Monday 18 December 2017

Double vision: Gary and Paul O'Donovan - what really goes on between the two brothers in a boat

Gary and Paul O'Donovan may seem like a pair of happy-go-lucky messers who happen to be handy with an oar. But, our reporter discovers, the Olympic silver medallists are a well-oiled rowing machine with their eyes firmly on the prize

Paul and Gary O'Donovan. Photo: ©Fran Veale
Paul and Gary O'Donovan. Photo: ©Fran Veale
The O'Donovan brothers winning silver at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

The trousers have been pressed, the shoes have been polished, and Gary and Paul O'Donovan are almost ready for their close-up. Almost.

Paul isn't quite there yet. "Can you, er...?" he mumbles while fidgeting with his necktie. His brother implicitly understands the sibling shorthand and swoops in immediately.

"Paul can't tie a tie," he explains, as he weaves his younger brother's neckwear into a neat triangular knot before standing back to survey his work.


The O'Donovans are now dressed and ready for their photos but this little quirk is just too intriguing to let go. What about during Paul's school days? Did his older brother tie his neckties for him then too? Gary's answer is as laidback as ever. "Sure you only need to tie it up the once."

When they're finally suited and booted, the stylist gives them the once-over. Would you be shirts-in or shirts-out kinds of guys, she wonders. "That would depend on what stage of the night you're at," deadpans Paul, who looks like a young Ernest Hemingway in his navy-blue two-piece.

Gary, who is growing giddier by the second, thinks Paul's new hairstyle makes him look more like Michael Collins. His gentle ribbing continues when somebody remarks on his brother's "strong suit". "Yes, it strikes that balance between strong and casual fabulously," he laughs, before reaching in for a slice of toast which has long since turned cold. "That's raw toast!" he gasps with mock-indignation.

We all know by now that the O'Donovan brothers aren't your average athletes. There was no media-trained veneer to the Olympics videos that made them household names; neither were there any 'we gave it our all' sporting clichés.

It was just two young lads from West Cork shooting the breeze, having the craic and pulling like dogs. Or as one YouTube commenter put it, "It's like two lads randomly rocked up one day to give rowing a try and realised they were good at it so decided to stay."

Graham Norton asked them if they knew they were being funny when they appeared on his New Year's special last year. Actor James McAvoy, who was also on the show, said he thought they were funny because they were being themselves. Gary conceded that they "weren't trying to be serious".

The same could be said of their school days. The Aughadown natives attended Lisheen National School followed by St Fachtna's De La Salle secondary school in Skibbereen and, while there were occasional moments of mischief, they were fundamentally focused on one goal.

"I was a bit more of a messer," says 24-year-old Gary. "We used to have fun, in fairness. We had great craic with our friends but we also knew that, to be successful in rowing, we had a job to do in school.

"We had to get to college. We were quite focused in that regard. We knew if we didn't do well in school, there would be no more rowing, as our parents would have told us to go concentrate on school."

"A lot of time when we were training hard, we wouldn't have much energy in school," adds Paul. "We'd just be sitting down conserving energy instead of messing or whatever."

It was much the same at home. They often lay on the couch and watched television to relax when they came home from training in the evenings.

Nowadays, they don't have the time for it. Gary watched The People v. O.J. Simpson but he's afraid to take on another TV series in case he gets sucked into it.

They read when they get the chance, though. Gary is on the second-last chapter of The Legendary Casey Brothers by Jim Hudson and Jim Casey; Paul is reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.

Gary laughs when he discovers they are both reading books about rowing. "People are going to think we're complete freaks!"

Gary, who is 15 months older than his brother, took up rowing at the age of eight. Paul was just seven. It was an early initiation - most professional rowers don't start until the age of 10 or 11. Their father, Teddy, also a rower, became their coach, and Skibbereen Rowing Club, which boasts 163 national titles, became their second home.

Athletes who coach their children towards greatness have a reputation for being unrelenting in their approach. Was Teddy extreme?

"No, he's fairly easygoing, like ourselves," says Gary. "He used to say, 'Don't make such a big effort and work so hard. Focus on your technique and that will benefit you more.'"

