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Paul O’Donovan: ‘I’m never happier than when I’m rowing... why would I want to switch off?’

Now a doctor, the rower is showing no signs of slowing down as he prepares for Paris next year

“In a sport like this – the hard work, not much glory, but still popular in every century – well, there must be some beauty which ordinary me can’t see, but extraordinary men do.” – The Boys in the Boat

In the foyer of a Cork city hotel, by the banks of the River Lee, waiting for Paul O’Donovan to make his entrance. The assumption being it will be discreet, which it is.

He arrives precisely on time, clearly knowing which way the mild November winds blow around here. Dressed down in T-shirt over long sleeve, grey jeans and black suede Chelsea boots, he is a more youth-beat-poet look now than his former paleo-grunge.

Behind the few days of facial hair growth, he looks exceptionally fit and fresh. He’s the best lightweight rower of his generation, his lung capacity to move boats over water somewhere off the charts. And with 13 championship medals to prove it, he is already the most decorated Irish athlete of any Olympic sport, even before his 30th birthday.


“And of course, it’s Doctor Paul O’Donovan now ...”

“Ostensibly so anyway,” he says, an early marker of his modesty.

It’s a rare sit-down interview, his first since winning Olympic gold alongside Fintan McCarthy in Tokyo in the lightweight double sculls. It’s not necessarily because O’Donovan is averse to these situations, but simply because he’d rather be busy rowing, or studying, or satisfying his other curiosities which have nothing to do with sport; unless it’s running or cycling.

By way of further introduction, I show him my rough notes, at the top of which is The Graham Norton Show, 2016. It was the New Year’s Eve special where O’Donovan, just turned 22, appeared with his brother Gary. Both were still at the height of their giddiness and wisecracking after winning the silver medal at the Rio Olympics.

It’s a subtle ploy to broach the subject. This was the first Olympic medal ever won for Irish rowing and they’d every reason to enjoy it, especially in front of a TV audience of millions. Only there was something perhaps unsustainable about the brotherly joke routine, which some felt couldn’t last forever.

“Not since it came out, no,” he says when asked if he’s ever watched it back. “Someone brings it up every once in a while. Those were mad times, weren’t they?

“In some of those interviews, Gary was probably the messer between us, still loves a bit of craic. He was kind of driving all that, in fairness to him. That was all him now, not me.”

There was a unique synchronicity about their relationship, in and out of the boat, sharing the same stroke rate on water, before completing each other’s sentences off it. Did that ever become a chore?

“Not really, because we always just prided ourselves on being rowers. The interviews were not something we cared about, that’s not what we do. The thing we do is rowing. As long as we’re happy with that, nothing else matters.”

O’Donovan still talks most comfortably in the “we”, although he hasn’t rowed competitively with Gary since 2018 with McCarthy taking the seat the following year and never vacating it. Still two Skibbereen boys in the boat, just not brothers any more. No room for nostalgia.

“Yeah, Gary’s kind of finished up now, after last year. He’s done a diploma in law, back living in Skib, still training at the weekends, giving a bit of guidance, keeping the show going.

“I don’t think about it too much. To be fair to Fintan, he took his opportunity there, when Gary first injured his hand, at the start of 2019. But the following year, doing trials for Tokyo, Gary was better than he’d ever been before and Fintan still edged him out. It was close, but that’s how it ultimately went in the end.”

With or without his brother, it seems there’s a conscious decision now not to chase any fame and, given his enduring low profile, certainly not any fortune.

“It’s more the way I am anyway. When we kind of got good at rowing, I just found there was no need to start changing that, who I am. I never cared for it.”


“To see a winning crew in action is to witness a perfect harmony in which everything is right. That is the formula for endurance and success: rowing with the heart and head as well as physical strength.” – The Boys in the Boat

O’Donovan was seven when his father Teddy first took him down to Skibbereen Rowing club, on the banks of the River Ilen, which he’d already helped nurture for years.

“I think from that young age we all thought this was what we wanted to do with our lives,” O’Donovan says, his early success – junior-sculls champion of Ireland at 15, World Under-23 bronze medallist at 19 – impossible without fully embracing the purest spirit on the water, in fair and foul weather.

That’s plenty evident from rereading The Boys in the Boat, ahead of its big cinema release next month, George Clooney directing the true story of the men’s eight rowers from the University of Washington, representing the USA at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, who narrowly beat the German crew in full view of Adolf Hitler.

Only O’Donovan has beaten me to this one: turns out he’s read the book and seen the film, at a pre-screening in Boston last month when rowing at the Head of the Charles Regatta.

