They’re doing it their way. Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll were one of the rowing stories of 2017. They won everything there was to be won in a lightweight pair, topping it off with a world title. Then, with Olympic ambition, they turned heavyweight. They got bigger. They competed in New Zealand and Australia without success.
On the first day of the European Rowing Championships in Strathclyde, Scotland, O’Donovan and O’Driscoll produced a stunning finish in their repechage. Rating 46 strokes per minute as they tore to the finish line, they swept past their rivals to take second and book their place in the semi-finals.
They no longer carry extra muscle. They race like driven lightweights. They beat heavyweights.
“They’re tough guys. They work hard. And they’re mentally tough,” said Dominic Casey, their delighted – if cautious – coach.
“Mark and Shane are not really heavyweights. They’re 76, 77 kgs. And most of the heavyweights are big – 6ft 4” and huge arm spans,” he said.
In Friday’s semi-final (11.55) they will target a top-three place which would put them in the A Final. It may be beyond them. But the Skibbereen way is to claw one’s way up the rankings by targeting crews like rungs of a ladder and put them behind you. Hungary, Poland, Austria and Denmark fell into the C Final while O’Driscoll and O’Donovan can progress – as they did at the World Cup in Lucerne, where they finished ninth. The big men will need to watch out.
O’Driscoll and O’Donovan could let the heat go – they finished fourth – with their eyes on the repechage. For Paul O’Donovan and Gary O’Donovan that is not an option. They are stars of world rowing, sitting atop a fantastically close discipline in the lightweight double sculls. To stay there they must constantly repel all boarders.
A top-two place in their heat would send them to the semi-finals. They took the lead. France swung into place just behind them. Both crews were clear, but the French, building a new crew to succeed the world beaters of last year, snapped at the O’Donovans’ heels. Ireland pushed. France matched it. At the finish there was just under a length in it. It looked like a battle postponed. Italy and Norway won the second and first heats and will dream of cutting the Skibbereen men down to size.
It is an all-Skibbereen Ireland team. Dominic Casey's daughter Aoife (19) teamed up with Denise Walsh (26) in a women's lightweight double which settled for fourth in their heat on their first international outing. Today's repechage (10.06) will be their true testing ground.
The gold medal at the World Under-23 Championships for David O’Malley and Shane Mulvaney and the silver for the lightweight quadruple looked like staging posts on the long climb of Irish rowing. Final places for single sculler Ronan Byrne and the lightweight double of Fintan and Jake McCarthy are similarly important – these are Olympic boats. All of this suggests that the World Championships in September could be very interesting.
The National Rowing Centre has been absurdly busy in recent weeks. The Coupe de la Jeunesse was the final event of a triumvirate, which also included the almost perfect staging of Irish Rowing Championships and the Home International Regatta. This time out gusting winds led to most of the finals programme on Saturday being abandoned. The limits of NRC’s wifi and its iffy phone signal were also on show.
Ireland finished fourth overall. The results tell of young, dedicated athletes mixing it with representatives from around Europe. But the take-away for this reporter over the three weeks was also the enthusiasm and dedication of volunteers. Week-in, week-out, they put the hours in, often after long trips from their home base. It is a truly impressive thing about Irish rowing.
European Rowing Championships, Strathclyde, Scotland (Day One, Irish interest)
Pair - Heat Three (First Two to A/B Semi-Finals, rest to Repechage): 1 Belarus 6:37.38, 2 Britain 6:37.76; 4 Ireland (M O’Donovan, S O’Driscoll) 6:48.94. Repechage One (First Three to A/B Semi-Finals; rest to C Final): 1 Serbia 6:33.77, 2 Ireland 6:35.74, 3 Ukraine 6:36.11.
Lightweight Double Sculls - Heat Three (First Two to A/B Semi-Finals; rest to Repechage): 1 Ireland (G O’Donovan, P O’Donovan) 6:27.99, 2 France 6:29.83.
Lightweight Double Sculls - Heat One (Winner to A Final; rest to Repechage): 1 Poland 7:08.54; 4 Ireland (A Casey, D Walsh) 7:22.02.