It’s not really the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Paul O’Donovan but it’s true. Despite the wild look, despite the side-of-the-mouth wisecracks, despite all the arras and all the yerras, Ireland’s greatest ever rower is, in fact, an introvert.
If he could win his races behind closed doors, it would suit him just fine. If he could become a doctor and not have to talk to patients, that would work as well. He’s getting better, he says. But it’s not straightforward. Especially when he’s back home in Skibbereen, home the conquering hero.
“I suppose people do treat you differently,” he says. “You could be wandering around the town here and there might be someone on holidays and they come over and ask you to take a picture. Like if I had never been to the Olympics, I don’t think they’d be doing that to me.
“I am getting used to that aspect of things now, since Rio a couple of years back. Everybody is well-meaning and what have you and I suppose my nature is that I’m introverted and I don’t like talking to people really. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it really. But it’s all right like.
“The media stuff is all right because ye’re asking about things I know about and it’s easier for me to give an answer. I’m a bit more used to it now, given the past few years. With the studies then, you don’t have to say too much, really just follow the medical teams around the hospitals and kind of take stuff in more than anything.
“It’s good for me as well because it makes you do a bit of interacting and talking to people and makes me push myself out there and have to develop skills for talking to people. If I didn’t I would just spend loads of time in my room on my own and that wouldn’t be very good for me either. It is a positive thing in a way to push myself to do things I’m not naturally good at.”
O’Donovan knows the game too though. He’s talking to us courtesy of a sponsor, one of a round of duties to fulfil before he and Fintan McCarthy head off to row in the Henley Regatta next week. He knows too that however he fares over there, it will be for the rowing geeks to drill into the rowing internet to find out the result.
He and McCarthy will drift most likely off into the sporting ether until the Christmas awards season. And then disappear altogether until Paris starts hoving into view in a couple of years. A gold medal won’t change that, not if history is any judge. And on the whole, he’s absolutely fine with that.
“It doesn’t bug me at all to be honest. I think when you’re even just starting out in the sport, we know ourselves that there wasn’t any kind of media interest in it. And we still enjoyed it and we wanted to do it despite it. And that’s absolutely fine.
“I suppose that’s what makes the Olympics very special. It’s only every four years and then everyone gets excited about it. If it was every six months or six weeks, something so big and so exciting, and all the media were swanning about the place writing so much about it then it would cease to be the same kind of thing and probably have less of a significance.
“And I think for the athletes as well, if they had to deal with such a level of media at every event, they would get pretty tired of it pretty quick. So I think just for training purposes, it probably is good that it goes away a little bit in between.”
After Rio, he and his brother Gary ended up on T-shirts, all quotable quotes and mischief and messing. It’s slightly different now. It’s not that O’Donovan is being more careful of himself, it’s just that knows the terrain a bit better and can glide over it with a little more ease.
“In the past people have been known to grab on to what we say a little bit just because we talk a bit funny down here. But to be honest, like if people want to remember me by funny quotes they can and if they want to remember me by rowing or whatever else then great.
“I’m not here doing the rowing thing for other people to have something to remember me by. I just do it for myself more than anything. And I think the people that are important, the kids and stuff, they’ll remember it for what they want. And if that’s rowing, then that’s great. And if not, then I don’t mind either.”