Snapshots from a life spent in a boat: Rousing yourself from bed to disappear down another random river into the dawn mist. Skipping breakfast to make weight and hitting the treadmill for lunch. Always existing on the fringe of the Irish public’s fickle sporting consciousness. And, occasionally, getting everything just right, gliding together in perfect, magical harmony with your three co-rowers on the big stage.
Gearoid Towey’s soft Fermoy brogue quickens. That’s the moment, you sense, that he does this for.
“It’s hard in a lot of ways because you’re with four lads all the time and you’re basically sitting on a little piece of cardboard fibre and trying to make it balance and make it go fast,” he explains matter of factly.
“Rowing is a really technical sport and the more technical a sport is, the more you have to work mentally on it, and the more you have to work mentally on something, the more irritable you can become. When things are going well and you’re moving fast though, it’s because the four of you are working together in unison and it’s an incredible feeling. We all have a really good respect for each other, we all trust each other and know that nobody is going to bottle out. It’s a pleasure to row with them.”
Not many students would list attempting to row non-stop from Spain to America among their extra-curricular activities during their college years. Then again, not many men are like Towey.
The 31-year-old is a world champion rower and is currently preparing for his third Olympics. Incredibly, he managed to balance his training schedule around a degree course in Trinity College prior to his graduation last year. “Around exam time it was definitely hard because we had exams in the middle of the World Cup season so I’d be away in Germany or Austria or wherever racing and I’d have to come back and sit exams,” he explains.
Rowing is a discipline which has always been at the forefront of sporting life in Trinity. The college has been one of the top clubs in the country for generations, and Towey attributes much of this success to the bond among members. “There is an incredible social life in university rowing. They travel together, train together and within rowing clubs in universities there is definitely a sense of belonging, they work hard and play hard. Rowing is a sport which gives people a lot of structure. Trinity is always very strong, as are UCD and NUIG. Irish university clubs are generally among the best in the country. You get to enjoy your first couple of years rowing without too much pressure when you’re in university. It’s a great scene.”
While the life of an international athlete isn’t best suited to that of a student, Towey is fulsome in his praise for the college authorities. “I did geography in Trinity and they were very supportive of me, they helped me out whenever they could, shifting exam times for me and that kind of thing. They were very good to me in that regard. As well as that, when I was heading off across the Atlantic, I did that in the middle of the academic year and they were totally cool with that as well.”
What Towey refers to as “heading off across the Atlantic”, in the same sort of throwaway manner in which one might “head out for a pint”, was, in fact, the Trans-Atlantic Challenge, one of the most incredible tests of courage and stamina – both mental and physical – in the sporting world. Towey, along with Ciaran Lewis, set off from the Canary Islands in November 2005 aiming for America. After 40 days and nights at sea, rowing two hours on-off constantly, they capsized in Force 8 gales. They were eventually rescued by a passing trawler, having come within hours of death.
“It’s something I think about every day,” admits Towey. “It was a very close call and it has an influence on everything I do now to a certain degree. I think about everything really in terms of that, like if there are any hard decisions to be made, well… you realise that they’re not that hard at all.”