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The Irish rowing Olympian who led New Zealand to an unlikely gold in Tokyo

Tony O’Connor saw his team storm to gold earlier.

Image: INPHO

AFTER A FEW hours of tossing and turning, Tony O’Connor arose at 1am on Monday and decided to take a stroll around the Olympic village. Sleep proved elusive. The mind racing with concerns about racing.

The combination of fresh air and quiet would hopefully provide a tonic. Or so he thought.

“I figured the place would be dead. Jeez, it was absolutely buzzing. I guess a lot of people are starting to finish their events now. There were people sitting out on the grass and in the dining hall. I wandered around until about 2am. It was nice actually, very Olympic.”

It has been a pleasant surprise at these surreal games. Within the village, the buzz remains the same. A familiar feeling that he feared confined to the past due to the oddity of today’s Tokyo.

Thankfully, it is not the case. O’Connor has come to love the buzz around the Olympics. He first experienced it as an athlete in 1996, where he finished fourth in the men’s lightweight coxless four.

He competed in the same event at Sydney. Five World Rowing Championship medals further cemented his career. His recent return was in the role of coaching the New Zealand men’s eight boat that won a goal medal on Friday.

While the competitive lust that carried him throughout remains, it was always the community he found at every event that made it worthwhile.

So small sprinklings of it, however restricted, are welcomed.

“The Japanese people are starting to get into it. Driving around and everyone is waving at you. We heard some horror stories before we came, the runners getting spat at during their training camp, but we haven’t had anything like that.

“We actually had a training camp on the other side of the country for a week and we had nothing but good will. Schools were out on the bank waving flags. It is just a shame we can’t get a real sense of the country.”

Rowing has brought him around the world. Born in London, his childhood was spent in Roscommon and Canada before they eventually settled in Limerick. There he tried his hand at various sports but as a self-confessed unathletic teenager, never found his groove.

Then a friend suggested they visit Shannon rowing club. Suddenly it clicked. He is quick to credit his mother’s support, an ever-willing chauffeur, albeit a reluctant spectator. Watching him race was never her thing.

“She was terrible. Feckin’ terrible. We took advantage of her as kids really. We got her to take us to regattas and then abandoned her for the day. I went to my first Worlds in ’93 in Czechoslovakia.

“I didn’t realise Mom and Dad were coming out. They just decided in the spur of the moment. Typical Irish: ‘We won’t go, we will not go to that… right let’s get a ticket.’ They didn’t watch a bloody race. In behind the stand every single time. The Olympic final in ’96 was her first time watching me.

“It must in the DNA. I hate watching our crew race. Any crew I’ve ever been involved in. The boys, girls, schools I have worked in.

“It is stupid really; you can’t do anything. Theoretically you should watch because you can give feedback. I watched the heats through hands over my eyes. You can’t get away from screens or the commentary. It is just you have invested so much in these people. I want them to do well, not just athletically. They are good people. You get emotionally involved.”

His passion was both forged and tested in the fires of the 1990s. Irish rowing war stories from that era are ten a penny. Weeks in the Scandinavian snow, running and cycling to training. The lakes frequently froze over so the sea made do.

In Sweden they opted for punishing ergo tests. Fifteen minutes, hard as you can. Then Thor Nielson would stand above the bodies sprawled across the floor and announce the sentence: now do it again.

“In some ways we were total amateurs. In others, we were utter professionals. And we didn’t know the difference,” he explains with a laugh.

“We just did what we were told. Some of it made sense, some of it didn’t.

“Some of the Scandinavian camps… We meet up or I am in a few WhatsApps with the lads and inevitably those camps come up. Just how tough they were but they really opened your eyes to what you could do. It was just madness. There were sessions and at the end of the day you’d ask, ‘what was the point of that?’

“’I just wanted to see how hard I could push you.’ We were guinea pigs.”

tony-oconnor-gearoid-towey-neville-maxwell-neal-byrne-2672000 Irish Olympians Tony O'Connor and Gearoid Towey standing and Neville Maxwell and Neal Byrne seated in 2000. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

Not that he ever resented it. This is the pain game. Purgatory is mandatory if you want to reach paradise. Even now, O’Connor sometimes utilises similar drills with his current crew. They always raise their eyebrows before it, they are always better off after.

