In August 2016, there was roughly 9,000km between Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy on that fateful Friday morning when Irish rowing broke through a glass ceiling, the former winning Ireland its first ever Olympic medal in rowing, the latter watching him do it from a bar in Skibbereen.
McCarthy was 20 at the time, a student at UCC and a promising young rower. O’Donovan was 22, announcing himself in that lightweight double sculls final in Rio as one of his sport’s brightest stars.
What occurred that morning at the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon would, in time, offer proof of the butterfly effect that so often occurs at the Games – an earthquake of sporting achievement by O’Donovan sending a tremor of inspiration rippling across the world, all the way to his hometown of Skibbereen.
O'Donovan and McCarthy had grown up just a few kilometres apart, Paul and his brother Gary from Lisheen, Fintan and his twin brother Jake essentially from up the road in Foherlagh. Both proud products of their environment, an area so staggeringly over-represented at the top tier of rowing that there are few, if any, places that could now match it pound-for-pound across the spectrum of Olympic sport.
This morning in Tokyo, five years on from that renaissance in Rio, it felt like the masterpiece had finally been completed. There was no more than a metre between O’Donovan and McCarthy as they sat in their boat at the start line of the Sea Forest Waterway. In the early hours of the morning back home, those who got up or stayed up fought off the urge to sleep, the adrenaline carrying them through. A nation held its breath.
With the possible exception of Katie Taylor in 2012, there had never been an Irish gold medal favourite this strong, and that expectation has its perils, the pressure the duo carried a byproduct of their brilliance over the past two years. In Tokyo in recent days we’ve seen many struggle to cope with it, even A-list stars like Simone Biles or Naomi Osaka.
O’Donovan and McCarthy are the best lightweight double scullers in the world and everyone, from the fans to their rivals, knew it.
But most importantly, they knew it.
Since Ireland became an independent country, just six athletes have returned from the Games with gold: Pat O’Callaghan, Bob Tisdall, Ronnie Delany, Michael Carruth, Michelle Smith and Katie Taylor. Now there are two more names on that list, the Skibbereen duo etching themselves on the wall of Irish sporting immortality.
How did they get here? Well, let’s start with McCarthy, the lesser-known of the duo. He started rowing in primary school, his class brought on weekly visits to the local club to make sure if there was a talented kid in the ranks, he would be found. The sport proved an acquired taste, McCarthy drifting away to team sports for a few years before returning to rowing at the age of 15.
“I hadn’t been any good at anything before that,” he said. “So when people said I might be good it was exciting – that’s what got me hooked.”
He won his first national title in 2016 and competed in a lightweight quad at that year’s World Championships, the first of many fifth-place finishes he racked up at major events during his early forays into senior competition. With his twin brother Jake, he steadily rose through the ranks, the two competing side by side many times on the international stage.
They had the same coach as the O’Donovans in Dominic Casey, and rowed for the same club, therefore it stood to reason that as they looked up the road to the future, they began to believe they could emulate their success.
The collision course between both sets of brothers was inevitable, given they all operated in the lightweight division, and there was a certain Darwinian nature to it on the build-up to the 2019 World Championships. The only certainty seemed that Paul’s place was immovable, given his achievements individually, but after that it was anyone’s guess.
The numbers don’t lie, however, not in a sport as finely calibrated as this, and it soon became clear that it was Fintan who was best placed to occupy that seat beside Paul, the pair going on to win gold and announcing themselves as gold medal favourites for the Tokyo Games.
They have been untouchable ever since, scoring a dominant win over their chief Olympic rivals at the Europeans back in April, doing it their usual way: conservative start, strong middle, blazing finish. No one has yet found an answer for it.
For O’Donovan, today’s result crowns his place in the pantheon of Irish sporting greats – if there was any doubt about him already being in there.
He’s just the third man in history, after hammer thrower Pat O’Callaghan and boxer Paddy Barnes, to win multiple Olympic medals for Ireland. That he scaled these heights by the age of 27, all the while juggling a degree in medicine, speaks of a man whose laid-back, irreverent manner belies a ruthlessly driven personality, one possessing a level of ambition most of us can only imagine.
O’Donovan was six when he was first introduced to rowing, his father Teddy – a rower himself – guiding his and his brother’s career through childhood, developing the siblings into huge teenage talents before handing the reins over to the more experienced Casey. In the documentary Pull Like A Dog, which aired on RTÉ in December 2016, Teddy describes their first time getting out on the water.
“There was something there, a drive and an urge,” he said. “They had no interest in learning to row – they wanted to race. I was probably dreaming of what might be, rather than would be.”
Olympic aspirations had long been part of O’Donovan’s vision, but the reality is an accomplishment like today’s is simply too out there, too distant – the chances of it so minuscule – that he had to find motivation in something more fundamental, more tangible.
“You’re not getting up every morning thinking, ‘Olympic gold medal, I have to go and win that and if I don’t train hard, I won’t,’” he told us a few weeks back. “You’d lose your mind if you were thinking that every day. Mostly what motivates us is just that we enjoy actually training every day. I’m just rowing because I enjoy it.”
In his interviews, there’s often a curious contradiction in his attitude. O’Donovan can seem almost baffled to be occupying the position he does – a champion, an icon – yet then also speak about the difficulty of winning world titles as something that’s, well, not that difficult at all.
“Yerra, it isn’t too complex really,” he said in that famous interview that went viral during the 2016 Rio Olympics. “Just A to B as fast as you can go, hope for the best, close the eyes and pull like a dog.”
A simple act, on its surface, yet one he does at a level that’s exceptionally difficult for anyone who isn’t him or McCarthy to emulate. It’s a skill he’s mastered through two decades of deliberate practice, and with him where he is and McCarthy where he’s now got to, it’s hard to see an end to their dominance once the tap doesn’t run dry on desire.
O’Donovan plans to be back working at Cork University Hospital in September, and the World Championships will await in Shanghai in October. Life will move on, but they’ll always be Olympic champions.
Today, however, is not a day to look forward, not while the present offers such a pleasing vista for all those looking towards Tokyo through a green-tinted lens.
O’Donovan and McCarthy have reached the pinnacle. It may be one event in one sport on one particular day, but because of them, Ireland is currently on top of the world.