Ireland hopes for Olympic success with Skibb rowers

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Posted on: 5th August, 2016

Category: Sport & Fitness

Contributor: John Bohane

Skibbereen brothers Gary and Paul O’Donovan will compete for Ireland in the lightweight double sculls when the Olympic Games begins on Friday, August 5 in Rio. The brothers will take to the water the following day, as they attempt to capture an Olympic medal for Team Ireland for the first time in a rowing event. One man who has previous experience of rowing at the Olympic Games is fellow Skibbereen native Richard Coakley, who finished in tenth place at the Beijing Olympics which were held in 2008. John Bohane catches up with the former Olympian who is travelling to Rio to support his Skibbereen Rowing club-mates.

Former Olympian rower Richard Coakley is now located in Sydney, Australia, where he works as the head rowing coach in a school. Richard initially moved to Australia in 2010, whereupon he continued rowing in a full-time capacity. Richard holds the unique record of rowing for both Ireland and Australia at senior championship level. His rowing prowess was recognised in Australia when he was called up to represent the country at a World Cup Regatta in 2014, where he competed with great distinction for his adopted country. Richard relished competing with Australia at the World Cup Regatta as he elaborated, “I was just getting back training with a view to competing at the Australian National Championships. In the process of training and racing here I started to do well and was noticed by some of the national coaches. I started getting invited to national trials and training camps at the Australian Institute of Sport. Until then I had never really considered racing for Australia, as I had always loved competing for Ireland. However it was also a great honour for me to race a World Cup Regatta for Australia in 2014. I was not however able to compete in the World Championships for Australia later that year, as I wasn’t yet a full Australian citizen.”

Richard, who worked as an engineer, made the big move to Australia initially for a year back in 2010. Six years later, he is still loving his new lifestyle in Sydney, which perfectly suits his outdoor and sporting sense of adventure. “Everything is going very well in Sydney.  I was working full time as an engineer and part time as a rowing coach back in Ireland, but a full time coaching job came up in Australia, so I decided to do something I love for a living and gave up engineering. I moved over in 2010. I decided to go travelling for a year and was able to arrange some coaching work in Sydney. I always wanted to go to Australia for the good weather and the sporting lifestyle here. It is a great place to live and work. I generally go home every year or 18 months. I think I will go home to live eventually but at the moment I’m happy to stay here for another couple of years and enjoy the good weather and the Australian lifestyle.”

Richard’s last competitive rowing outing was at the World Cup Regatta in 2014; he now only trains once a week. A renowned and ferocious competitor, he does admit to missing the competitive aspect of rowing, as he revealed. “I’m currently rowing once a week with some former Australian lightweight rowers. I do some running and cycling but that is just to maintain my fitness. I do miss the competitive side of rowing, which really appealed to me, but once you give it up it is nearly impossible to really give it 100 per cent again. The last time I rowed competitively was two years ago when I raced a World Cup Regatta for Australia. I am also conscious of the fact that I am now 33. Training full time is hard going and you are basically training full-time with little or no money coming in. I was happy to do that when I was younger but I just don’t have the 100 per cent commitment anymore.”

Rowing prowess certainly runs in the Coakley family. Richard’s older brother Eugene represented Ireland at both the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. Eugene helped the Irish team to finish a very credible sixth in the men’s lightweight coxless four at the 2004 Olympics, which were held in Athens. Richard, who took up rowing at the age of 12, admits that his older brothers heroics were a key ingredient in his drive to replicate his success. “I took up rowing with Skibbereen Rowing Club for the first time at age 12 when I was in sixth class in primary school.” Eugene was already rowing and the club was looking for new members. “There was a few of us around the same age who all started at the same time. Tim Harnedy, Dermot O’Sullivan, Mike O’Brien were three other great rowers who started the same time as me. I was fortunate to start with such a special group of people and athletes, it was the start of a very successful era for Skibbereen Rowing Club. Training and competing with your friends was great fun. We really started getting into it, we trained hard, we sacrificed a lot but it paid off, as we enjoyed a lot of success. We had some great moments. It was a great period for the club. We won a lot of national championships. Eugene then started doing well internationally and I thought if he can do it then there’s no reason why I can’t make the Irish team or even the Olympic team. It really drove me on and inspired me I suppose to keep improving.”

