O'Donovans lead medal charge on day of glory for Irish rowing
Olympic stars Paul and Gary O'Donovan spearheaded a trio of Irish medals - all for Skibbereen - at the European Championships in the Czech Republic yesterday.
A gold and two silvers placed Ireland sixth in the medal table, three places ahead of Great Britain, who regularly finish in first position.
The gold medal went to Shane O'Driscoll and Mark O'Donovan in the lightweight men's pairs, where they made it two in a row after gold at the World Cup regatta in Belgrade three weeks ago.
The Skibbereen pair burned off the blocks to take the early lead, and were level with Great Britain after 400 metres. Determined to make their mark early in the race, O'Driscoll and O'Donovan kicked in a burst at 44 strokes a minute to take half a length off the British pair, Joel Cassells and Sam Scrimgeour, and went one length clear of the field as the second quarter opened up.
Italian newcomers Giuseppe di Mare and Alfonso Scalzone overhauled the British at halfway, but no-one could catch the Irish duo, who extended their lead to more than three seconds with 500 metres to go.
A late charge by Russia's Nikita Bolozin and Aleksei Kiiashko brought them past Italy to grab silver, but nothing could dent Ireland's win. What made it all the more remarkable was that O'Driscoll and O'Donovan won despite having drawn a less favoured outside lane.
O'Driscoll praised the efforts of their coach Dominic Casey in the build-up to yesterday's final day.
"Dominic wanted to make us hungry for the rowing," he said. "So he kept us away from the sport for a day there or two. He only made us train once a week so we'd be hungry today and by God, we'd a hunger," he said.
"In the warm-up we had a practice start and Mark wasn't too happy with my aggression, he was like, 'by God you better up that aggression off the start'."
Just minutes later it was the turn of sculler Denise Walsh - another from Skibbereen - to show her mettle in the lightweight women's singles event.
Switzerland's Patricia Merz, the Belgrade gold medallist, made all the early running, with Walsh fifth after 500 metres, half a length down on Germany, Russia and Sweden, who were vying for second place.
With 500m to go it looked as though Walsh was out of the medals, but with a stunning final quarter she pushed past the flagging Merz to take silver behind Sweden's Emma Fredh.
Ireland's third medal went to Paul and Gary O'Donovan who finally found some of the form that won them Olympic silver in Rio last summer to take silver.
The brothers were inspired by the performance of their team-mates earlier in the day.
"We saw Shane and Mark win and that was incredible," Gary O'Donovan said . "We won last year and we know what it feels like for them so it was amazing.
"Then we watched Denise win the silver and it was incredible. I don't think anyone expected her to do that well; she was unbelievable.
"We were on a training camp last week in Italy and Aoife (Casey) from Skibbereen and Margaret (Cremen) from Lee got a silver medal at the Junior Europeans, and that lifted the spirits no end.
"We were buzzing around the training camp like children... jumping for joy. The team is so good. To have four European medals in the last two weeks going to Skibbereen is just something else. You don't get that too often in Ireland."
Fourth place in Belgrade was disappointing and when they failed to qualify direct for the semi-finals in Friday's heats it seemed the trend was to continue.
But having qualified for Saturday's semi-final via the repechages they lined up alongside Perre Houin and Jeremie Azou, the French duo who beat them to the line in Rio, with predictable results.
Both crews qualified for the final and it was once again the French who powered into an early lead while the O'Donovans trailed back in the pack. They were still lying fourth with 500m to go until another blistering spurt saw them overhaul Poland and Italy.
France crossed the line one length ahead of Ireland.