At the time, the Irish team developed a motto. As close to reassurance as they’d ever be afforded.

“’You will always pass out before you die.’

“We said that weekly, some of us did pass out regularly. No one died from it. Yeah, we fucked up every now and again, but people still fuck up training programmes. Every sport is a mix of art and science. It is trying to find the right balance but sometimes you need to go with your gut.”

In New Zealand, O’Connor relies heavily on Caroline McManus, their performance scientist for rowing. She previously worked in the same role with Irish rowing and athletics before moving post-Rio.

He writes the programme; she runs through it. It is a relationship built on implicit trust. McManus was a bridesmaid at his wedding and routinely vets his sessions to ensure the thinking behind every session is crystal clear.

How did a unathletic teenager become an Olympian rower? By controlling and considering the controllables. “Tony was really technical, that’s why we suited each other,” explains Gearoid Towey, O’Connor’s partner when they won the lightweight men’s pair World Championship in 2001.

It is a trait repeatedly referenced and something that earmarked him as a coach in waiting early on. The day it was announced he was finished as a competitor, he was appointed assistant national coach.

“Physically I was average as a rower, if you looked at ergo tests or whatever, so you had to make up for it some way.

“I was fascinated by a sport with all this equipment to work with. It is about the interaction and how each aspect effects the other. Yourself, the boat, the river and the oar.

“Rather than go out and pull as hard as you can, there is more to it than that. I loved that search for perfection. You, the boat, the oar and water in harmony. That’s not to say I didn’t go out, pull hard and blow up. I did regularly. But there are no secrets in this sport. Most people end up physically at the same level.

“I sat on a bus this morning and got talking to a girl from Singapore. Believe it or not, she used to be a member of Neptune rowing club back home. I recognised her face, I said are you Joan from Singapore? We were discussing her stuff, what she is trying to do out here.

“She is the only rower in Singapore. She was telling me some of the stuff she does to make up the deficit there. It is cool what people come up with. There are brains and brawn. Rowing lends itself to both.”

tokyo-2020-olympic-games-day-seven Source: PA

Technical conversations are a tenet of his coaching. The New Zealand men’s eight consists of 10 people, the rowers, a cox and O’Connor. Usually, they will sit in a room, pick one aspect and thrash it out. Just recently it was the catch, the process of putting the oar in the water debated for two hours.

“I am a maths teacher as well when I’m not coaching rowing and they are kind of the same. You want to make yourself redundant. When they start the exam, or in this case the Olympics, they take over.”

As is often the case in Irish sport, a lack of infrastructure, funding and political negligence were a constant background during his career. O’Connor ploughed a well-worn route to the social welfare office on Gardiner Street.

It is a different world compared to the system he operates in now. Notwithstanding, that is not a frustration. Because of their circumstances, his Irish team became entrepreneurial. Innovative by necessity. They experimented with bungees in training, arranged their own accommodation and never looked for assistance because usually it was not available in the first place.

That is the balance New Zealand are trying to strike now. Just enough support so that the team can become self-sustaining.

“If you can marry the two, get people who are highly motivated to do and learn their own stuff rather than be spoon-feed and you support them with good nutrition and physiology you are on to a winner.

“Sometimes they are mutually exclusive. If you give people too much, they become reliant. You are the one on the water, you need to make decisions on the fly.

“One of the things we did all year with this group is talk about hurdles. Jumping over hurdles. They didn’t qualify two years ago. Covid came, we went to the qualifier during that and made it. But then we had to do two-week quarantine coming back to New Zealand, so we couldn’t get into the water for two weeks.

“The boys are good at taking them and having a wry smile at them. But there are people, not just here even in the Irish team, who are used to being given it.

“Fearghal O’Callaghan is with the Irish rowing team; he is manager with them. I’ve known Fog a long time, he was with Munster S&C before. He did all the training with us in the ’90s. Then he went to Munster; after every game there was the fresh pressed clothes hung up. Everything set out for these guys at the age of 20. That is not the way life works.

