Saturday 1 October 2016

Vincent Hogan: O'Donovan brothers have a competitive edge that's hidden by their jovial TV personas

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

Gary (left) and Paul O'Donovan wave an improvised flagpole after their silver medal triumph in Rio. Photo: Sportsfile
Gary (left) and Paul O'Donovan wave an improvised flagpole after their silver medal triumph in Rio. Photo: Sportsfile

Morten Espersen's sagacity is a natural firewall against wild optimism, yet he believes he has seen Irish rowing's future in the O'Donovan chuckle brothers.

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As the wildest of Friday's giddiness began to abate under Corcovado mountain, the Danish-born High Performance director of the sport here did just about the nearest thing a man of his solemn bearing was ever likely to do, jumping into the lagoon in his clothes. Smiling broadly, Olsen said that a silver in Rio might be just the start of this story.

"I think they can achieve even more" he predicted of the new Lisheen superstars. "In Tokyo, they can go for the gold medal."

Without ever having to lift your head, you could trace the movement of Paul and Gary O'Donovan around Stade de Lagoa on Friday by the depth-charges of laughter igniting all around them. They had the rowing world eating out of their calloused hands. The chuckle brothers of a conventionally low-watt sport, suddenly, had a global profile.

Yesterday, even the Huffington Post had taken to celebrating their reflex jollity in the face of a commotion that would have been unimaginable before they flew out to Rio. Confronted by the world's microphones, Paul and Gary O'Donovan became a kind of stand-up act for Olympia.

But behind the belly-laughs and stories of Skibbereen coach Dominic Casey's patience being stretched like an elastic band resided a story of remarkable physical and mental resilience.

Their father, Teddy, who introduced them to rowing when - as Paul put it on Friday - they were just "schmall boyeens", reflected after their historic silver medal win: "From day one, they didn't want to row, they wanted to race. The first time I took them rowing, I saw that. Different animals altogether once they get into a boat."

Read More: O'Donovans have a supreme self-assurance that can be a blueprint for a modern Ireland

Irish rowing's first ever Olympic medal win arrived then courtesy of a performance that had been simply luminous with competitive intensity.

And beneath the laughter, Paul (a third year physiotherapy student in UCD) and Gary (a final year marketing student in CIT) - are now determined that their heroics at Stade de Lagoa will prove a launch-pad to even higher climbs not simply a glorious destination. And Espersen believes them.

"I tipped then for a bronze medal," he revealed. "For me, they always had a very good chance of being medal contenders. But one thing is expecting it, another is to do it and perform. The thing about them is they are fantastic racers and they can step up at all times, whether it's a heat, a semi-final or a final.

"They never look back and they just go for it. I think that's something special. They're very strong-minded, very nice people, but they have a very strong personality towards racing which I think that's probably coming from the environment, from Skibbereen.

"And I believe being brothers is an advantage. They're very different so I think that's actually good. They complement one another, they both know what the other can do. They are great athletes who know their physiology. Gary's very outspoken, a very funny person. Paul is a little more relaxed, sitting back and waiting and thinking a little more about it."

Read More: Brothers delay homecoming - so they can bag another win

When did Espersen first see them as potential Rio medalists?

"I saw it in them in Brandenburg (where they won the European title). That's where I saw that they were what I call 'in for the show'. But you also see that on the times. I've been many times with their coach, Dominic, on the launch. We always believed they would be in for the show. But the last couple of seconds of a race, it's really (small) margins and they have to work out right. They have always been very strong at the finish and we tried to push them the other night to come a little earlier out and hang on to the pack at an earlier stage. They were only 1.4 seconds behind the leading boat (at 500 metres) and at 1,000 metres they were less than a second.

"I still think they need a little more experience. I know they're over the moon and that's fine and that's great. But I think they'll be a real hotshot in the future. They did a fantastic job. For Rowing Ireland, it's a great day."

Espersen believes that Paul has a real live medal chance as a single sculler at next week's World Championships in Rotterdam, having finished fourth at the Championships two years ago. And the younger O'Donovan boy himself seems adamant that this story is only just beginning.

He recalled that first day heading down to the pier in Skibbereen with his father in 2001 and the instant alchemy of the moment.

"They had this big cox training double and there was only the three of us out there," said Paul. "And myself and Gary were only schmall boyeens at the time, we had no strength. So he was dragging this big boat down himself and threw it in the water. We thought we were the bee's knees anyway going out. I'd say we were awful, but we loved it anyway and we just kept going."

Read More: Eamonn Sweeney: A triumph carved from solid Skibb

Most Irish rowing stories convey images of wintry discomfort and stark, ascetic lifestyles for small triumphs in obscure settings. But the O'Donovan boys have never seen their sport as any kind of exercise in hardship.

"We've never really looked upon them (training sessions) as sacrifices because we were kind of opening up a new world of opportunities for ourselves doing this," reflected Paul. "We did give up a lot of time in terms of going out with our friends, having a bit of craic and partying. But we were happy to do it as well, getting up in the morning and going rowing. We made great friends doing that."

That said, their primary goal in the water has always extended far beyond mere companionship.

"Coming from 11th (at the World Championships) last year, a lot of people just said, 'D'ya know, it will just be a great experience for them in Rio'," explained Paul. "But we never looked upon it that way. We always came here with the intention of trying to win the thing. And this will be great experience for us now going forward to the next one in Tokyo.

"We'll give that a good bash too and try to win it."

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