A key figure in propelling Skibbereen Rowing Club to become one of the most successful rowing clubs nationwide is their influential head coach Dominic Casey, who will accompany the O’Donovan brothers to Rio as part of their coaching team. Richard is lavish in his praise for the dedicated Skibbereen rowing coach. “Dominic is definitely the driving force in Skibbereen Rowing Club. His main strength is his passion for rowing and his belief that anyone of us can be the best in the world if we want it hard enough. Dominic has set up a great rowing culture in the club and all the new rowers buy into this culture of hard work and commitment.  The week after the O’Donovan brothers won the European Championships, Dominic was on to me straight away asking for the training programme, which the Australian rowers are currently following. His attention to detail is brilliant. He is always looking for ways to improve and that attitude of striving for better performances has been passed down to all the members of Skibbereen Rowing Club.”

Richard trained diligently in order to achieve his goal of competing at the Olympics. The training and levels of dedication required in becoming a worldclass athlete capable of performing to the best of your ability is incredible as Richard reveals. “Rowing is definitely a tough sport if you want to be a successful rower. The main strength you require is focus and determination. To make the Olympics in any sport, experts talk about needing 10,000 hours of training. That’s three hours a day for ten years. They always talk about only one or two per cent of people with the physical capacity to compete at the Olympics but it’s more like the one or two per cent of people with that level of focus and determination to reach the Olympics.”

Richard reached the pinnacle of his rowing career when he represented Ireland at the 2008 Olympics, which were held in Beijing. It was an unforgettable summer for the modest rowing star as he recalls his Olympic journey with great pride. “Rowing for your country is always a very proud moment. It is always something you will remember. Unfortunately I never won any European or World medals during my rowing career. My greatest achievements were winning two World Cup medals and rowing at the Beijing Olympics where I finished tenth. It was a great experience taking part in the Olympics. It was a real career high. It was a great experience being among the top fittest and best athletes in the world. The atmosphere at the Olympics was unbelievable. It is where every athlete aspires to be.”

Richard has been very impressed with the O’Donovan brothers who have enjoyed a superb buildup to the forthcoming Rio Olympics. Gary and Paul concluded their warm up schedule with an impressive fourth place finish at the last World Cup Regatta held in Poznan. Richard is very confident the West Cork men will do very well at the Olympics. “I have been very impressed by their performances over the last couple of races. They did incredibly well just qualifying for Rio last year, but they have since then progressed to a totally different level this year.  Their form has been superb all season and I think Dominic will have them peaking just right for Rio. At this moment in time, last year’s World champions France look favourites to win, but after that it is very close to call for the remaining two medal places. It is between Ireland, South Africa, Norway, Italy, Britain and Germany for the final two places in my opinion. The O’Donovan brothers are very consistent and are one of the youngest crews in the field, which means they are still improving and learning all the time. Their strength has always been that they are fearless racers and they are as hard as nails. Even when they were only very young, they would line up against the seniors and expect to beat them. They have always set high standards for themselves but they have always succeeded. Hopefully they will peak just in time for Rio.”

Richard along with proud colleagues from Skibbereen Rowing Club will be in Rio cheering on their teammates and close friends. Richard cannot wait to sample the unique atmosphere the Olympic Games always serves up. “I’m heading over to Rio for two weeks. Dave O’Brien is also going along with some other members of the rowing club. I am really looking forward to it. There will be a great atmosphere watching the lads. It is an amazing achievement having a full Skibbereen crew racing at the Olympics along with a Skibbereen coach. Ireland have never won an Olympic rowing medal so it would be great if the lads can get a medal.”

Pressed on whether the former Olympic hero has any nuggets of information for the O’Donovan brothers as they attempt to make history in Rio, Richard is confident they are ready to seize their moment. “Gary and Paul are super experienced and I’m sure they will be just treating the Olympics like any other race and trying to get their best performance out on the day. My only advice to them is to enjoy it!”

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