“It is a balance; you can give people too much. Now we were the opposite. We didn’t have enough support in terms of funds and everything, but we had good people around us. The upside of that is we became self-reliant. That is a huge part of sport, business, anything. I don’t know where the line is really. Do you give them everything they need, or do you have nothing and do it your own way? Are you Ivan Drago or Rocky?”

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In 2004, he lined up a job in Christ’s College in Christchurch, teaching and head up the rowing programme. Speaking to the New Zealand media recently, Canterbury Rowing Association regional manager John Wylie said the Irishman came in and led a “quiet revolution”.

By 2006 they had won their first Maadi Cup eight rowing title since 1999. This is a huge regatta, one of the largest in the South Hemisphere. 1,992 competitors from 106 schools.

“They were known as a school that had been successful in the eight. The eight is the blue-riband event, like lots of places. I just figured they weren’t skilful enough. So, we bought a load of single sculls and second-hand pairs. Basically, put the boys out in that.

“Some of them were rowing four years and never sat in a pair in their life. I thought that was mad. We changed the emphasis from going out and bludgeoning the water to death to learning some skills and swapping crews around the whole time.

“They used to select the final crew four months out from the regatta. Which is bloody mad. These were teenagers! They change weekly never mind four months. You could go from the best athlete to not knowing your arse from your elbow.”

In April 2019, he was appointed to the role of men’s senior eights coach. It had been 45 years since they won an Olympic medal in the eight.

To the surprise of many, the All Blacks prioritised the eight for Tokyo despite the fact they had a gold medal pair in Rio. Hamish Bond, who was in that boat, also won gold in London.

For O’Connor, the reason the eight took the lead was simple: that’s what the rowers wanted to do. Bond left rowing to successfully transition to road cycling after 2016. The only thing that enticed him back was the chance to do something special. The eight ticked that box.

Over the past 12 months, the goal has always stayed the same: to be the fastest boat in the world. They started with a crew of 12. Then it became 10 and ultimately whittled down to the final section. Every time there was an injury, an enthusiastic reserve gladly stepped in. Before they left for Tokyo, those reserves were presented with a painted oar, presented in a plaque and signed by the team.

That comradery carried them to Tokyo. Above all else, O’Connor was just content they got there. Concerns about a diluted spectacle do not faze him, as long as the athletes and locals are safe it is only correct that they proceed.

tokyo2020japan-tokyo-oly-rowing-mens-eight-final Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

“It is games. That is what this is about. The whole circus around it and TV rights and how overblown it all is, that is nothing to do with the athletes themselves. Most don’t care. They are here to do their best. they are doing it here, no crowds but the same effort.

“Look at Joan, nobody knows her. She is doing it to be the best she can be. That is what it comes down too. Why were the games restarted in 1896? To try to bring people closer together. Not for people on their couch with a Sky remote and a beer to pontificate over.

“A lot of us did have a discussion about whether it is right to go ahead with this. I am standing here looking out on the river with high fencing and the coastguard. In every other Olympics, 1972 Munich and all that, that is to keep terrorists out. This one is to keep us in. They are doing a good job and it is right, we shouldn’t be mixing with the local population. But nearly every athlete here is good to keep distance and wear masks.

“I’m glad (it went ahead). It is a shining light in a world of darkness. So long as people don’t lose their lives over it.”

O’Connor is speaking prior to the final that his crew would go on to win. Nevertheless, for the past 12 months he has maintained within the group that a medal is not their sole goal.

“I always think back to the movie, Cool Runnings. John Candy was playing the coach. He said, ‘if you are not enough without an Olympic medal, you will never be enough with one.’ I believe that.

“Win, lose or draw, we will walk up Saturday with more important things in life. It is really special, and I appreciate it, but I want us to appreciate what we are living through here.

“Walking around last night seeing people from all over the world chatting and laughing, that is magic. I like to win, no doubt. But after this, no matter what, I’ll shake their hand and return to teaching.

“My family, my two daughters, my wife, even my dog for god’s sake, they are more important.”

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Maurice Brosnan

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