After their silver medal row at the Rio Olympics in 2016, the O’Donovan brothers, Paul and Gary, became famous for their comedic quips. Although it was somewhat unintentional on their part, the country became captivated by the west Cork lads’ easygoing natures.
We’ve all heard them. “Pull like a dog” and “nana’s brown cake” being two of the most renowned quotes.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that in recent weeks Paul went on to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics with Fintan McCarthy in the men’s lightweight double sculls.
Just last weekend the pair once again made history when they became the first Irish winners of the double sculls Challenge Cup at the Henley Regatta in the UK.
At this year’s Olympics we again saw glimpses of humour from Paul. He admitted in an interview that he had been ignoring his mother and would “get the back of the hand across the face” when he got home.
From these encounters one would be forgiven for thinking Paul is particularly outgoing and gregarious. But on the contrary, he’s actually quite introverted and shy.
I didn’t until I was chatting with him over Zoom. The first signs of this become apparent when I ask about celebrations, did it bother him not having a large one due to COVID-19 restrictions. Not in the slightest, is the general reply.
“With the COVID stuff going on at the minute it’s nice because there’s a bit more time to spend with the close friends and family, especially when you first come home, that’s what you want to be doing,” Paul explains. “Maybe if things get a bit better in the coming weeks and months they might have a big celebration.
“You know when there’s too many people, you haven’t the space to turn around. The first word of a sentence and someone has dragged you around in another direction. It’s been really nice actually having a smaller, low-key celebration.”
For Paul, personally, the restrictions of the last 18 months have suited him in ways.
“I’m very shy. I’d be very introverted to be honest. I think that’s why, as well, the whole COVID thing kind of suited me. I thought it was brilliant actually, I loved it. I know it’s unfortunate now that everyone else had to go through it, but personally I just thought it was excellent that you had such an easy excuse not to have to go out and talk to people. But no, I’m glad to see the back of it as well for sure.”
To be fair, Paul’s introverted nature shouldn’t really be a surprise. Humour and humility aren’t mutually exclusive.
Paul is from Aughadown, just outside Skibbereen in west Cork. Speaking about his home place, he references the butter.
“They make the butter, Aughadown Creamery Butter. It’s gorgeous stuff. In west Cork you can get a lot of it. It’s a bit harder to get further out. You’ll have to make a trip down to get some.”
This penchant for local butter isn’t much of a revelation, really. When Paul was young his father, alongside working another job, had a small dairy farm, milking around 20 cows. By the time he and Gary were 10 and 11 (there’s only one year between the pair, Paul being the younger) their father had gotten out of farming.
However, Paul’s memories of being on the farm as a young fella are very positive. “We used to have a great time going down there. Acting the maggot around the farm, milking the cows, lifting bags of nuts and all this type of thing,” Paul says.
“It was the early mornings we didn’t like, but otherwise we wanted to spend as much time as we could down there for sure. Especially when there was silage going on, there’d be fierce excitement around that. You’d be all year waiting for more silage or the second cut. The mother would be kind of conscious, she’d be worried about it with the tractors and stuff.”
Speaking with Paul, you get a general sense that he and Gary were always characters, but still, farm safety was paramount.
“We were safe enough as well and in fairness to the parents, they drilled a lot of the farm safety into us, which is important around the machines and tractors. Even just the slurry tank, you’d want to be careful around that. And we were.”
Overall, farming during his formative years was a good experience for Paul. He feels that farming does help in terms of sport, all activity does.
“At that young age if you’re doing any kind of activity it’s good. Some bit of lifting and running around chasing cattle, you’re definitely going to see the benefit of that like when you bring it into sport, absolutely.
“Farming was a good experience. I think that gave us a good work ethic like, we brought that then into the rowing. Well, maybe we would have had it anyway without the farm, but certainly it makes a good story telling it now afterwards,” he laughs.
Paul and Gary also started out young in rowing. It was through their father they first got involved in Skibbereen Rowing Club.
