At the start of the Rio Olympic cycle, Rowing Ireland was in the beginning stages of putting together a plan to promote rowing and build a competitive program that would attract new competitive athletes and encourage the development of the sport across the country.
At the 2013 World Rowing Championships, there were two entries and three athletes competing. At the Skibbereen Rowing Club, a group of lightweights were embracing the movement and by the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Irish Rowing was becoming a brand of sorts, helped in no small part by Gary and Paul O'Donovan.
The brothers won silver in the lightweight double and then caught the world's attention in the post racing press conferences and interviews with their very real and lighthearted personalities. It didn't end in Rio, about every time they've gotten in front of a camera, they have an obvious blast doing what they do and making people laugh.
But, they are serious about their rowing and the development of their cub and of rowing in Ireland. Gary O'Donovan took a few minutes to talk about that with row2k at the Head of the Charles Saturday.
row2k: So much has happened since 2013. Can you tell me how that's gone about and what your role, you guys played in that?
Gary O'Donovan: We just had this idea in our heads, it was a bunch of us lightweights, and we all grew up together, we're all and friends. We just decided we were going to try to go big in 2016. The first qualifier is number 23 in 2013, we just got in a new head coach-director from Denmark, and he's been really successful in a lot of countries around the world. We believed in him. He said to us, of course, you can do it if you want to. He let us talk with our coach in Skibbereen and left us to our training. He put all responsibility in our end, and we took it upon us. So then I had to say, we'll go out and do it, and try our best. If we don't make it so be it, but at least we tried.
Then 2015 came around and we had to decide who is going to be in the double, and we held a national trials. After that, then myself and Paul got selected, we came first and second. We got to the World Champs.
Then we got through the World Champs and got the last qualifying spot [for Rio]. We finished in 11th place. We knew from there we were going to be going, it didn't matter after that. We said, we are going. And we're going to do the very best we can and drive everything into it. So for the next, I think it was nine or ten months after that, we just trained really damn hard. Done everything we could and as well as we could. The goal was to win. We said, we'd try our very best to win it. We done everything we could and did try our best, and we came second, so that was that.
I think as we were all developing, we were getting success in the doubles, but everyone else was very, very close behind us. We always were being pushed, Mark and Shane were doing well in the pair. In the year we qualified they came seventh the following year. And they came fourth at the worlds champ and then they won it this year.
In all the under 23 days I came in 12 in 2013 and 10th in 14th. And Paul was just a boy winning medals in the singles. Now this year, we got a lightweight at quad and lightweight pair that both got bronze at the under 23s.
I guess, we've been increasing at the top in our double. Mark and Shane have been getting better at the top in their pair. Our younger guys and all the young boys and girls learning have been getting better and at an international level in our junior competitions around Europe, Junior Europeans, Junior Worlds, and number 23 Worlds.
The Irish team has just been getting better and better every year.
I think otherwise, I guess belief is probably the most important part of it. The huge belief in yourself. If you're unaltered representative don't turn, and you do all the training, then you will do well. I definitely believe belief is the most important thing.
row2k: I'm not sure how much of this is just because you guys like to keep things light and easy, but young rowers and fans see you having fun at press conferences and various interviews and they like what you're doing and maybe look up to that.
O'Donovan: We have fun with this stuff.
row2k: Somebody said to me, you're like the Beatles of rowing. If you watch their early press conferences, they just said what they were thinking, were having fun with it, like it or not.
O'Donovan: Jeez, I don't know about that. I guess we do make a point of making it fun no matter what we're doing. Whether we're in school or college, or a training, or racing, or in front of TV cameras, whatever we might as well be having fun. That's important too.
We sit down for interview and people ask us questions. Sure, you can't predict what's going to happen. We can't go four years without questions. We get asked a lot of random questions. You couldn't predict what people would ask us. Just take it as it comes.
row2k: I'm looking at you guys and I'm thinking, how much fun you're having, how much success you have. Did you two take being role models for rowing in Ireland seriously?
O'Donovan: In a way I think it's a natural thing. We just go out of our way to have fun. Young guys, I train them to have fun as well. We all get on well, the younger people on the team, the people at home at our rowing club and they really all enjoy it and it's all in good fun.
I think it's just something that happens, maybe we do it subconsciously, and encourage this ethic of fun and enjoyment and training hard. We do train hard as well. Of course, we do, nobody becomes successful unless they're working hard. I think when young people see us enjoying it, they think I can enjoy it too. When they see us working hard, they think I can work hard too. It probably just happens without even thinking about it.
As far as the responsibility goes (of being role models), we can only do our best. We can only train our best every day, do our best races every year. Turn up at the start and then race our best. Whether we win or not it's out of our control, once we do our best hopefully that's good enough to win. But if it's not, then you can't be disappointed about a race, you can't be sad and say, "I should have been faster." If you couldn't have got any faster, then no regrets. I think that's important too.
row2k: Who were your rowing role models?
O'Donovan: I guess in our own rowing club, we had a bunch of guys on our team over the years. Back around 2000, we had a guy who was a spare man for the Olympic four in 2004. We had a guy, Eugene Cook, he got sixth place in the Olympics in the light four.
All these guys were from our club, and used to watch them train. We used to see them training, and we'd spend on the same river with them. We used to paddle beside them and race them in the mornings.
We used to think, they're really successful. If they could be successful, why can't we? We do the same training, go to the same rowing club, eat the same food, go to the same shop. I sat in the same desk at school, this kind of stuff. It was always this instinct that, if these guys are successful, I can be successful. I think that's huge belief. A lot of young people at home, they say if I do the same training Gary done, or if I eat the same food he ate, or whatever, then why can't I be successful as well.