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Brothers make history with Ireland's first Olympic medal in rowing

Published 12/08/2016

Jubilant Gary and Paul O'Donovan
Jubilant Gary and Paul O'Donovan

Ireland's history-making rowers have vowed to go one better after taking silver in the Rio games and claiming the country's first Olympic medals in the sport.

Brothers Gary and Paul O'Donovan, from Lisheen, near Skibbereen, in west Cork, chased their French rivals to within half a second at the line to narrowly miss out on gold.

The pair, gaining as many fans for their relaxed and irreverent approach to the fierce competition of Rio, pulled the race of their relatively young careers to secure silver in the lightweight double skulls.

And immediately their thoughts turned to a future victory and how the silver medal will go down in the camp.

"We wanted to win the gold medal. To come out of it with a silver medal we're just so happy. We can't complain about that," 23-year-old Gary said.

Paul, 22, whose tactics are to go as fast as possible from A to B and "close his eyes and pull like a dog", hinted that they could have gone one better in the lightweight double skulls.

"We're a little bit disappointed we didn't come away with the gold medal. I think we put it up to the French as best we could," he said.

"We are dreading going home now because (Olympic boxer) Mick Conlan said he'd box the head off us if we didn't the gold."

And wrapping up an interview with Ireland's state broadcaster RTE after getting out of the water Paul threw in the Irish slang for our day will come,"Tiocfaidh ar la".

Back home in Skibbereen hundreds of rowers, friends, family and fans turned out in the local credit union and the Corner Bar to mark the momentous day.

Kenneth McCarthy, a 16-time national champion and a senior figure in Skibbereen Rowing Club, shed tears of joy among the crowds.

"They made it very entertaining, that's for sure. I think that's them though. It's their nature, they probably did that on purpose.

"Coming up to the last 20 seconds my heart was in my mouth. I thought this is it.

"I cried when they crossed the line. It takes a lot for a grown man to cry and I haven't cried much in my life but it was one of those days.

Mr McCarthy recalled seeing the Olympians as two precocious novices when they first took an interest on the River Ilen more than 10 years ago.

"Back in the day when I was at my peak these two young guys came in. They were lunatics, full of beans, full of energy," he said.

"I asked them what's your aim in rowing. Paul said I want to row in Rio. He was only 12 maybe and here is today, not only winning a medal but Ireland's first Olympic rowing medal.

The O'Donovans are known for being slow starters in their races but on this occasion they stayed well in contention over the first kilometre before upping their speed to go nearly a 1km/h faster in the closing stretch.

The went from from fourth at halfway stage to narrowly miss gold by about one third of a boat length.

The pair learned their skills on the Ilen near Skibbereen under the guise of Dominic Casey and while Paul always harboured ambitions of an Olympic medal it was only four years ago that Gary made the decision to take it seriously.

Mr McCarthy believed at the half-way point that a medal was in the bag only to fear it slipping away in the last few strokes.

"We don't even fully realise what's after happening here. It's a small town, 3,000 people, two lads, two brothers from the parish of Lisheen. We are walking around - we are in shock," he said.

Among those to send congratulations was President of Ireland Michael D Higgins.

"They have captured the nation's imagination and their skill, determination and positive outlook make them outstanding ambassadors for their sport, and for their community long into the future," he said.

"Their success today will encourage young men and women all around the island to participate in sport and realise that success at the highest level is possible in virtually every sport."

Paul added: "We're just happy to do it for the sport and like I say there's a big buzz around rowing now.

"It's a fantastic sport so we're just hoping that a load more people will start to realise that and maybe take it up and give it a go.

"You'd never know - there's plenty of people out there with two arms and two legs like the two of ourselves so there could be more Olympic champions to come, please God."

Gary said he wanted to put his medal around the neck of coach Dominic Casey

"We're hugely honoured, so proud to be representing everyone at home in Ireland and we've been getting such huge support and we've gained such a following after our interviews," he said.

"You have just been asking us questions and we have been answering them. We are so proud that people are following us and supporting us. We take great pride in that."

The men's race took place minutes after Irish women Sinead Lynch and Claire Lambe failed to sparkle and came in sixth place.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said: "It is a wonderful achievement for them personally, their home club and Irish rowing.

"The entire country has enjoyed watching Paul and Gary both on and off the water. Their exceptional athleticism and good humour has been uplifting.

"I want to thank them for all the sacrifice and effort they have made to achieve success for Ireland on the world stage."

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