Vincent Hogan: O'Donovans' silver medal and charisma propels rowing into the national psyche
Published 13/08/2016 | 02:30
They slipped away from us back into the silvery lagoon, a giant Irish tricolour in the boat, upright as a church spire.
The O'Donovan brothers, ladling up the courteous acclaim with their dormitory grins and sea-captain laughter. They could have been aliens here in this serene place tucked under Corcovado, creatures from another planet. Ripples of polite applause rolled down off the banks, following them back to the boat-house from which, an hour earlier, they'd climbed into the water as amiable dreamers.
Now, suddenly, the world couldn't get enough of them, of their garbled syntax and those accents dusted with the comic Cork timing of a 'stinky shorts' sketch. People all about wore faces decorated with mild bafflement. Where did they come from? Where might they go to?
Is Skibbereen the Henley of West Cork?
In a faintly stuffy auditorium tucked into the back of the Stade de Lago main stand, they'd owned the press conference. Not intrusively, just in the way of two fast-tongued school-kids others get instinctively drawn to behind the bicycle shed.
The French gold medal winners sat with the faces of men being grilled about balance sheets. Wedged between the comic talents of Ireland and Norway, they looked faintly disoriented. Gary's (23) eyes circled the room for mischief, Paul (22) - deadpan by comparison - seemed programmed to be a sanguine.
Someone asked Paul how it felt to have won Ireland's first ever Olympic medal in rowing with his brother.
"Ah, it's good yeah," he said, sounding as if he might next consider hauling himself up the Eiger with dental-floss as some kind of winter diversion. And the auditorium broke into a rumble of belly-laughs that must have sent ripples all the way to the beautiful ankles on Ipanema.
Read More: Silver Stars
Rowing is a remote place to chase your dreams and, until May, the O'Donovans were no more than two big-boned boys from Lisheen whose idea of a hobby was to negotiate a boat down the murkiest ribbons of Irish water. Then, in May, they won a European title. And, well, something about them got rowing people talking.
For a time yesterday, they looked like they might even chase down the French and plunder gold, the nose of their boat nudging ever closer to the world champions as if, with 500 metres to go, they'd discarded a sack of coal from the hull.
They fell, ultimately, half a second short of climbing the highest step in Olympia. But it didn't feel like diminished glory.
They'd come to Rio, we were told, for "the experience". But they didn't listen to that line, never imagined that an Olympics was something to approach with anything but absolute will. Nothing about them here had been circumspect. They believed they had a shot. They went for it.
So they came stepping out of that narrow world we so associate with hours of lonely absorption to deliver an assertion that the spirit of the Olympics, under fire from so many angles, may not yet be entirely defunct.
"You can become bogged down in the toughness and misery of it all, so we try and enjoy it," Gary told us later. "It's very monotonous."
Paul took up that baton. "I suppose we're almost like the same person at this stage because we've spent so long together in the past year. People think we're a bit mad when we're giving interviews, but we're just excited that we've other people to talk to than ourselves.
"We're sitting at home and we're only allowed rest up in bed most of the time. We can't even talk to each other because it's like talking to yourself. Gary can't say to me 'Do you know I did this earlier. . .' Because I'll have seen him do it, I was there.
"It's a bit boring then at times. But it was good craic there to stand up with him on the podium. He's a nice guy as well, sometimes."
They came here with the stealth of commandos then, showing up as if just two young bucks at a country carnival determined to throw their best shots at the punching machine. Nobody thought they'd break the glass.
Nobody that is but them.
When they qualified for Rio by a paltry two-thirds of a second at last year's World Championship, they found within themselves the audacity to dream.
"We set ourselves the goal of winning the Olympics" said Gary.
With their bashful grins and West Ireland idiosyncrasy of inserting an occasional needless 'h' to get the better of the Queen's English, with their propensity for finishing one another's sentences, they could easily be mistaken for a cabaret show. But their physical conditioning makes it self-apparent that the O'Donovan boys are serious athletes.
Introduced to rowing in Skibbereen by their father Teddy in 2001, they have, they said, been into the sport "forever".
But this lightweight doubles partnership has been in ferment for just 18 months now and, given the pedigree and experience of those crews behind them, theirs is a story that, you suspect, might not yet have arced.
Yesterday, they rowed in a private world from lane one, heads down, faces contorted, just digging as hard as the boat would allow without it splintering. Deep down, something inside told them that nobody here would push harder for the line from 1,000 metres.
Because, somehow, they have managed the trick of befriending pain.
"You'd be hurting but you wouldn't think of it," explained Gary. "You are just pulling and pulling as hard as you can and trying to get across the line. At that point, I didn't know what position in the field we were. All thoughts go out the window. Then we heard 'silver'.
"I jumped forward in the boat and gave Paul a big hug."
And so the chat-show circuit awaits now for these poster boys of a sport that, ordinarily, exists as little more than a rumour in our minds. And it should be said that they have taken to the world of microphones with aplomb.
"We're so lucky, so honoured, so proud to be ambassadors for Ireland," said Gary, an official having politely persuaded him to desist from wearing the Irish tricolour like a cape.
"We are trying to portray rowing in the best light we can and we are trying to enjoy it as well. We have great people at home."
He mentioned specifically their two training partners "Mark and Shane", revealing "if anything happened one of us, the next boy to fill in would also be from Skibbereen", he mentioned their club coach, Dominic Casey. These glory moments always have more heroes than are visible.
"Recently, we would go driving to training and I would be thinking 'God I still love this'," Gary told us.
Mostly, regattas trace the gentle decibel-reach of a tree-planting but, on the restless waters of Lagoa yesterday, two brothers made that change.
And they did not sound as if their moxy was anywhere close to spent.