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World of Sport

21st Oct 2023

“Okay, I know I can be the fastest now” – Fintan McCarthy and the bonfire within

Patrick McCarry

Fintan McCarthy

“It’s going to be hectic.”

Relaxing then going full throttle to the verge of peak, holding that and then pushing even further to properly peak, PEAK. Then relaxing again. For Fintan McCarthy, that has been the life cycle for the past eight years.

A few weeks back, an opportunity came up to interview Fintan McCarthy. Interviewing Irish and international sporting greats is part of the job. Someone like McCarthy is a fascinating character to study, in part because many of us don’t know much about him aside from his incredible rowing prowess, deadly partnership with Paul O’Donovan and his mega-watt smile.

The interview starts off with bad WiFi and a scramble around his house before we get motoring. The dogs, golden retrievers called Albie and Maple, are not far away. They belong to his parents, Tom and Sue, but the kids ‘just come and claim them for a weekend at a time!’

McCarthy is one of this country’s most driven sporting competitors but when he is outside the rowing bubble, as he calls it, he is as laid-back as they come. McCarthy and O’Donovan both cherish the friends and family they have to lean on, making it easier to switch off when they are not in full-on rowing mode.

McCarthy, at the age of 26, is an Olympic champion, a three-time world champion and a two-time European champion. Next year is all about locking in qualification for Paris 2024 and aiming for that Olympics gold repeat. It will be the last time the lightweight doubles sculls is included in the Olympics programme so Ireland will be desperate to finish that chapter in winning style. Desperate to see the road home lit up with bonfires again, and those familiar, smiling faces.

Asked if this drive for sporting success was always part of his D.N.A, the Skibbereen native admits, “Not really, you know.

“It was a bit accidental, to be honest, like. We did a few [rowing] weekends and a few summer camps when we were kids in primary school, but that was as far as I’d ever gone with it. It wasn’t until halfway through secondary school where I sort of picked it up and started it properly.

“I guess I’m kind of one of those people who… I find it difficult to stay doing things if I’m not really good at them, or the best of them. Like, I don’t want to disappoint myself or disappoint other people, I guess. I slotted into secondary school not being that sporty. I thought academics was my thing really, and I worked really hard at that. I would be doing well enough in school. I have a twin brother, Jake, and he’s much more sporty. He was playing football, soccer and all of that. It was halfway through school where I just found myself thinking, like, ‘Oh, is this is it?! Just doing well in school, doing homework and then that was it for the day’. I didn’t really have anything else or like a place, I guess.”

A couple of McCarthy’s friends were members of Skibbereen Rowing Club and he wasn’t long talked into going along to give it a go. He recalls his parents being ‘probably delighted that I was going out and trying something’. Gradually, he says, rowing sort of took over.

Fintan McCarthy

The Trials – ‘Okay, I know I can be the fastest now’

As he mentioned, Fintan McCarthy revels in a challenge if he feels he can master it, or give it a good shake. He found he had a knack for rowing and was encouraged by the positive feedback, and his own sense that this was a sport he could excel at. He recalls that he and some friends from school, along with his brother, Jake, started rowing as it was good for their fitness but it did not take long before that competitive edge kicked in.

Fintan and Jake were initially paired together and they won a national title together, aged 19, back in 2016. Up until fifth or sixth class, McCarthy recalls, he and Jake did not have much of competitive streak, although their parents may disagree. “As twins,” he concedes, “there’s competition, always. You’re always comparing yourself to each other and being compared. Even if you’re not actively competing, it’s just a subconscious thing. So it was nearly as if, back then, I didn’t want to step on his toes and, like, I knew he was better than me [at sport]. I was thinking that I’d do my thing and try to be good at that. Then, once we both started rowing, it did bring us together in a way, and we weren’t competing against each other.”

Rowers are a fascinating sporting breed as they must be extremely fit, and have super cardio, but they also need to be very strong. To train for it, rowers need to build up their aerobic base – low intensity for sustained periods – then condition themselves to go for high intensity intervals – putting down a huge amount of power and ‘serious watts’ down.

“Racing is the smallest part of our season,” says McCarthy. “It’s basically, three or four or five hours of training a day, six or seven days a week, pretty much all year round. We have a couple of weeks off, but there’s always something that we can be improving on.”

The winter months will feature sessions on the rowing machines and stationary bikes, then long stretches out on the water, when the weather allows, and even when it doesn’t exactly.

