Fans Just Love These Guys

Gary (L) and Paul O'Donovan

Gary (L) and Paul O’Donovan

By Audrey Cooney – Posted on October 22, 2016

Gary and Paul O’Donovan have had an exciting few months.

In May the Irish brothers, ages 23 and 22, won gold in lightweight double sculls in the 2016 European Rowing Championships. In August, they made headlines by winning the silver medal in the same event during the Rio Olympics, earning Ireland’s first ever Olympic medal in rowing. Later that same month, Paul won the gold medal for the lightweight single sculls at the World Rowing Championships.

The brothers started their athletic lives as Gaelic football and rugby players, but by ages 7 and 8, they were rowing, sparked by their father’s enthusiasm for the sport. By 13 and 14, they had decided to focus on rowing fulltime. The decision would prove to be life-changing.

“It kind of worked out OK for us,” quipped Paul.

Gary said that, from a young age, Paul was more intensely focused on rowing that his older brother. Gary said he originally saw rowing as a way to spend time with friends, and would admire the older, more experienced members of their rowing team. Paul was less focused on learning from older rowers, said Gary.

“He just wanted to beat them,” he said.

But now the two are on the same page. The pair acknowledges they don’t necessarily row together because they’re brothers; it’s more because they’re a good match athletically and can communicate well.

“We’re like the same person,” said Paul.

Several years ago, they both decided to attend college part time.

“I love college… I’m supposed to be there this week, don’t tell anyone,” said Paul with a laugh.

According to Gary, going to college part time gave them the ability to spend lots of time training while also getting a break from each other.

“It gets quite intense” spending so much time with one person, said Gary, especially at training camps, where the brothers spend hours on the water each day and are together almost constantly. They barely say a word to each other while they row, he said, instead moving along in near silence.

The brothers might be quiet on the water, but since their Olympic win, they’re dealt with clamoring public attention from new fans.

“Life was actually simpler before,” said Gary. “Now if we want to go to the grocery store we have to give ourselves an extra three quarters of an hour just to do that.” He added that, after arriving in Boston last Sunday, he and Paul travelled to New York City, and that even there they were continually stopped on the street by admirers as the two toured Central Park.

“We’re trying to take in as much of it as we can,” he said. He added that, while he and Paul haven’t seen much of Boston since they’re been here, they already want to come back to the city. Before this week, he said, they’d never been to the United States before.

Paul commented that the rowing facilities they’ve seen in Boston outdo anything they have at home. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” he said, as he stood in the middle of massive and modern Community Rowing boathouse. “They don’t do small-scale things over here.”

The small size of Ireland’s rowing program, they explained, has meant that Irish rowers have fewer resources than in bigger countries where the sport is more popular, like the U.S. and France. Gary said they admire rowing teams from smaller countries like Norway and Slovenia, where rowers work with less support from their home countries. This situation, said Gary, mirrors their own experience navigating the world of international rowing competitions

“We’ve kind of had to figure this out on our own… It was completely unknown territory for everyone,” he said.

But after the year Gary and Paul have had, Irish rowing has gained more attention than would have seemed possible even a few months ago.

“The sport has really taken off,” said Paul. In the weeks since Rio, he said, Irish rowing clubs have struggled to meet the demand of everyone who wants to take up rowing.

“I suppose it’s a good problem to have,” he said.


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