Paul O’Donovan: ‘I’m not rowing to get a big collection of medals’

The Lisheen rower has set his sights on Tokyo gold, but that’s not his only motivation

Paul O’Donovan, grunge rower. A shaman, lean and feral, his look today is paleo-chic. There’s the long dark hair and an unkempt beard, with crystal-clear eyes peering through. The messaging is stripped-down and bare-essentials-only. Frills-free, today O’Donovan is that badger staring out of a hedge.

He is the best lightweight rower in the world and he says he thinks the magical whiskers and thatch will stay; although, when he returns to studying medicine later in the year in Cork University Hospital, different rules may kick in.

Katie Taylor at London 2012 aside, no one in Irish sport has gone into an Olympic Games as well decorated. But his four World Championship gold medals, two European gold medals and silver from the Rio Olympics are less weighing him down than settling his lightweight boat with Fintan McCarthy as favourites for another podium in Tokyo.

That, at least, is how the world sees it, and O’Donovan’s mood today is in keeping with how it often is, detached from the drama. It is almost as if his role is to dampen down any possibility of giddiness. Comparing Rio with Tokyo, that is just plain impossible.


“They say they’re all different in their own way,” says O’Donovan on his way towards rationalism. “There was a pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, who said, ‘A man can never fall in the same river twice.’

“I suppose that’s because he’s a different man and the river is always moving and changing as well. I’m a bit of a different person going into this Olympics.

“I was doing a bit of thinking there earlier in the year when I had a bit of time,” he says. “It was like from my experience of winning World Championships and even the last Olympics silver medal, there’s almost a ceiling on how happy you can be for winning medals.

“For me I don’t think it’s that much above stuff that happens randomly and makes you happy. If I really didn’t enjoy rowing and found it hard and miserable every day, knowing from the experience I’ve had of winning other medals I don’t think it would be worth it day to day. Really, if you’re not enjoying the rest of the stuff, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to go chasing Olympic gold medals.”

O’Donovan is only half the boat. Two of his World Championships have been won on his own and two more with his brother Gary in 2018 and McCarthy in 2019. He has become the common denominator for Irish lightweight rowing success.

Sentimental-free zone

Apart from stubbornly beating the rest of the world each time he sat into a boat this year, the only change has been McCarthy, also from Skibbereen, taking the place of Gary. It was a sentimental-free zone when that decision was made, the combination and output of McCarthy seizing the attention of lightweight rowing coach Dominic Casey. What might be seen as unnecessarily cruel from the outside given it was with his brother he won the silver medal in Rio, it is part of the sport's ruthlessly competitive streak and a simple cold narrative that they have all come to understand.

“We’ve always said it to each other, we just want to be in the fastest boat and if I’m not in it or he’s not in it, that’s just the case. I think we spoke enough about it beforehand,” he says.

“Everyone assumed with Rio, ‘Oh, they’re brothers, that’s why they’re in the boat together.’ And we were like, ‘That’s not the case. We just happen to be the fastest two and if someone comes around and beats us, then they get in.’ And then that did happen. So you just have to accept that and get on with it.”

McCarthy is also a proven performer and was last year a European bronze medallist as a single sculls rower in Poznan. The change of crew five years on they hope will be the difference in also changing the colour of the metal.

Prior to Rio, Paul and Gary won the European Championships but were between second and fourth in the major races prior to travelling to Brazil. All through this year, with McCarthy in the boat, the pair have been a faster combination and have finished more consistently in first place.

That has thrust them to the top of the pile. But for O’Donovan there is something garish in speaking too loudly about winning, and it is misleading to believe it is the only thing that he can think about. Perhaps it is also inviting mishap.

He’s understandably evasive and having said he wanted to win “the thing” sometime in the distant past means there’s no reason to keep repeating it – “the thing” being a gold medal.

Fierce look

Part of the understated stance is that he also knows there are some energies that can be harmful if not kept in check. But with his fierce look only adding to the package, he cannot hide the naturally hard core or his cutthroat competitive nature.

“We’ve always said we want to try and win the thing,” he says. “But then, like, day to day, that’s not really what’s motivating you. 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.’

“You’d kind of, I dunno, lose your mind if you were thinking that every day. Mostly, what motivates us is just that we enjoy actually training every day – or more often than not, anyway.

“Then, I suppose, if training is getting a little bit hard, you might be like, ‘Maybe it’ll be worth it in the end if you win an Olympic gold medal.’ If you’re having a tired day or something, maybe... maybe you might look at that then. I don’t think I would too often, to be honest. You just set it to the back of your mind and get on with things.”

Settled into Tokyo, he is in as good a shape he has ever been in. Before camp in Japan the team were training in the Spanish heat of Banyoles in Catalonia, where the 1992 Olympic rowing event was held for the Barcelona Games.

He knows Spain's heat is not Japan's stultifying humidity. But it is of no concern. He won't allow it to become a distraction. Nothing is. When he became World Champion on his own in 2017 after Gary fell ill, it was in the clinging heat of Sarasota in Florida. He just dealt with it.

The water vapour in Japan is like the humidity in Florida, like the talk of winning gold or the disruption of Covid or the possible windy conditions. They are peripheral phenomena, extraneous to a single-minded campaign. They are interference and static, diversions from getting the boat across 2,000 metres of a saltwater lake.

In that, his fears are not the opponents in the other lanes but whether on demand he and McCarthy will get out what they know is inside. It has worked so far and the change in partners has also brought some change in O’Donovan.

Without his brother’s one-liners and “bit of devilment” he’s settled into less of a joke routine. He explains the swing as “probably more my habitual personality; what I’d resort back to in uncomfortable situations, like talking to people.”

The irony is that as a communicator O’Donovan is unafraid of and capable of expressing complex thought processes. While the success has been a driver, it is not the only one. He has resolutely not attributed the routine grind and hard work of the sport with a negative value but something to cherish.

Enjoying the process and seeing it as a privilege, the shared benefits of doing it better than anyone, the feeling and the knowing that his levels of fitness and capacity to move a boat through water are unmatched – they are the rewards.

“It’s always nice to win medals,” he says. “But I just think... D’you know, I’m not rowing to get a big collection of medals. I’m just rowing because I enjoy it.”

For the 27-year-old from Lisheen, the two have sweetly collided.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times