Fintan and Jake were competing together up until 2019 when the coaches and high performance director changed things up on the water. It is common enough practice, says McCarthy, and a good way to keep everyone on their toes.

“We hold trials, of sorts, every month where we measure ourselves against each other and against our previous times, either on the water or on rowing machines. There are standard tests, like the 2km test or 6km test, on the machines, to gauge your fitness and where you are compared to others. We do on-water stuff in singles, as well, all the time. It is quite individual, in the winter.

“From those trials, you might try different combinations in training and, once it comes around to the summer, we’ll do a few tests where you’re swapping into the boat with different people and doing races, and comparing times that way.”

In 2018, there came a result that was almost like a parting of the waves. Fintan and Jake went into the World Rowing Under 23 Championships with high hopes of a podium finish. They won their heat and came second in their semi-final but could only finish fifth in the final.

McCarthy was going into the final year of his course at University College Cork and, graduating to the senior circuit, dedicated himself into putting all into his rowing to ‘see how things go’. Himself and Jake went to the European Championships a year later and though they finished fifth again, they were now mixing with the full-blowns.

The coaches recognised that between the McCarthy brothers and the O’Donovan brothers, Gary and Paul, they had four top athletes to mix and match.

“We were swapping sort of between the four of us that year [2019],” says McCarthy, “to try and see, could we make the fastest combination any faster? So, for me, it wasn’t like, ‘I’m gonna win the world championship’. It was just seeing how far we could go and seeing how fast we get. Then as it all turned and played itself out, I was like, ‘Okay, I know I can be the fastest now.’

The 2019 World Rowing Championships saw Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan paired up for what would end up being a procession to gold – they won their heat, quarter final, semi and final. This was the beginning of a period of dominance that we are still experiencing, four years on.

Paul O’Donovan (L) and Gary O’Donovan (R) celebrate Olympic silver at Rio 2016. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The pressure of breaking up a winning team

In 2016, Paul and Gary O’Donovan had captured the hearts, and a fair few laughs, of the nation when they won Olympic silver medals in Rio. They were the first rowing medals Ireland had ever won at the games, but both lads took it in ‘Arra, sure, look’ style. They became world champions together in 2018.

Three years on, with the games in Tokyo delayed a year due to Covid-19, it was Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy travelling to the games to try go one better than Rio and win Olympic gold. Two sets of brothers had been split up to create a new lightweight double sculls team. It was an educated gamble, yet one that boded well after the duo beat the Germans and Italians, earlier that year, to claim European gold.

At the Sea Forest Waterway, in Tokyo Bay, McCarthy and O’Donovan were on another level. They left the Czechs and Italians in the wake. The German crew had one of their best ever races, and still could not topple the Irish pair.

McCarthy and O’Donovan don’t go on the water with big game-plans or trigger calls. The height of it goes to a quick chat beforehand to make sure both are feeling good. They trust that the work that has brought them to the big race will be enough to see them through. “It kind of becomes internal, then,” McCarthy says, “because you’re focusing on what you’re doing to make the boat feel how we both wanted to feel.

“If I do say anything during a race it would be, ‘Yes’. Literally the word yes, because it’s what we want. It’s feeling good and that’s what we’re looking for. So I’m just confirming it to myself, even.”

A six or seven minute race allows mistakes to be corrected or time to be made up if there is a slip, or another crew are putting in a rapid time. “You pretty much have to just move on to the next stroke and make the next few perfect, which is very difficult to do if you’re focusing on that bad stroke and you’re like, ‘Shit, I made a mistake. Is this going to cost us the race?’

“You kind of just have to put it straight out of your mind and get on to the next one… when you’re in that situation, it’s nearly second nature now.”

The Germans made them earn it but there was more screamed that ‘Yes’ in the Irish boat as they held on to take gold.

While O’Donovan and McCarthy celebrated that Olympics gold, Gary O’Donovan was already flying home. He had been first reserve for the crew but, when both lads were deemed fit and ready for the final, Covid restrictions meant the Cork native had to depart the Olympic Village.

Jake McCarthy suffered a back injury, back in 2020 when all of us were trying to get a handle on Covid. It took him a while to get back to full health, and he is back out competing.