However, Gary is quick to point out that rowers are extreme by their very nature: "You have to dedicate so much to it that the people who are successful are very extreme, focused and determined on this one particular goal - almost like they'd do anything to get to the end result."

They're also acutely aware of their limitations. Paul, says Gary, is the faster one. "I'm the second-fastest," he laughs.

"I bring a bit more physicality and strength to the boat," agrees Paul. "Gary likes to think about the technique."

"I think about the biomechanics of the body, the technicality of the rowing stroke," says Gary. "But maybe that's just me being lazy too, not wanting to make the physical effort - I think I can make the gains with my technique."

While the brothers attribute most of their success to their father, they parted ways with him as coach in 2013. It was, they explain, a personal decision rather than a professional one. They were growing up and wanted their own space and they became uncomfortable having their father around the rowing club all the time.

What about their own relationship? Surely working in such close quarters leads to quarrels. "Ah sure, we fall out all the time," says Paul.

Gary is quick to correct him: "We don't fall out. We never fall out."

"We just argue - shout at each other," Paul agrees.

"We spend so much time together that it's hard not to," continues Gary. "If we went on a training camp to Spain, say, we'd spend two or three weeks living in the same bedroom with the beds only a couple of feet apart.

"We spend four or five hours a day sitting in a boat two feet away from each other and it's not just the proximity, it's the nature of the training. You get tired and you get fatigued and you start to get cranky.

"But we understand too that it's not that we don't like each other - we're tired and fatigued. And over time we get better at dealing with it. We used to argue a bit more but now we realise that the two of us are trying to achieve a common goal and fighting doesn't really benefit that."

Being part of a tight-knit family unit probably helps matters. Gary moved in with his grandmother Mary Doab in Ballincollig when he started studying at CIT. Paul moved in a few years afterwards so that they could both be closer to the National Rowing Centre in Farran.

Mary prepares vegetable soup and brown bread for them every day and cooks a roast dinner on Sundays. "We get a few of the family around - the cousins and that," says Gary.

"She always says she enjoys having the bit of company with us," adds Paul.

"Nana" was in attendance when they were named Cork Persons of the Year 2016 at an awards ceremony in the Rochestown Park Hotel earlier this year. "It's nice to be able to bring our family to these events," says Gary. "We kind of take it as it comes, but for family it's a big deal. She got to meet all the people from the telly and get photos with them."

Their mother, Trish, whose reaction to her sons winning the silver medal at the Olympics could warm even the hardest of hearts, was also at the awards ceremony.

When Trish arrived back from Rio, she told journalists that potential girlfriends would have to be vetted by her first. "But they will all have to be athletes," she added. "No one else would understand them."

The brothers squirm a little when this is put to them. "I suppose we wouldn't know until we're in the situation," says Gary. "Maybe in 10 years' time when I'm getting married. If I do get married, that kind of thing would probably work itself out."

"There is no set preference, really," says Paul.

So, if the right woman came along in the next 10 years, would rowing still come first?

There is a long, thoughtful silence before Gary decides on his answer. "We can balance it," he reasons. "If you want to do something badly enough, I think you can do it.

"The manager before we went to Rio said, 'Do you want to take time out of college?' and we said no. Whether it's to have a relationship or start a family or go to college or start working, if you want to balance life, you'll find a way."

Speaking of which, Gary graduated from CIT with a degree in marketing in 2016 and Paul is due to sit his final-year exams in physiotherapy at UCD the day after our interview. They both plan to take up new degree courses next term.

"I think studying is a good lifestyle to fit in with the rowing," says Gary. "We can use college as a social outlet, as the nature of the sport and the dedication we put into rowing means we don't have the same social scene that a lot of our friends would have - like going out on a Saturday night or whatever.

"So we can use college as a social outlet and make friends, and hang out and drink cups of tea at lunchtime."

Thinking about life after sports is a smart move for any athlete ­- and the O'Donovans don't miss a beat in this regard. Sure, they might come across as light-hearted and laidback in their videos, but they are all business when talk turns to education.

For his own part, Paul has only ever invested in rowing and education - "buying boats and books".