“Our dad in his early 20s, he was doing a bit of rowing with the rowing club inside. When we were very young he’d be around at the regattas and he’d bring us along as well. Sure we’d be kicking over boats and causing all sorts of havoc. They were fairly fragile things so people hated us around the place,” he says with a half-smile.
“Dad wanted to get into the coaching himself so he brought the two of us [to the rowing club]. He was basically just dragging the boat up and down the slip for us because we weren’t strong enough to lift it at all. Ah sure, we could hardly hold the oars but we were having a great time just splashing around out there. Then we got a few of our friends from school to come down and sure it took off from there then really.”
The O’Donovan brothers weren’t unfamiliar to a small bit of mischief in the rowing club either. I mention that I heard a woman from Skibbereen saying on a podcast that the McCarthys (Fintan who also won gold and his twin brother Jake) were very well-behaved, while the O’Donovans weren’t fond of “protocol”.
“We were on the verge of being thrown out of the place a couple of times. Gary definitely got suspended once or twice from the rowing club. I was a little bit quieter than them so I got away with a few bits and pieces,” Paul says. Sometimes it’s hard to know if he’s ball-hopping you or not!
“The more training we were doing then the more tired we were getting, so we’d less time for mischief and that probably worked out the best for everyone involved. Now that we’re a bit older and a bit more mature, we’re a bit calmer – I’d be hoping at least.”
Skibbereen Rowing Club, a voluntary organisation, has long since made its name as a force to be reckoned with in rowing. Paul says their coach, Dominic Casey, has been central to its success. He trained rowers firstly to Junior World Championships progressing all the way up along to Olympics, eventually getting an Olympic medal in 2016 with Paul and Gary.
Collectively learning from other’s mistakes and improving on them is a big feature of the club’s success, Paul feels. Also, they weren’t short of role models in Skibb.
“We always speak about Eugene Coakley and Timmy Harnedy, they were some of the older guys when we were growing up that were competing at the Olympics and World Championships. It’s nice for us that they were closer to home. They were kind of neighbours of ours.
“We’d see them in the rowing club training and we went to the same schools that they did. So you don’t have to be looking at these Usain Bolt athletes and fellas far afield, dreaming of what they’re doing. It’s good when you have someone closer to home.”
Now, obviously, Paul is a role model himself. He’s an ambassador for FBD Insurance and when FBD ran equipment competitions for schools, both Paul and Gary visited the winning schools and did a sports day with pupils.
Alongside rowing at the top level, Paul is also a student doctor, studying at University College Cork (UCC). The 27 year old went back to college in recent years. At one point I refer to him as a doctor and in his typical down-to-Earth fashion, he corrects me.
“I’m still only a student yet. I haven’t gotten the responsibility of making tea for people, that’ll all come in time.”
Balancing rowing and study is a challenge, Paul says, but one he enjoys. “I just like doing the two, it gives you a nice balance. There’s no point being too obsessed with rowing when there’s other things to do in life,” he reflects.
I would be kind of chilled out about the rowing and stuff, but I actually have to really try and get myself stressed about exams and study
“When you’re training a lot you can get away from the rowing and go into college, talk to the lads there about something different. Then when you’ve done too much study you can jump on the rowing machine for a break and crack on with a load of training.”
I put it to him that the calmness he displays when rowing must help in medicine also. He counters that it’s the opposite when it comes to exams.
“I suppose it’s interesting actually, I would be kind of chilled out about the rowing and stuff, but I actually have to really try and get myself stressed about exams and study, because I’d do nothing until the last minute.
“That’s what I found interesting about going back to study, trying to control that level of stress and actually try and bring it on myself. Put some pressure on and get the study done.”
Despite his humility and down-to-Earth demeanour, from rowing to studying medicine and beyond, there’s no doubt that Paul O’Donovan operates at a very high level. What’s even more endearing is calmness and poise with which he does it.