Fintan McCarthyFintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan celebrate World Championship gold. (Credit: Sportsfile)

Fintan McCarthy on Paul O’Donovan

Paul O’Donovan is only two and a half years older than Fintan McCarthy but his Rio 2016 silver medal, aged just 22, and entertaining RTÉ interviews quickly turned him into a recognisable face down in Skibb, and across Cork.

As laconic as they come, I ask Fintan McCarthy if O’Donovan secretly loves being the rock star of Irish rowing. “I don’t know about that, now!” he jokes.

“I find that I learn so much about rowing, and about training, from Paul every day. I would have grown up with him, in the club. When I was just getting started, he was heading off to junior worlds and Under 23 worlds, and winning medals with Gary. When we first got on the boat together, I was trying to soak it all up, and I’m still doing that. He’s just like an absolute wealth of knowledge.”

McCarthy explains that while he finds he is very detailed orientated, in terms of his training and preparations, O’Donovan is in tune with the feel of his boat and his rowing stroke. It comes naturally to O’Donovan, but that is only down to hundreds upon hundreds of hours out on the water.

The closest thing to drama we often get in the post-race interviews, especially where the O’Donovans are involved, is a gentle ribbing of a rival crew. Asked if there are any Cool Runnings – East Germany vs. Jamaica – moments, McCarthy smiles.

“The Italians are usually on the podium with us, so we know them quite well. There’s a new guy, actually, in that Italian boat this year [Gabriel Soares] that I would have raced sort of up through the years, when I was younger.

“There’s a weigh-in that the other events don’t have, where we’re all in together two hours before the race. We know each other better and bump into each other a bit more so, yeah, there’s a bit of banter there, within the lightweight side of things.”

Fintan McCarthy

Two seats on the boat

Up next, once this batch of down-time is finished, will be the winter sessions and the trials that lead up to the start of the big events in March and April. While many of us assume Ireland will be sending Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan to the Paris Olympics, the 26-year-old insists, “That is not locked in at all.”

“I think the final decision will be made on that in April. We’ve actually only qualified the boats and the two seats in the boat. So two lightweight men will be going to the Olympics from Ireland. But, yeah, we’re not… it’s not been decided yet.

“It has just kind of happened that every year, the best combination has been [me and Paul], for the last few years. So hopefully that will happen again, next year.

“But the thing is,” he adds, “we’re all trying to make the boat go as fast as possible. So, if you weren’t the fastest in the boat or you weren’t part of the fastest combination, you wouldn’t even want it because we’re trying to get the boat to win the Olympics as sort of a group and a team.

“If there’s someone else that can do a better job, you never want to take that away from them or take away from the chances of the boat winning. That’s how we all approach it.”

The Tokyo Olympics, staged in 2021, saw Fintan McCarthy officially become and Olympian, then an Olympic champion. The only thing missing, due to the strict Covid restrictions, was that true Olympic experience, hanging around in the village, celebrating the wins, mingling and mixing, and having family and friends there to share the big moments with.

“I am excited to get to Paris and sort of see the full on sort of Olympics, as it’s supposed to be.”

To get to his second Olympics, McCarthy knows he needs to bring his best again. Having seen his crew, with Jake, and the O’Donovans split in pursuit of world and Olympics gold, he knows how ruthless and relentless this game can be.

What drives him, too, are the memories of his return from Tokyo and the scenes around the town, and wider area, he grew up in.

“The main memory was driving home. It took us like hours to get from Skibb to my door because, our whole road home, there were bonfires. People were out on the road and I was stopping and showing everyone the medal. That probably struck me a bit more than anything because they were the people that saw you going up and down the road, heading to training. So, to show them all the medal, that was pretty special.”

Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan will head into the winter of 2023 as the men in possession of those two precious seats, but wary of those that crave what they have.

There is a corner of Ireland, out in West Cork, where this country’s best ever Olympic team will be getting ready for those trials and knowing they will need to be on it because they’ve seen what can happen if they are not.

Typically, though, no-one is getting hot or bothered about it. Not yet anyway.

“There’s no big speeches between us and Dominic [Casey, our coach] before, about what we’re going to do and how great it’s going to be and being champions, or anything like that,” McCarthy reflects. “We genuinely are just enjoying the process of training and racing and it’s not like a huge, big deal.

“Like, Dominic pretty much just pushes us off the and says, ‘Have a good race’, ‘Enjoy’ or something like that.

“Some people are kind of shocked by that but it’s just sort of every day, really.”


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