Ev­ery­one gets to cel­e­brate when lo­cal he­roes write their names on the map of world sport

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT -

THE ques­tion crossed my mind as Paul O’Dono­van crossed the fin­ish line in Sara­sota. Has any other Ir­ish town ever won two world ti­tles in­side 15 min­utes? Of course not. The Sk­ib­bereen Row­ing Club story is a unique and won­der­ful thing.

It is a story we should cel­e­brate at ev­ery pos­si­ble op­por­tu­nity. I can re­mem­ber when Ir­ish am­a­teur boxing was in its heroic phase with ev­ery ma­jor cham­pi­onships pro­duc­ing a slew of medals. It be­came such a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence we al­most be­gan to treat it as au­to­matic and in­evitable. We took it for granted.

Yet what the de­cline of the boxing pro­gramme proved is that there is never any­thing in­evitable about suc­cess and that ma­jor in­ter­na­tional ti­tles can­not be taken for granted. There are so many things which have to be got right and so many things which can go wrong.

The Sk­ib­bereen story has such a hold on the na­tional sport­ing imag­i­na­tion it’s dif­fi­cult to re­alise that, for all their dom­i­nance at na­tional level, 18 months ago hardly any­one out­side the world of row­ing knew any­thing about the club and its stars. This story is still, in all prob­a­bil­ity, near the be­gin­ning.

If 2016 was the year of the O’Dono­van broth­ers, 2017 has to a cer­tain ex­tent be­longed to Mark O’Dono­van and Shane O’Driscoll (pic­tured) who have reigned over the light­weight pairs all sea­son, win­ning all their World Cup races by large mar­gins.

Yet this im­posed a new kind of pres­sure on the duo go­ing into the World Cham­pi­onships. They were there to be shot at in the fi­nal and would have to do it with the tem­per­a­ture at 28 de­grees centi­grade, a tem­per­a­ture which I can ex­clu­sively re­veal does not oc­cur very of­ten in the Sk­ib­bereen area.

In the cir­cum­stances their fi­nal per­for­mance was a mas­ter­class in courage and cop­ing with ex­pec­ta­tions. They took an early lead, de­fied the op­po­si­tion to haul them back and main­tained their form in the heat to win the gold that mat­ters most in a dis­ci­pline ex­cluded from the Olympics.

Gary O’Dono­van’s ab­sence from the cham­pi­onships must have come as a griev­ous blow to both him and his brother. Yet it did pro­vide us with a chance to ap­pre­ci­ate what a truly mag­nif­i­cent ath­lete Paul O’Dono­van is.

They’ve been us­ing the word ‘phe­nom­e­non’ about Paul down here in Sk­ibb since he was a teenager and it re­ally is the one which makes the most sense. In Sara­sota, he more or less toyed with a world-class field and won as he pleased. When he opened up in the clos­ing stages of the fi­nal and looked to be en­gaged in not just an­other race but al­most an­other sport al­to­gether, we were priv­i­leged to wit­ness the won­der­ful sight of a truly great per­former in full flow. It was his sec­ond world light­weight sculls ti­tle in a row and O’Dono­van now dom­i­nates his event in the same way that Katie Tay­lor used to hers.

There was even the prospect of a third ti­tle within half an hour but Denise Walsh missed out on a medal in the women’s light­weight sin­gle sculls. All the same, this year has rep­re­sented sig­nif­i­cant progress for this richly promis­ing young rower.

A Euro­pean sil­ver medal and a world fi­nal spot would make you the undis­puted lo­cal hero in most Ir­ish towns and Denise Walsh ac­tu­ally is a lo­cal hero down here. She’s just not the only one. Over it all pre­sides Dominic Casey, a guid­ing spirit at na­tional level as he was at club level. Sk­ib­bereen Row­ing Club is to a large de­gree the cre­ation of Casey, a man whose me­dia pres­ence makes Jim Gavin look like an all-singing, all-danc­ing rent-a-quote. Keen to stay in the back­ground, his spirit, a hard-work­ing no-non­sense coun­try spirit, nev­er­the­less per­vades every­thing the Sk­ib­bereen row­ers do.

He is a down-to-earth man and Sk­ib­bereen is a down-to-earth club. In a sport of­ten as­so­ci­ated with priv­i­lege, the Ox­ford and Cam­bridge con­nec­tions of English teams, the pres­tige at­tached to ‘row­ing crew’ in the big ex­pen­sive Amer­i­can col­leges, Sk­ib­bereen’s stars are the chil­dren of post­men, of lorry driv­ers, of sec­re­taries, of peo­ple who never had any­thing handed to them. They know how to work and maybe that’s their se­cret.

To­day at 5.0 Sk­ib­bereen will wel­come back its world cham­pi­onship he­roes. Lead­ing the pa­rade will be an­other lo­cal in­sti­tu­tion, St Fachtna’s Sil­ver Band, in which one of my daugh­ters plays the cor­net.

The great thing, the joy­ous thing about suc­cess in a small town is that ev­ery­one gets to share in it to some ex­tent. Ev­ery­one has or at least feels a con­nec­tion. Ev­ery­one loves these war­riors who go forth and write the name of this lit­tle place in big let­ters on the map of world sport.

Where else would you get the like of it?

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