"Being a student still, I never would have had an opportunity to save a reckless amount of money," he explains, "but I do make the effort to put some money away if there is something I need to buy, and all my savings usually go on that."

And those savings may not be as considerable as one might expect. Despite the blood, sweat and tears of the sport, many Olympic rowers say they earn only a modest income and have to rely on endorsements or sponsorship deals instead.

Paul acknowledges they are well supported by Sport Ireland with a high- performance grant, "but sponsorship does add a bit to that and we hope that if we keep rowing well, brands will want to be part of our story". To that end, they've partnered with Bord Bia to launch the 2017 Eggs Campaign at the Bloom festival during the June bank holiday weekend. The message they are there to spread is that eggs are an important part of their protein-rich diet, and can help everyone enjoy a healthier lifestyle - not just athletes and fitness fans.

The brothers' own wholesome, healthy image will no doubt attract partnerships with other brands in the future.

Yet even if a big endorsement deal lands in their lap, it's unlikely that they'll lose the run of themselves. They like the simple life, and one gets the impression that no amount of money could change that. If they're not rowing, they like to go fishing with their pals "on a fine summer's day" and they look genuinely perplexed when the stylist mentions the price of a Gucci belt.

Later, when talk turns to the constellation of A-list stars that they met on The Graham Norton Show, Paul wonders why people got so excited about it. "At the end of the day, they're just people like myself and yourself so it's not like they're going to be much different."

This isn't false humility. It's the real deal. And it runs in the family. The Graham Norton comment reminds me of something their grandmother said when she was asked what exactly she was putting into that brown bread. "The secret is, there is no secret," she said. "You've got a pair of hands the same as me."

During their early days at Skibbereen Rowing Club, the brothers often asked the older rowers for advice. They still heed those words of wisdom today: "Keep it simple. Keep the head. Don't overcomplicate it."

"What I've noticed over the years," says Paul, "is that people tend to f*** up at big events because they think about things too much and it starts to go wrong.

"What we try to do then - especially in the early days, when we weren't as fit and as fast and as strong as we are now - is capitalise on other people f***ing up. If we just kept things simple, straightforward and did the best we could, we could take advantage of it."

"It's minimising errors," says Gary. "And it's not just at a regatta. We also try to minimise errors in nutrition and training."

Sure enough, their training schedule is demanding, but straightforward. They do 10-12 sessions a week on the water and three sessions in the gym. "We do a bit of strength and conditioning - dead lifting and squats," explains Gary. "That's to ensure that we remain nice and strong and injury-free when we're rowing."

They eat protein after a weight-training session - usually eggs, which they find "fierce convenient". They also eat a lot of porridge - again, for convenience - meat and green leafy vegetables.

"People would be looking at us if we're going for dinner and they'll say, 'Oh, you're athletes, you'll have to eat some healthy stuff,' but because we're training so much, we can burn it off," says Paul. "We just eat healthy for the good of our health and wellness down the road."

This no-nonsense approach to health and fitness extends to their overall outlook too. Why waste energy on over-analysis? Why get lost in the finer details when you can take the 'Occam's razor' approach instead? Why tie your necktie every day when you can only do it up the once?

A couple of weeks after our interview, I get in contact with Paul to talk about the brothers' recent performance at the World Rowing Cup event in Belgrade, where they came fourth.

"Of course we would have preferred to have won and, looking back, we would like to have done that differently," he says, "but there is nothing that stands out in our minds that would have changed that situation for us.

"We had both been busy in college beforehand but that needed to be done and so we now have about two weeks to concentrate just on the rowing ahead of the European Championships, so hopefully we can improve the results by then." Plain-spoken and pragmatic. Or, as their early mentors might say: "Keep it simple. Keep the head. Don't overcomplicate it."

Paul and Gary will be cooking up some delicious egg recipes at the Quality Kitchen Stage at Bloom on Friday, June 2. See for recipes and videos

Photography: Fran Veale

Styling: Bairbre Power

All clothes from: Patrick Sheary Menswear, 33 Clarendon Street, Dublin 2, (01) 611 1846. This page: Patrick's exclusive label suits, €550 each; shirts, €95; ties, €45. Page 10-11: The brothers wear shirts, €95, and chinos, €95

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