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'Self-isolating is what we're used to' - Life as normal for O'Donovan brothers in scenic West Cork

Paul and Gary O’Donovan are taking everything – from the Covid-19 crisis to Olympic uncertainty – in their stride.

“WE’RE GRAND, TO be honest,” Paul O’Donovan begins when he and his brother, Gary, are asked how they’re dealing with the current situation.

“It’s not too much different for us really to what we’re normally doing. The self-isolating is what we’re used to. We don’t see too many people, we just do our bit of training, stay at home and rest and what not, so it’s not much of a change for us.”

paul-and-gary-odonovan Gary and Paul O'Donovan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Skibbereen rowing duo are full of chat and in their usual flying form from scenic West Cork, despite the Covid-19 pandemic — and the recent postponement of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

When the coronavirus really came into full view in Ireland in the first two weeks of March, the Rio 2016 silver-winning pair were abroad on a training camp.

“We were in the south of Spain, it was around the time when things were kicking off in the north of Spain,” Gary explains to journalists over a Zoom call, later noting that they got their planned flight home.

“We came home then fairly lively and we were advised to quarantine for two weeks after that. We headed home to West Cork then and locked ourselves into a little house and stayed away from everyone for a fortnight. The fortnight has pretty much turned into over a month now. We haven’t really seen anyone.

What we’ve really noticed is how sheltered our lives are where we don’t really be out in public much at all.

“You’d be hearing how challenging it is for all these people and I guess their lives have changed drastically if they’re not going into work in an office every day, and things are having to change a lot for them but for us, we don’t really go very far other than out to the rowing club and back home and go to the grocery store once a week, twice at most anyway.”

“Yeah,” Paul interjects with a nod to current times and the restrictions, “as long as we don’t go to the rowing club and we do our training here…”

Back to older brother Gary: “We do the training in the house and we go to the grocery store once a week, maybe twice at most if we have to, so it’s pretty much a normal enough life for us at the minute.”

The script has been ripped up and torn to shreds over the past few weeks. Olympic trials were looming in April and the O’Donovans were peaking physically and mentally, but that all went down the drain.

A big question mark remained over the Games, and they continued to train as best as they could in quarantine within the advised rules and regulations. As the news of a definite postponement filtered through on 24 March, it was no major shock.

“It was just a case of, ‘Right, sure, we’ll reassess now and change tactics a little bit with a different landscape ahead of us,’” Gary continues. “I think it made life a bit easier too when they did postpone the Games for us.

“For a while we were a little bit compromised. The Games were going ahead, the Government was saying, ‘Don’t be going out’ and we were trying to follow the guidelines and trying to do the training but it gave a lot of relief when they did postpone the Games.

We were like, ‘Right, the priority now is not training and it’s not the Olympics and it’s not our own ambitions and goals, the priority is to follow the health and safety guidelines and do what’s best for the people’ – the same way that everyone else in the public is doing it.

“I think we’re lucky in that I know our priority is different but we can still do more or less the same thing,” Paul adds, “but we’re just doing it in the house because we’ve got rowing machines and a bit of weightlifting equipment. It doesn’t impact our training so much.”

There are whispers — after advice from medical experts — that Tokyo 2020 may be pushed out even further than next summer as the coronavirus really takes hold, but the siblings pay little head to that. They’ll take it as it comes and roll with the punches.

paul-and-gary-odonovan The pair are FBD ambassadors. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

As Gary says, they don’t have much of a choice.

Anything in possible in some respects. Six months ago if someone had told you the Olympics is going to be postponed because of a virus, you’d have thought they were stone-mad.

“From week to week, the landscape is changing in every aspect of everyone’s life. Ours is no different. You just watch the news in the evenings to see what the updates are, keep an eye on what the WHO are saying and the HSE and the Government and follow the best guidelines that you can.”

Paul, of course, is of the same opinion.

“I suppose you just have to be flexible as well. People are good at that. You can see there, FBD were Team Ireland’s sponsor going into the Olympics this year but they were flexible and have extended that out to next year as well.

You just have to be prepared for anything, make some adaptations and get on with it because if you don’t get on with it, there’s not much else you can do like. We have no say in the matter.

