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“We Didn’t Really Know What We Were Doing” – O’Donovan Brothers Reflect On Four Years Since Rio

O'Donovan Rowing

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A shrug of the shoulders and a quick, “We’re grand”, is what greets gathered journalists on a Zoom call with the Irish rowing sibling duo Paul and Gary O’Donovan.

The brothers are currently renting a house down in West Cork, as they and the rest of the country deal with what is the new normal in lockdown Ireland.

Paul and Gary recently returned from Spain (before any restrictions were implemented in Ireland), along with other members of Irish Rowing’s high-performance group, where they were involved in a training camp ahead of what would have been, in original circumstances, a huge few months for the group.

O'Donovan Rowing
Paul O’Donovan and Gary O’Donovan

Irish trials were due to be held in April which would have decided who would secure their place in the boats which have already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. The Olympics themselves were due to be held later in the summer, but, of course, the Games have now been rescheduled for 2021.

What Paul and Gary have come to realise over the last few weeks is that life under lockdown isn’t too different from their regular lives, such are the demands of being a world-class high-performance athlete.

“The self-isolating is what we’re used to,” Paul says.

“We don’t see too many people, we just do our bit of training, stay at home and rest and whatnot, so it’s not much of a change for us.”

O'Donovan Rowing
Paul O’Donovan

Gary adds:

“What we’ve really noticed, like, is how sheltered our lives are where we don’t really be out in public much at all.

“You be hearing how challenging it is for all these people and I guess their lives have changed drastically if they’re not going into work in an office every day, and things are having to change a lot for them but for us, we don’t really go very far other than out to the rowing club and back home and go to the grocery store once a week, twice at most anyway.

“So it’s pretty much a normal enough life for us at the minute.”  

O'Donovan Rowing
Gary O’Donovan

The fact that the Olympics are another 12 months away and that the wait to see whether you will even get a place on the boat is now even longer doesn’t seem to faze the duo.

They’ve quickly accepted this new normal.

The extra time means the duo can ease off on the high-intensity training somewhat, although they’re conscious of maintaining their current high level of fitness which they worked so hard to achieve.

Paul can now focus more on his studies as he’s currently enrolled in a Medicine course in UCC.

O'Donovan Rowing
Gary O’Donovan and Paul O’Donovan

Reflection is another solution which many of us are taking part in at the moment. An opportunity to look back on what we have achieved and also gain a great appreciation for what is really important in our lives.

In the O’Donovan brothers’ case, it has been an incredible four years since they won a silver medal in the lightweight men’s double sculls at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

That was Ireland’s first medal in rowing at an Olympics Games after so many heartbreaking near-misses in the past.

O'Donovan Rowing
Paul O’Donovan and Gary O’Donovan at the Rio Olympics in 2016

At world championship level, Ireland won seven gold medals between 2016 and 2019. In the 15 years before that, Ireland secured just five gold medals.

Rowing in Ireland has enjoyed remarkable success and growth in the last four years as Paul and Gary discuss the reasons for this incredible and meteoric rise.

“Four years ago when we were doing the rowing internationally, 2016 was our first year ever winning an international medal at senior level,” Gary says.

“It had been a long number of years before that since any Irish person had won an international medal at senior level – it was around 2008 or so.”

O'Donovan Rowing
Gary O’Donovan

“Sanita won a European medal in 2014. It was sporadic though,” Paul interjects.

Paul and Gary agree that Irish rowing’s success is very much down to trial and error – figuring out what training methodologies suit the rowers which they have at their disposal. All the while, seeing the hard work pay off instils belief into younger rowers and coaches that Ireland can be competitive among the very best nations in the world.

“We were always aware and we used to say that we were young and we were learning, trying to figure it out,” Gary says.

“In a way, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were doing the best we could and making the best decisions we could at the time. A lot of it was trial and error. We used to say it to ourselves and say it publicly as well, ‘Jaysus, imagine what knowledge we have now and what it will be like in another two years or another four years after a lot more competition and a lot more training and racing’.

O'Donovan Rowing
Paul O’Donovan

“We’ve come a long way since then: We’ve got a bigger understanding of the sport, of the training and what we do.”

Paul adds:

More people then, when they see what we’ve done, they have a bit more belief in themselves that if they start to commit and follow a good programme that they’ll achieve some success as well – it becomes a bit more tangible for them. 

“You see the team expanding and because we’re still here as well, we’ve probably made a few mistakes along the way. We can help guide the younger people and fast track them along a bit.” 

Gary continues:

O'Donovan Rowing
Gary O’Donovan

“The Irish rowing team is growing from 2014, ’15, ’16, ’17 to where we are now. If you’ve said in 2014, when we only had a handful of athletes at the World Championships and only two people in the final, that we’d be picking up three World Championship medals and having four boats qualified, you’d be thinking, ‘That’s unbelievable. How is that going to be possible?’ 

“It’s slow progress but these things take time. In the past, when the success wasn’t there, people would throw a year or two and it and say, ‘Ah, I can’t make it, I haven’t made it. It’s impossible’. Now you can tell people that this could take four years, it could take five years but if you keep chipping away at it and keep getting better, the success will come if you do all the right things.”

O'Donovan Rowing
Gary O’Donovan and Paul O’Donovan

2021 is the new target for the O’Donovan brothers and they’re already planning on being at the same top-level in their preparations when the Ireland trials come around next year ahead of the rescheduled Olympics.

“Yeah the trials, I guess we’ll just restart again next year,” Gary says.

“If next year comes good, we’ll probably just reproduce what we had been doing this year, next year for the trials which are in 11 months or 12 months time or whatever it is.”


Pictured is FBD Brand Ambassadors and Olympic medal-winning rowers Paul and Gary O’Donovan. FBD Insurance is a principal partner to Team Ireland since September 2018. As part of its sponsorship, FBD is supporting Team Ireland’s Olympic hopefuls to enable them to focus on personal bests and breakthrough performances at the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo which will now take place in 2021. It is this same spirit of support and protection that sees FBD as Ireland’s only homegrown insurer support more than 500,000 policyholders for over 50 years.

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Author: Sean McMahon

Sean is Deputy Editor and head rugby writer. You can contact him by email or on Twitter