“I just love being over at that event, looking at the boat sheds, stuff like that. And it’s a good film, yeah. The American dream kind of thing, winning against all the odds and the obstacles. If you’ve the right mind.”

That could well be the Skibbereen Dream, or the Lisheen Dream, to be more exact. A six-time World Champion, eight months out from Paris, O’Donovan is within near reach of Olympic immortality. No Irish athlete has won medals at three successive Games. Fellow Cork doctor Pat O’Callaghan won two, gold in the hammer in 1928 and 1932, before boxer Paddy Barnes won bronze in 2008 and in 2012.

“Didn’t know that, no,” O’Donovan says of that potential, before indicating there’s definitely no stop sign in Paris, just because lightweight rowing is gone from the Los Angeles programme in 2028.

“Even if they didn’t get rid of the lightweight, I was thinking of doing the heavyweight anyway, for a change.

“And most people finish up rowing because they just don’t get the funding, have to move on with their lives, pay bills, start a family, feed the kids.

“In other countries, if they’re well supported, they can keep going into their 40s. Like Olaf Tufte from Norway, he was about 45 in Tokyo and it was his seventh Olympics. Once you stay injury-free, have the lifestyle that allows you to do it, you can stay going as long as you want.”

Avoiding any injury has been critical to his own longevity. He’s never been kept out of the boat for any physical or mental reason, a hardiness rare in any sport. He’s also careful not to look back, least of all on his medal count.

“I’d have a vague idea it’s in a drawer, somewhere,” he says of his Olympic gold medal. “But no, I don’t count them, wouldn’t even keep them all in the one place. Usually, if I’m living in a college apartment, somewhere like that, they’d be thrown in a press. Then when I’m clearing out, they’re thrown in a box and into a drawer at home somewhere in Skib.

“I think people always think it’s probably going to be better than it is. I know in the post-analysis interview, straight away people are asked ‘how does it feel’, and almost everyone says ‘oh, it hasn’t sunk in yet’.

“They’re expecting there is something there to sink in, but oftentimes, it doesn’t. The next day you probably just go back to doing the same thing that you’ve always done.

“You don’t want it to be life-changing either, because you don’t want people, especially those who are close to you, to start treating you differently, because you’ve won a medal. It should be on account of everything you’ve kind of done before in your life.”


“Rowing a race is an art, not a frantic scramble. It must be rowed with head power as well as hand power. From the first stroke all thoughts of the other crew must be blocked out.” – The Boys in the Boat

It was sometime before the Rio Olympics when O’Donovan decided he might want to go into medicine. He’d gone into Sports Science in UCD straight out of school and then transferred into physiotherapy.

“We were doing our placement, in a hospital down here actually, and they sent us into the operating theatre, to see what patients go through with hip and knee replacements, to get some appreciation, as to how they’re so tired and sore, maybe don’t want to do their exercises afterwards.

“So I went in there and thought ‘this is the coolest thing ever ... why am I not doing this?’ That kind of set me off.”

Most people might have been turned off by that sight, but O’Donovan found further encouragement. Sinéad Jennings had also moved to the National Rowing Centre in Farran Wood, not far up the river Lee on Iniscarra Lake, and was a qualified doctor.

Jennings had also qualified for Rio in the women’s lightweight doubles, and her husband Sam Lynch, who rowed for Ireland at the 1996 and 2004 Olympics, was also now working as a doctor at Cork University Hospital.

“Sam was doing orthopaedic training here, in Cork, and I hung out with him quite a lot that year, he gave me a lot of advice, Sinéad too, that I should probably go for it. That I’d find a way to make it work.”

After Rio, he started medicine at University College Cork, via the graduate entry programme: “Everyone has a primary degree, so some were older, some younger, but it was a very interesting class as well, meeting people from all different backgrounds.”

He graduated as Dr O’Donovan last May, completed a few weeks of induction with plans to go into surgery, before putting all that on hold, exactly one year out from Paris.

So, he’s now a full-time rower again, living with a mate in Douglas, the 25-minute commute to the Rowing Centre in Farran Wood a part of his daily routine as much as the colossal training loops on Iniscarra Lake or the metronomic repeats on the ergometer machine.

In winter O’Donovan also runs some cross-country, jumping in with the Leevale crew twice in September, only this is no passing interest. He’s soon talking Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s famously high running mileage, and the programme of Kelvin Kiptum, who last month broke the marathon world record.

