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'You don't think about being part of history' - inside the mind of Ireland's Olympic champion

Fintan McCarthy was one half of the dynamic duo who captured rowing gold for Ireland in Tokyo.

McCarthy (left) holds gold in his hand.
McCarthy (left) holds gold in his hand.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

HE SPENT TEN years chasing the dream but took just six minutes to deliver it.

Elation mixed with exhaustion as he crossed the line. The anthem, the tricolour being raised, there was a formality about all that. However the guard of honour the Ireland team gave as he returned to the Olympic village is a moment he’ll cherish forever.

Coming home, the drive from Skiberreen to his townland, Foherlagh, the bonfires lit in his honour, the neighbours waving at him as he passed, those images will have a permanent slot in his memory bank. “I really liked that bit,” says Fintan McCarthy, one half of Ireland’s lightweight double skulls team. “These are the people who have seen us go down the road since we were whatever age. To show them the medal, for them to be so proud, ah it was amazing.”

**

Six boats raced along the water at the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo. Back home it was 4am. In Japan it was late morning, the sticky heat of an Asian summer burning into his neck. Despite making an unexpectedly good start, the Irish boat was in third as it passed a bridge at the 750 metre mark, the Germans and Italians up ahead.

He knew not to panic. Once, two years ago, he was a nervous wreck at a regatta in the Netherlands, his first time racing with Paul O’Donovan. Afterwards he had a word with himself. “What did you gain being that way?”

He’s never been overwhelmed with nerves since. “By nature, I wouldn’t say I’m that calm a person but being with Paul, it helps.

fintan-mccarthy-and-paul-odonovan-with-their-gold-medals O'Donovan's composure helped McCarthy. Source: Photosport/Steve McArthur/INPHO

“I’ve learned a lot about how Paul plays it down. How it is just a race, how he doesn’t let things get to him. Then, on the other hand, he’s just the fiercest competitor I’ve ever known. There is no secret to what we do. It is just about delivering.”

Unbeaten in two years, everyone expected them to do just that in Tokyo. But the water was choppy that morning, the Germans inspired. Going under that bridge, McCarthy said ‘let’s go’ but was talking to himself rather than O’Donovan. “I was thinking, ‘right you’re at the Olympic Games here, don’t leave anything behind’.”

They didn’t. As they moved past the Italians, silver medals were guaranteed, barring a complete disaster. Yet they knew they could go faster. It was just a question of deciding when to press the accelerator.

McCarthy recalls sensing the Germans struggling, remembers pulling ahead of them and thinking momentarily the race was done. But it wasn’t. With 400 metres to go, the Germans had retaken the lead.

“When that happened, I was like, for about a second, ‘oh f**k’. Then I said, ‘no, there’s 40 strokes left’. A kind of animalistic feeling comes over you in a way. You say to yourself ‘this is not happening. We are better (than them). Just pull as hard as you can’.”

That’s what he did for the final 40 strokes.

“Those final 400 metres, I just burned a hole in Paul’s back. Forty strokes, going as hard as I could, crossing the line first, that moment specifically, to do it in an Olympic final, it’s what you dream about, what you spend years imagining. It’s amazing for it to happen in real life.

fintan-mccarthy-and-paul-odonovan-celebrate-winning-gold Elation: after a tight race, the Irish crew won. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“You don’t think about being a part of history. But once you cross that line in first, you do think back to when you were 15, when you thought then ‘wouldn’t it be so cool to be a champion’?

“That is the one thing I like about what we did, to be able to look back at my 15-year-old self and think, ‘yeah you did it, good man’.”

**

Rowers look at water differently to the rest of us. They move along it physically but it moves them emotionally.

“There are certain places, like the water at home in Skibbereen, I’ve done a lot of training there and after Tokyo, it was nice to be back to where it all started. I loved it when I first started to row. That was what got me coming back to it as a teenager. It wasn’t about winning an Olympics. It was about …..”

He pauses. He lowers his head to avoid eye contact, to help him articulate his thoughts. Then after four or five seconds, he looks up again. “In the water, there is nothing else you can do or think about. As a teenager, you might have had the worst day at school or college. But then, when you are out on the water, you kind of – look, it is so clichéd – but everything else goes out of your mind.

“All you think about is how the boat is moving. It is just a bit of an escape, I guess.”

fintan-mccarthy Back where it started: McCarthy at home in the water. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Part of him kept going back there because part of him loved it and another part of him realised he was especially talented when he got inside a boat. His twin, Jake, is too. Last February, there were four of them, two sets of brothers, McCarthys and O’Donovans, competing for two spots in a boat.

One got there from each family.

The relief was huge. Next was dealing with the expectation.

“I knew the pressure was there but to an extent I just ignored it. If ever there was a thought, of what if it doesn’t go well, I always had a counter argument in his head.

“We’d trained solidly. There is no more we could have done. That took the pressure off.”

So did O’Donovan.

“He is very matter of fact. There is no proclamation of how well we are going to go. He just mentions our training times every now and then.”

Nothing else needed to be said.

Again, whenever nerves threatened to visit, McCarthy recalled that regatta in the Netherlands, his first race with O’Donovan. The water was rough that day but they got silver.

“I remember being at the start line thinking ‘you can quit rowing after this race if you want. Just get through it’. But it was fine in the end. That was a good wake-up call. I never vocalised my nervousness to Paul. But I do remember thinking, right don’t be like that again, don’t freak out. Just trust yourself.”

In Tokyo, he did, securing his place in Irish Olympic history.

But that’s gone. Already is thinking about Paris and back-to-back wins.

“It would be stupid to leave it go when I am still healthy,” he says. “You don’t ever want this to stop.”

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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