Skibbereen continue to set gold standard for Ireland
Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll take gold as club add two silvers at Europeans
Ireland’s medallists at the 2017 European rowing championships at Racice, Czech: Paul O’Donovan, Gary O’Donovan (Silver medals - lightweight men’s double sculls); Mark O’Donovan, Shane O’Driscoll (Gold medals -lightweight pair) and Denise Walsh (Silver medal - lightweight women’s single sculls). Photograph: Inpho
The climb up from the lake at Racice is a tough one, and Paul O’Donovan looked ashen and unsteady on his feet as he approached the interview area. But if he was spent it was because he and his brother Gary had just produced a performance of courage and nerve: they had shown everybody that after a lay-off which saw them falter, they were back, with a silver medal at the European Championships in the Czech Republic .
It was a thrilling morning for Ireland rowing – and Irish sport. The Ireland lightweight pair of Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll became European champions with a superb display and lightweight single sculler Denise Walsh followed up quickly with a silver medal.
But the biggest entry of the regatta was in the lightweight double. The amount of pressure on the O’Donovan brothers to produce – the RTÉ cameras had tracked their struggles here – was immense. It built even more in this final when the one major crew they have never beaten, Olympic champions France, bossed the race in the early stages. Italy and then Poland were, seemingly, the main challengers, with Ireland in fifth through 500 metres and 1,000, the halfway point.
“We moved at halfway, maybe a little before,” Paul told The Irish Times. “We had to do that because the rest of the leading pack were doing it and we [the leaders] pulled away from the guys behind us.
“Shortly after that Poland started to pull away (from us). I think Gary wanted us to stick with those effers. We were doing that, ploughing along and we were coming up on Italy. I think Poland, it was, seemed to push and we said: now or never.”
They produced the stunning finish they are known for and left Poland in fourth and without a medal, while Italy were third by 0.3 of a second.
Through the interviews, Gary kept returning to the theme of hunger. Rowing legend Matthew Pinsent, in the BBC interview, asked where the crew were going next. Paul said the World Cup in Poznan. “We’ll get some dinner next,” said Gary.
Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll became only Ireland’s second crew to take a European title (they O’Donovan brothers were the first, in 2016) when the dominated their lightweight pair final. They had a less literal interpretation of their appetite.
“Dominic Casey [the Ireland coach] wanted to make us hungry for the sport, so he kept us away from the sport for about a day. He only made us train once a week, so we’d be hungry. And by God, we had a hunger!” said Mark O’Donovan.
All five Ireland medal winners are Skibbereen athletes and came out of the system headed up by Casey, who has moved up into the Ireland job. The are fiercely proud of their home town and were not shy of telling the world.
O’Driscoll told of hearing a shout from the bank which lifted him.
“Tony Walsh [Denise’s father] got us across the line. Mark said ‘C’mon, Tony is with us now’.”
Two gold medals – the first at the first World Cup in Belgrade – have not sated this crew’s desire. “It’s nothing special. We’ve been hunting for it. We’re going to savour the moment. At the same time there’s plenty more to be won. We’re not stopping here at all,” Mark said.
“I suppose we were knocking on the door all last year. We were just on the wrong side of it. But, y’know, when you stick at anything long enough you’ll get there,” O’Driscoll said.
Denise Walsh is just 24, but she too can be patient. She took second after a dogfight which saw her pass Russian and Swiss opponents in the last 500 metres to take second behind Emma Fredh of Sweden. The early stages had not been easy, she told The Irish Times.
“They [the coaching team] were telling me to stay within a length of the Swiss girl [Patricia Merz]. I thought, man, that’s so fast. I thought I went a bit too hard off the start and in the middle I was rowing not as well as I wanted to.
“I heard Sean [Casey, another Ireland coach] and Dominic [Casey] shouting ‘Go Ireland’ and I didn’t look around after 600 [to go]. I could feel the Swiss girl but I didn’t know if she had passed me or not. I knew she’d be a dark horse.”
Walsh, whose ultimate aim will be to compete in a lightweight double in Tokyo, will compete in a double with Aoife Casey a medallist at the European Junior Championships – at London Metropolitan Regatta.
“I’m looking forward to next weekend, racing in a crew boat. It will be a nice break.”
Aoife Casey is, of course, the daughter of Ireland coach, Dominic.
If all this seems a little too hometown, it is driving Irish rowing at the highest level.
Ireland, with its Skibbereen engine, finished sixth on the European Championship medal table. Britain finished ninth.