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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 21 April 2021

Meet one of Irish sport’s best athletes - also Irish sport’s best kept secret

Fintan McCarthy has a great chance of winning gold at next year’s Olympics. So how come he is not already a national treasure?

Fintan McCarthy celebrates winning Euro bronze.
Fintan McCarthy celebrates winning Euro bronze.
Image: Detlev Seyb/INPHO

YOU ALL KNOW the O’Donovan brothers, the Olympians who cruised across the water in Rio and stamped their personality on the nation back home. You remember their ebullience in post-race interviews on land as much, if not more, than their brilliance in a boat.

If we’re being particularly cruel, the majority of you probably switched off when the Olympic flame burnt out in Rio. That’s an uncomfortable truth we should probably save for the confessional, how the heroes we laud for a fortnight every four years are practically ignored in between Games.

Life doesn’t stop, though. Since Rio, Paul has become a four-time world champion in single and double sculls; Gary, the elder of the two brothers, sharing the boat with him in Plovdiv, when they won the 2018 world championship. Gary’s CV also has European gold, Olympic and European silver, inked onto it. Be in no doubt, he’s one of the best rowers in the world.

His trouble is, he’s also competing to prove he is one of the best in Skibbereen.

It’s like this. In a town of 2,718 people, there are two sets of brothers competing for two spaces in a boat that has a very strong chance of winning a medal in Tokyo. Paul O’Donovan, regarded as the best lightweight rower in the world, is almost certain to be one of them.

So you do the maths.

paul-and-gary-odonovan-celebrate-winning-a-silver-medal The O'Donovan brothers light up Rio. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

At this stage, it’s probably best to introduce Fintan McCarthy to you. A year after the O’Donovans won world championship gold in Plovdiv, McCarthy forced his way onto the team for the 2019 world championships in Ottensheim. Guess what? He and Paul O’Donovan topped the podium.

“It was such a weird feeling,” McCarthy says, “everything you’ve half-imagined all your life, you expect instant euphoria when you do it.”

But it wasn’t there. “Exhaustion was. You are so focused on the race, it took time to unfocus if you see what I mean.”

A minute later, reality dawned. “It is 100 times better than you ever imagined. It’s the contentment, that was what hit you. Like, for weeks, this contentment just stayed with you. Everything (in life) was good.”

paul-odonovan-and-fintan-mccarthy-celebrate-after-winning-the-lm2x-a-final McCarthy (left) and Paul O'Donovan win world championship gold in 2019. Source: Detlev Seyb/INPHO

Life is complicated, though. Because Paul O’Donovan is such a decorated athlete, admired in his trade for his incredible endurance and drive, and because he was the thread between Rio and the 2019 world championships, there was always a danger that McCarthy’s role in the victory would be diluted.

So that’s why he jumped on a plane to Poznan earlier this year, not to compete in the European championship double sculls, but to go it alone, in the singles. In a particularly technical sport, where the difference between singles and doubles is significant, McCarthy took bronze. It was his way of proving a point, of saying I’m not just the other guy in Paul O’Donovan’s boat.

“Paul is an amazing, amazing athlete, the best in the world,” says McCarthy. “For me going to the Europeans in the scull was about two things, definitely, 100 per cent, for myself, to show that I am actually contributing to the boat as well. It is not just that whoever is with Paul is going to win, there has to be two good athletes in the boat to be world or Olympic champion. But a lot (of my motivation) was about proving to myself that I am up there and that I am not just getting pulled down the course by Paul. Getting that experience will definitely stand to me.”

It’s still something of a surprise to learn that rowers don’t get the chance to compete that often; the cost of carting all that equipment around the world isn’t cheap, after all. So, for the most part, they train. And train. And train. 

When we spoke earlier in December, McCarthy admitted he hadn’t been able to get out for a pint since January. 

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paul-odonovan-and-fintan-mccarthy-finish-in-first-place-in-the-lm2x-a-final Paul O'Donovan and McCarthy cross the finish line to win world championship gold. Source: Detlev Seyb/INPHO

It’s hard to think of a greater sacrifice man has ever made.

It is far from the only one. A ‘normal week’ involves 13 training sessions, Monday to Sunday, 90-minute to two-hour sessions of low endurance rowing, mixed with weight sessions. Their reward for all this is half-a-day-off on a Sunday.

“You call that normal?” he is asked.

“Well the harder weeks, the 15 sessions-a-week, when we do triple training sessions some days, those are tougher,” he says.

It isn’t the only hardship. At 24, he has given away his youth to this sport, this passion. Others his age have entered into the world of nine-to-five, getting the mortgage, the wedding, the kids, the garden, the dog.

Here, meanwhile, we have a genuine world class athlete who is certainly not getting rich on any government grant, who has parked his career to pursue his dream.

“It is a passion but it is definitely not the case that you get up every day and want to do it; there are some days where you would prefer to be doing the normal (nine to five) thing but when I think about it, the highlight of a lot of people’s weeks or months is a night out or seeing their friends. I know I will be able to do that eventually.

“The highlights I’m getting now have a deep meaning to me. This is the only chance in life that I’ll get to win a world championship, to (win a) bronze in a European (championship). I’ve got to make the most of it.”

This is where it gets complicated. McCarthy has a twin, Jake. Jake, too, is world class. If Paul O’Donovan is the best in the world, then Gary O’Donovan, Fintan and Jake McCarthy are competing against one another to get that plane ticket to Tokyo.

andrew-goff-jacob-mccarthy-ryan-ballantine-and-fintan-mccarthy Jacob (second) and Fintan (fourth) compete in the 2018 lightweight quads. Source: Detlev Seyb/INPHO

He struggles to think of a time when Jake wasn’t around. “Mmmmm,” he says. A pause turns into a 20-second delay as his mind wanders. “I can’t imagine what other people’s normal is because anything we’ve done, Jake and I have done together.”

The closeness of being a twin. Now they are competing for the same team, the same dream.

“A lot of people think it will be difficult, but I don’t know. I think it is a bit easier. It is like, if I don’t get picked, he might. And I’d be 100 per cent happy for him if he did – and he’d be the same for me.

“It’s Skibbereen, like. We’re representing our little town on the world stage. When we were younger, seeing everyone from here go off to the worlds, we wanted to do that as well. It’s like supporting a soccer team, except for us it was rowing.”

It all seems surreal, this battle between friends, brothers, twins, this small Cork town producing a factory of talent, this life of dedication for six minutes of racing, these world class athletes of ours that the nation practically ignores in between Olympic Games. 

“Every rower aspires to win the Olympics. It’s a bit genetic to say something like that. Lately, I’m conscious about enjoying what I’m doing a lot more because it is not going to last forever and I don’t want to look back on this time, which should be really enjoyable, and remember that I was miserable all the time. There have been some hard days, alright.”

Brighter ones await. 

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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