Saturday 16 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Everyone gets to celebrate when local heroes write their names on the map of world sport

2017 has to a certain extent belonged to Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll who have reigned over the lightweight pairs all season, winning all their World Cup races by large margins Photo: Sportsfile/row2k
2017 has to a certain extent belonged to Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll who have reigned over the lightweight pairs all season, winning all their World Cup races by large margins Photo: Sportsfile/row2k

Eamonn Sweeney

The question crossed my mind as Paul O'Donovan crossed the finish line in Sarasota. Has any other Irish town ever won two world titles inside 15 minutes? Of course not. The Skibbereen Rowing Club story is a unique and wonderful thing.

It is a story we should celebrate at every possible opportunity. I can remember when Irish amateur boxing was in its heroic phase with every major championships producing a slew of medals. It became such a regular occurrence we almost began to treat it as automatic and inevitable. We took it for granted.

Yet what the decline of the boxing programme proved is that there is never anything inevitable about success and that major international titles cannot be taken for granted. There are so many things which have to be got right and so many things which can go wrong.

The Skibbereen story has such a hold on the national sporting imagination it's difficult to realise that, for all their dominance at national level, 18 months ago hardly anyone outside the world of rowing knew anything about the club and its stars. This story is still, in all probability, near the beginning.

If 2016 was the year of the O'Donovan brothers, 2017 has to a certain extent belonged to Mark O'Donovan and Shane O'Driscoll (pictured) who have reigned over the lightweight pairs all season, winning all their World Cup races by large margins.

Yet this imposed a new kind of pressure on the duo going into the World Championships. They were there to be shot at in the final and would have to do it with the temperature at 28 degrees centigrade, a temperature which I can exclusively reveal does not occur very often in the Skibbereen area.

In the circumstances their final performance was a masterclass in courage and coping with expectations. They took an early lead, defied the opposition to haul them back and maintained their form in the heat to win the gold that matters most in a discipline excluded from the Olympics.

Gary O'Donovan's absence from the championships must have come as a grievous blow to both him and his brother. Yet it did provide us with a chance to appreciate what a truly magnificent athlete Paul O'Donovan is.

They've been using the word 'phenomenon' about Paul down here in Skibb since he was a teenager and it really is the one which makes the most sense. In Sarasota, he more or less toyed with a world-class field and won as he pleased. When he opened up in the closing stages of the final and looked to be engaged in not just another race but almost another sport altogether, we were privileged to witness the wonderful sight of a truly great performer in full flow. It was his second world lightweight sculls title in a row and O'Donovan now dominates his event in the same way that Katie Taylor used to hers.

There was even the prospect of a third title within half an hour but Denise Walsh missed out on a medal in the women's lightweight single sculls. All the same, this year has represented significant progress for this richly promising young rower.

A European silver medal and a world final spot would make you the undisputed local hero in most Irish towns and Denise Walsh actually is a local hero down here. She's just not the only one.

Over it all presides Dominic Casey, a guiding spirit at national level as he was at club level. Skibbereen Rowing Club is to a large degree the creation of Casey, a man whose media presence makes Jim Gavin look like an all-singing, all-dancing rent-a-quote. Keen to stay in the background, his spirit, a hard-working no-nonsense country spirit, nevertheless pervades everything the Skibbereen rowers do.

He is a down-to-earth man and Skibbereen is a down-to-earth club. In a sport often associated with privilege, the Oxford and Cambridge connections of English teams, the prestige attached to 'rowing crew' in the big expensive American colleges, Skibbereen's stars are the children of postmen, of lorry drivers, of secretaries, of people who never had anything handed to them. They know how to work and maybe that's their secret.

Today at 5.0 Skibbereen will welcome back its world championship heroes. Leading the parade will be another local institution, St Fachtna's Silver Band, in which one of my daughters plays the cornet.

The great thing, the joyous thing about success in a small town is that everyone gets to share in it to some extent. Everyone has or at least feels a connection. Everyone loves these warriors who go forth and write the name of this little place in big letters on the map of world sport.

Where else would you get the like of it?

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