Ireland's O'Donovan brothers to get the band back together again for Tokyo 2020?

Paul and Gary O'Donovan may be one of the world's most well known rowing double act, but they'll have to fight for their place in the boat at the Tokyo Olympics like everyone else at the world-beating Skibbereen rowing club.

By Ken Browne

When Paul and Gary O'Donovan from The Skibbereen Rowing Club in West Cork stunned the world at Rio 2016 by winning Ireland's first ever Olympic rowing medal, they made it all sound so easy.

"You just kind of pull on the oars and race other people," Paul said afterwards.

An Olympic silver medal, a string of viral interviews, a motto that entered the Irish phrase book, tags like "Ireland's gift to the world" and suddenly Gary and Paul were sitting next to Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard on the Graham Norton Show.

Poor Marion may not have understood a word the lads had to say with those West Cork accents, but now they're pulling hard towards what's next: Being in that boat come the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Here's Gary and Paul's full silver medal-winning race from Rio 2016:

Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy win Worlds

Ireland's lightweight double sculls won gold again at the 2019 World Championships qualifying the boat for Tokyo.

But it wasn't Paul and Gary in it, it was Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy, another world-class rower who has rolled off the Skibbereen club production line.

Fintan won the right to row with Paul at the Worlds in Austria because, as Gary O'Donovan himself says: "Fintan was faster than me last summer."

An injury held Gary back early in 2019 and Fintan put down faster times at the trial before the Austrian Worlds. But Gary hasn't let his head drop, "If you are not in the boat, you’re not in the boat and you just have to get on with it," he tells local paper The Southern Star.

Now with the boat qualified for the Olympics next summer the only question is: Who will be in it come Tokyo?

"You can do two things," says Gary, "you can just sit there and not be in the boat or you can drive on, train hard and try and get back in the boat."

Now Gary is working harder than ever to earn his seat in Japan, the ultimate goal clear in his mind:

"My plan is I want to win a gold medal at the Olympics" - Gary O'Donovan


But such is the competition at the Skibbereen rowing club that not even Paul O'Donovan with his Olympic silver medal and four world championship gold medals is guaranteed a place in the boat in 2021.

There are currently five oarsmen fighting for two places in a boat that looks favourite to win Olympic gold at the Tokyo Games.

Paul and Gary, rising rowing stars and twin brothers Fintan and Jake McCarthy and 2017 world champ Shane O'Driscoll are all in the mix. There are six world champion titles and not a huge amount to choose between the five.

"You could almost argue that the competition you face to get into the Irish lightweight double is tougher than the competition you face at the World Championships," says Gary.

Most see Paul's place in the boat as a safe seat, he's won four of those six World titles and even among elite rowers he's different class.

Like most great Olympians, it's part physical, part mental. Physically Paul has an ability to roll and flatten out his shoulders in a way most mortals can't, allowing him a broader stroke that generates more power.

Mentally he's simply a machine. Two weeks after winning silver at Rio and all the attention that came with it, Paul raced the lightweight single sculls final at the World Rowing Championships in Rotterdam, and won.

Focused, driven, hard-working, and hell-bent on winning, it'll be tough to beat Paul out of that boat.

Which means that it's most likely a battle between the other four for the other seat behind Paul. But it's one of those long friendly kinds of dog fights with plenty of craic along the way, more 'Marley and Me' than 'Amores Perros'.

Skibbereen is a small town with a population of about 2000 people, Shane O'Driscoll is the O'Donovan's neighbour and best friend, and now the younger McCarthy twins are part of the gang too.

"We have a really good thing going with this gang of lads, this training group, there is nothing malicious," Gary tells the Southern Star, "we are all there to try and go as fast as we can and we appreciate that the fastest two guys will be in the boat."

"None of us are too afraid to not make it either once we are all given our chance and we all do our best. If I do my best and don’t make the boat, at least I can go home happy knowing that I tried everything but there were guys who were better."

So how and when will the two-man combination be decided?

Trials decide who's in the boat and it's a simple case of fastest two win, but the trials set for April 2020 before the season’s international season were caught up in the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic, and have been put off until around the same time in 2021, a few months before the Olympics.

So does that give Gary an advantage to get faster and stronger and put the injury that partly cost him his place at the 2019 Worlds behind him?

"‘It’s another year of rowing and another year to get better, but it gives all the other guys an extra year to get better and faster as well. I am not the only guy with an extra year. Everyone will look at it the same way,’ he says.

But the real question here is, how does a tiny club from the 'back arse of nowhere' (Paul O'Donovan's words), manage to compete with global rowing powerhouses like USA, Great Britain, and Germany, who have vastly superior resources and high-performance rowing centres boasting intimidating Olympic histories?

The Skibbereen Rowing Club Success Story

Again, the O'Donovans make it sound easy:

"Everyone has the same rowing boats, the same number of arms, the same number of legs," reels off Paul in the 'Way of the Wildcard' documentary, "they all have water," adds Gary, "to row on," finishes Paul.

But well they know that it isn't easy at all.

"Whether the walls of the club are insulated or they're just blocks like here, you still have to do 8,000km a year," continues Gary, Paul nodding, "it's the execution of the training program, the intent when you come in every day."

The weights in the weight room might be made from scrap metal, but when it comes to coaching and organisation, Skibb is second to none.

The boys' silver medal at Rio wasn't a naturally occurring phenomenon, but a progression, a result of years of dedication and careful coaching of a talented golden generation or Irish rowing, a story of a local club run well enough to go global.

If the most successful club in Ireland with more national titles than anyone else has a secret, it's coach Dominic Casey.

"Dominic Casey is the mastermind behind it all," says Kieran McCarthy, author of 'Something in the Water - How Skibbereen rowing club conquered the world'.

Talking to Ireland's Off The Ball, McCarthy explains just how crucial Casey is to the Skibb, and Ireland setup:

“Since he became the lightweight Ireland rowing coach back in 2015, [there have been] Olympic medals, world champions year after year, European champions, Rowing World Cup medals - and he’s the man behind it all.”

A quiet man, Casey prefers to see the rowers in the limelight, while he goes back to the process.

“He prefers to stand in the background," says McCarthy, "we run sports awards down in West Cork… and back in 2016 when Gary and Paul qualified for the Olympics they were presented with a monthly award… and Dominic never turned up. He preferred to take juniors out on the river that day instead."

But the coach can't escape all the plaudits, particularly when they come from the President of Ireland after he won 2018 World Rowing Coach of the Year.

"He just thinks about rowing all the time," says Gary O'Donovan about Casey, "we're like family really the way we'd be going on some of the times."

And as family, they can be totally honest and up front with each other. When Gary lost his place in the boat, coach knew how to motivate him.

"Dominic has been saying it’s the best thing ever to happen to me," says Gary. "It might be."

This family continues taking on the world together. Ireland sent 11 crews to Linz for the 2019 world champs with 10 rowers from the Skibbereen club involved. Four crews won medals and qualified four boats for the Olympics.

One of those boats is the lightweight double sculls, an Irish boat that is favourite to win the country's first ever rowing gold medal.

Whoever wins the race to be in it.