For now, it’s all about their own “little bubble” away from the water as they enjoy life in isolation with a clubmate. It’s not a huge adjustment being away from the water because they spend most of their time in the gym through the winter.

“The big difference is now we’d be heading into a lot of travelling, going to different regattas around Europe. That’s not happening,” Gary notes.

“As far as training goes, it’s kind of like a normal winter in a way. Just the weather’s a bit better outside, we can pull the rowing machine outside the door and get a bit of sunshine every now and again.”

Away from training, Paul is kept busy by the books and online classes. With a physiotherapy degree already, he’s now studying medicine in University College Cork [UCC]. Having sat exams in December, he took time off to train full-time for Tokyo, but since the postponement, he’s back at it again and enjoying this enforced isolation.

“You just have to take some responsibility and don’t be thinking about the days when you’d be wandering about, hugging and shaking hands with everyone,” he adds when asked for tips.

“You have to say, ‘Right, I’m a person who stays at home and obeys the rules. That’s my objective and my goal now is to stop the spread of this virus’. There’s nothing else you can do at the minute; stop feeling sorry for yourselves.

“That’s easy for me to say because I don’t like talking to people anyway.”

Gary, too, is making use of the more relaxed situation by reading, listening to podcasts and revising his rowing knowledge.

“If the weather’s good, I’ll go out for a stroll around the fields, look at some of the animals, check out some of the scenery,” he smiles. “It’s fabulous down here in West Cork.

We’ve got a lot of amenities at our front door; we can go down to the strand there, walk around the bushes, head in to some lads’ animals in the fields and chase them around. I could do anything. It’s lovely being out in the countryside.

“People would talk about getting into a routine and keeping themselves busy. I guess that makes sense in theory. It’s often very easy to just lie around in the bed in the morning and be at your leisure — I find there isn’t much wrong with that either. I’m happy enough getting up in my own time and doing my own training.

“We’ve got time to enjoy home, the surrounding landscape, because usually we’d be out travelling around Europe.”

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paul-and-gary-odonovan-celebrate-winning-a-silver-medal Gary and Paul after their Rio 2016 silver medals. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It has allowed time for reflection and self-assessment too, on their contribution to Irish rowing and how far they’ve come since that day in Rio four years ago.

“2016 was our first year ever winning an international medal at senior level,” Gary recalls.

“We were young and we were learning, trying to figure it out. In a way, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were doing the best we could and making the best decisions we could at the time. A lot of it was trial and error.

“We used to say it to ourselves and say it publicly as well, ‘Jaysus, imagine what knowledge we have now and what it will be like in another two years or another four years after a lot more competition and a lot more training and racing’.

We’ve come a long way since then: We’ve got a bigger understanding of the sport, of the training and what we do.

“More people then, when they see what we’ve done, they have a bit more belief in themselves that if they start to commit and follow a good programme that they’ll achieve some success as well,” Paul adds. “It becomes a bit more tangible for them.

“You see the team expanding and because we’re still here as well, we’ve probably made a few mistakes along the way. We can help guide the younger people and fast track them a long a bit.

“Hopefully, we can just retain that and keep the success going on into the future.”

Neither are short of motivation and have made no secret of their plans for the future — “We’re not going out to win anything other than Olympic gold,” they’ve told The42 numerous times since Rio” — and they hope to race again as soon as the current climate, and guidelines that follow, allows it.

The trials have been pushed out for another year or so, and places in the boat need to be secured (mainly by Gary, after losing his place in the lightweight double sculls boat to Fintan McCarthy last year after injury issues.) But that makes no odds, really.

I guess we’ll just restart again next year,” Gary concludes. “If next year comes good, we’ll probably just reproduce what we had been doing this year, next year for the trials which are in 11 months or 12 months time or whatever it is. 

“We’ve taken our foot off the gas quite a bit. But, we’re still doing a good bit of training, we’re very fit, very fast. For me, the motivation factor is to not lose that fitness. I think it would be an awful shame to let all the training that we’ve done go to waste by putting a stop to the training for even a few weeks.

“You’d start going backwards. It’s just keep chipping away at it and doing as much as I can.”

Olympic medal-winning rowers Paul and Gary O’Donovan are FBD brand ambassadors. FBD Insurance is a principal partner to Team Ireland since September 2018. 

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Emma Duffy

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