't carry any weight in the head of either rower, even as now reigning World, European and Olympic champions, their coach Dominic Casey playing a big part in their consistency of performance, no matter what the stage. Everything about their winning preparation meant they were prepared to win.

Is it too soon to mention Paris? O’Donovan will only be 30, McCarthy 27, and there’s competition around to keep them on their toes (Gary hasn’t gone away you know, McCarthy’s twin brother Jake equally gifted in the boat).

“Even if we didn’t win, I’d say we would be going on to Paris and trying to win that,” O’Donovan said. “Winning I don’t think it makes any different for motivation towards that. But I suppose certainly it lets us know that if we keep going the way we are we will be in contention for a gold medal again and it’s not a bad thing.”

A brief history of our Olympic golden moments

Before the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Dr Pat O'Callaghan had to fund raise himself along with his two brothers in order to travel, borrowing a hammer from a Swedish competitor for his second throw, which surprisingly won him the gold medal, a feat he repeated in Los Angeles in 1932 despite needing to carry out repairs on his throwing spikes mid competition

Bob Tisdall had only ever raced five previous 400 metres hurdles before winning a second gold medal for Ireland in Los Angeles in 1932, an hour before O’Callaghan, his time of 51.7 seconds also now recognised as a world record.

Ronnie Delany was only 21 years old when he travelled out to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, his selection only decided by a casting vote, where against most odds he upset many pre-race favourites including the big Australian hope John Landy to in the gold medal in the 1,500 metres in an Olympic record of 3:41.2

Ireland’s long wait for a fourth gold medal winner also came against almost all expectations, when at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, boxer Michael Carruth went into the final of the men’s welterweight facing a formidable Cuban opponent Juan Hernández Sierra, who he deftly and brilliantly outclassed to win a first gold medal in Irish boxing.

There was plenty of talk poolside at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 that Michelle Smith was about to swim where no Irish swimmer had ever swam even close to before, and so it proved as she won three gold medals, in the 200m and 400m individual medley, and the 400m freestyle. Less than two years later she was banned for four years for a doping offence: what else can we say about Michelle?

The pressure and expectation on Katie Taylor going into the 2012 London Olympics was immense, unbearable perhaps, the first Irish women’s boxer, the first time women’s boxing was at the Games, and the overwhelming gold medal favourite in the lightweight. It took a nervy final contest against her Russian opponent Sofya Ochigava, before Taylor wrote her name into history as it scripture itself, the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal for Ireland in any sport.

Now, nine years after Taylor, a first Olympic gold for Irish rowing thanks to Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy – and it’s only three years to Paris 2024.