The Meteoric Rise of the Hilarious Irish Rowing Brothers, Paul and Gary O’Donovan

paul and gary o'donovan

Born and bred near and in Skibbereen in County Cork respectively, Paul and Gary O’Donovan, two Irish brothers with a penchant for rowing, transformed the sport. But, before they could make it into the boat, they lingered on their dual dream of rowing in the Olympics. At their boat club in Skibbereen, they piled onto their little boat, watching their older club mates train, all of whom pulled like a dog – now the rallying cry and meme-worthy slogan of the pair, which in turn inspired the title of their one-hour-long documentary. Soon after, as soon as they were old enough to train, the two brothers began to row, unstoppable even by the cold Irish elements. They trained day and night, rain or shine, continuing until they reached the Olympics; Paul and Gary O’Donovan found themselves narrowly qualifying for the Rio Olympics, beating Greece in the World Championship in 2015. 

paul and gary o'donovan

With their Olympics qualification, Paul and Gary O’Donovan put Ireland on the radar, but sport critics had little belief in the still widely unknown duo from the country that had never won an Olympic rowing medal. The rowing final was as stress-inducing as one could imagine; at the last few seconds, the twosome rowed past Norway, claiming silver victory as France won gold. Their second-place win, televised across Ireland, cemented the blood-related rowers as the two Skibbereen lads who won Ireland’s first Olympic medal in rowing. The Irish rowing brothers shocked the world, as documented by Red Bull in a short thirteen-minute-long documentary that further brought to light their journey and current mindsets. But, even though their silver win graced newspaper headlines and magazine covers, their popularity didn’t stop there; their (in)famous interview video – moments after winning the silver Olympic medal – captured hearts, as the O’Donovan’s brothers’ heavily-accented West Cork intonation and Irish craic came out on televised screens, their necks swinging with their heavy silver medals.

“The legs are like jelly… Yeah, I suppose we did a bit of celebrating – did the podium thing and forgot to put on the podium pants,” Paul replied to the news presenters. Gary then explained how Paul was having a time signing autographs, but now both were hungry. He recited his breakfast meal – Nutella on a roll – and how he was waiting to be given pizza. He said they both haven’t had time to think much about their win, that it hadn’t sunk in yet.

Paul and Gary O’Donovan eventually (soon after) returned to Skibbereen to national (and international) praise and widespread attention. In preparing for their future competitions and another chance at the 2020 Olympics, the two lads came home to the boathouse, which many consider to be the heart of Skibbereen. They took cameramen through their gym, which was merely a makeshift in-home exercise center that uses household items as handmade equipment. The open window served as a stretching contraption; the weights were made out of steel poles and metal plates. Their humble upbringing in Skibbereen, with money being out of the question, showcased the brothers’ unparalleled efforts to train with what they had and for themselves. 

After the Olympics, Paul and Gary O’Donovan became the stars of a media frenzy. They booked television interviews, their most famous being featured on the end-of-the-year special on the Graham Norton Show, alongside Marion Cotillard, Michael Fassbender, and James McAvoy. They passed around their Olympic medals to everyone’s delight; Graham asked jokingly if there was anyone in Ireland who hadn’t seen those medals. They both laughed, savouring the attention.

paul and gary o'donovan

Now, four years after the Olympics, Paul and Gary O’Donovan are still on the rise – with no intention of stopping (even in spite of a global pandemic). Since the Olympics, apart from a string of viral interviews and the coinage of Paul’s made-up “pull like a dog” phrase, they seem to be doing just fine. However, despite the craic and efforts the two brought together as a pair, it was unfortunate to hear that the twosome went their own ways in future competitions (although not necessarily by choice). Paul O’Donovan won gold at the 2019 World Championships, qualifying their boat for the Tokyo Olympics. But, instead of Gary on the boat with Paul, it was actually Fintan McCarthy, another product of the Skibbereen production line. Fintan became Paul’s right-hand man because, as Gary put it, “Fintan was faster than [him]last summer.”

Gary, however, is still fighting for a spot in the Tokyo Olympics and even a recent injury was not enough to stop his stride. He is in competition for a place in the boat for 2021 with twin brothers, Fintan and Jake McCarthy, and 2017 World Champion, Shane O’Driscoll, all from the Skibbereen rowing club. The drama stops there though: there is no spill-the-blood-type competition here really: the fivesome are actually a gang of lads. O’Driscoll is the O’Donovan’s neighbour and best friend, while the McCarthy twins grew up watching Paul and Gary O’Donovan compete. It’s a brotherly teardown if you will.

With the pandemic in full rage, have the O’Donovan brothers, after Olympics fame, put a stop to their rowing pursuits? Not at all. Gary mentioned how “the self-isolating is what [they’re] used to.” The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics has given them an extra year to keep pulling like dogs. They stated how they barely go out unless it’s ot the rowing club and back home and then the grocery store, twice a week at most. Like they’ve said though, rowing is still part of quarantine. Gary continued with “it’s just a case of, ‘right sure, we’ll reassess now and change tactics a little bit with a different landscape ahead of us.’” Paul, on the other hand, has his head in the books; apart from rowing, he’s keeping busy with online classes, studying medicine at University College Cork, after taking time off for Tokyo. He’s back studying with the forced isolation, and he has nothing to complain about! Paul and Gary O’Donovan aren’t letting a pandemic put a stop to their dreams.

As the pandemic has heightened, Paul and Gary O’Donovan have taken their foot off the gas, deaccelerating what they believed would have been a make-it-or-break-it year, but has now turned into a reflection period. Obviously, they’re not putting the boat away or slacking on their fitness goals; they intend to pull like a dog, pandemic or not.

They rise from the ashes – and just keep on rising.

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About the author

Melanie Romero

Melanie Romero is a creative writer and college student based in Orange County, California. When she’s not overworking herself to meet a deadline, she can be found drinking an iced chai at her local organic café, making sufganiyot from scratch, or collecting paperbacks.

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