“It was interesting to read Kiptum’s training, in terms of that mileage, and volume. If Dominic Casey handed us something like that, we’d be like ‘more of the same’. We wouldn’t question it.

“For rowing training, the best thing is still rowing. And the more volume you can do, the better. But any kind of cardiovascular fitness is going to be very similar, a lot of crossover and sometimes it’s nice to be out doing a different thing, thinking of how you should use your muscles in running, how much of a stride you should take.

“Thinking critically about that, you might be able to bring some of it back into rowing, it might make a difference, not much of a difference.

“But there’s a huge depth of quality in Irish rowing now. For the Rio cycle, there were maybe four or five of us in the Rowing Centre, I’d say you see maybe 40 rowers out there now, everyone buying into the big volume of training.”

O’Donovan can just as easily make his daily escape from it. “Living with a non-rower, that helps change the focus, when you’re not training. I wouldn’t be reading the sports pages anyway, unless I knew there was athletics or cycling on, I’d go look for it.”

So no interest in say the Rugby World Cup?

“Not really, no. My housemate is worse than me, so neither of us have a notion what’s going on around the place.”


“Just as a skilled rider is said to become part of his horse, the skilled oarsman must become part of his boat.” – The Boys in the Boat

Throughout the conversation O’Donovan rarely stops fiddling with his hands, folding a napkin in front of him, pushing it away, then pulling it back.

When asked, he holds them up and they’re as small as a teenage pianist and smooth as an ad for washing-up liquid, not the roughened shovels most people would expect.

“No, they wouldn’t have to be that big. And you’d get one or two small bumps, that’s about as bad as it gets.

“But it’s kind of loose, the grip you have on the oar handle. And most of the arm’s stuff is just hanging, transferring the force. Because your legs are so strong, that’s where you generate most of the force, then you’re just transferring it through relaxed hands on the oar handle.

“And because there’s so much acceleration, by the time you get to use your hands, you’ve used your hips, and back, and everything, so you’re basically just finishing it out, rather than trying to pull with your hand. You’re not even doing that.”

O’Donovan could probably talk rowing all day, and as much as he enjoys his escape, he never tires of it either.

“People ask me that, sure I’m never happier than when I’m out there, doing loads of rowing. It’s brilliant, why would I want to switch off from that?

“And if it wasn’t rowing, I’d say my life would be totally different. I don’t know if it would be any better, or worse, but it wouldn’t be like it is now. Like, through rowing I initially got a sports scholarship to UCD, that helped me get to college in Dublin.

“That subsequently got me interested in medicine and through more rowing connections like Sam Lynch, pushed me to go for it. And I think in rowing the people you meet along the way are all very hard-working individuals, all over the world.”

It’s clear rowing is a different sort of sporting obsession, O’Donovan already content that Paris will not define him, Olympic immortality or otherwise.

“You’re more thinking ‘what have I to do today to get better?’. If you’re thinking about Paris with every stroke, you’re not thinking about what you should be doing in the moment.

“You can make the perfect plan now, but the future is totally unpredictable. Month on month, week on week, you gauge how you’re going, make some small changes from there.

“As long as we give an honest account of ourselves, there’s nothing more we can do. Obviously, you’d be disappointed if you don’t get a medal, but it’s not like we’re rowing to please other people. And if people are disappointed we don’t get a medal, we don’t really care about that either.”

Paul O’Donovan – The medal haul


Gold medal, Tokyo 2020, Lwt double sculls (with Fintan McCarthy)

Silver medal, Rio 2016, Lwt double sculls (with Gary O’Donovan)

World Championships

Gold medal, Rotterdam 2016, Lwt single sculls

Gold medal, Sarasota 2017, Lwt single sculls

Gold medal, Plovdiv 2018, Lwt double sculls (with Gary O’Donovan)

Gold medal, Ottensheim 2019, Lwt double sculls (with Fintan McCarthy)

Gold medal, Racice 2022, Lwt double sculls (with Fintan McCarthy)

Gold medal, Belgrade 2023, Lwt double sculls (with Fintan McCarthy)

European Championships

Gold medal, Brandenburg 2016, Lwt double sculls (with Gary O’Donovan)

Gold medal, Varese 2021, Lwt double sculls (with Fintan McCarthy)

Gold medal, Munich 2022, Lwt double sculls (with Fintan McCarthy)

Silver medal, Racice 2017, Lwt double sculls (with Gary O’Donovan)

Silver medal, Glasgow 2018, Lwt double sculls (with Gary O’Donovan)