"They were like rock stars to us" - Gary and Paul O'Donovan on their childhood heroes
"It's a funny one. I don't want to be barging into the rowing club, imposing myself on them."
Growing up in Cork, Gary O'Donovan watched 'a little bit of whatever sport was on the telly' but was lucky to have his sporting heroes living just down the road.
At the end of the summer, Gary O'Donovan and his brother Paul, headed along to Croke Park to get behind Repak's 'Team Green' initiative and catch up with fellow recycling advocates Paul McGrath, Rozanna Purcell and Anna Geary. Both lads were born in the early 90s so they missed most of McGrath's golden years in the Irish football team.
"His name is iconic," says Gary, "but I've only got to know more about him in recent years. To us, he is just Paul. A great fella."
A little closer to home, Gary talks about brothers Setanta and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, Sonia O'Sullivan and the likes of Donncha O'Callaghan, Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer as great sporting role models from Cork, when he was growing up. However, when he touches on the lads from Skibbereen Rowing Club, you can feel the reverence in his words.
"Our dad was in the rowing club so we used to get along as often as we could. We'd be at races and we'd be shouting, 'There they are. The Skibbereen lads!' They'd get out of the water and they'd be walking around in the rain, carrying their boats back. We were in awe.
"We always looked up to them. The likes of Eugene Coakley and Timmy Harnedy, they were our heroes. What they were doing, competing in world championships and Olympics, seemed achievable because these lads were local. Not someone like Usain Bolt, who might as well have been superman."
"They were like rock stars to us," says Paul O'Donovan. "They had a homecoming one year, in Skibb, and nearly everyone was out. Having those lads around, and someone like Fr. Cahill the local priest, who was mad into sport, was great for us, growing up."
In 2016, the O'Donovan brothers claimed Ireland's first ever Olympics rowing medal when they took silver home from Rio. Since then, whether they raced together or with different partners, success has not been far away. Gary claimed world championship gold in 2018 while Paul is a four-time world champion at this stage. Together or separate, they represent live medal hopes at next year's Olympic games.
It raises a couple interesting questions, then. Do the brothers see themselves as heroes, or role models, to the next generation of Irish rowers? Are they doling out advice to the next generation down at Skibbereen Rowing Club?
"It's a funny one," says Gary. "I don't want to be barging into the rowing club, imposing myself on them. But I'll be there for some advice or support if I'm needed. You'd like to think that us being out there, competing, can have a positive influence.
"I remember I was able to talk to the likes of Eugene and Timmy - ask them about training, dealing with pressure or what they were having for dinner. They never really did anything huge for us but their presence was there and that pushed us on."
Both Gary and Paul remained in Ireland while the likes of Fintan McCarthy, Sanita Puspure and more medalled at the European Championships, earlier this month. They have had to settle for staying in shape as best they can, in local waters, during the lockdown and travel restrictions but have moved rowing machines into their respective homes.
Interestingly, improved data collection in recent years means they are often competing against themselves, in terms of times they recorded in previous years, rather than upcoming opponents in 2021.
The brothers also have more time to promote the 'Team Green' initiative, with Paul getting the most animated during any point of our conversation when he talks about encouraging the public to get better recycling habits, especially with everyone being at home more than usual.
The Olympics, in Tokyo, next summer are the goal but both Gary and Paul are taking things on a day to day basis. There's no point looking too far ahead.
"I'm in college (UCC) studying medicine and into my third year now," says Paul. "I don't go further than a kilometre, normally, from where I live so my life hasn't changed that much!"
- By joining Repak’s Team Green initiative, not only are people pledging to become a better recycler, a perfect first step in helping to protect the environment, but they can also learn tips on how to recycle correctly. More details can be found here: www.repak.ie/teamgreen.