THE NORTH-EAST has its first ever rowing world champion – and Nathaniel Reilly-O’Donnell wants to add an even more special gold medal to his collection in two years time.
Reilly-O’Donnell, who is from Durham, was part of the British eight that triumphed in the World Championship final in Amsterdam on Sunday, with the 26-year-old adding a world title to the silver medal he claimed in the same event in 2011.
Back then, a combination of injury and illness prevented him from building on his World Championship success, and he was only named as a spare for the 2012 Olympics in London.
This time around, he is determined to use his World Championship gold as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, and while the final selection for the 2016 Games in Rio will not be confirmed for at least another 18 months, last weekend’s success makes it much more likely that he will part of the British team.
“It was a fantastic weekend,” said Reilly-O’Donnell, who teamed up with Mat Tarrant, Will Satch, Matt Gotrel, Pete Reed, Paul Bennett, Tom Ransley and Constantine Louloudis to triumph in Holland. “It’s amazing to be able to call myself a world champion, and it’s a great thing to have done.
“All the guys in the crew have been working towards this for a long time. We knew going into the World Championships that we were in a good place because we’d been measuring ourselves against the other boats in the team. The heat didn’t go as we might have wanted, but we regrouped, came through the repechage and then just blitzed the final from the start.
“Hopefully, it’s a bit of a breakthrough for me in terms of the lead in to the next Olympics in Rio. I missed out at London after a strong World Championships the year before, so that proves you can’t take anything for granted. But this is a big moment in my career and hopefully I’ll build on it.”
Reilly-O’Donnell will now join a number of British Rowing’s other leading Olympic hopefuls on a fact-finding mission to Rio, where they will visit the planned site of the Olympic regatta and begin to get used to the city.
Unlike at most other Olympics, the 2016 rowing events will be staged at the very heart of Rio, with the racing planned for a lagoon directly underneath the statue of Christ the Redeemer.
“It looks absolutely incredible and I can’t wait to get out there to see it,” said Reilly-O’Donnell. “I’ve never been to South America before so I’m really looking forward to seeing what the experience is like.
“And after missing out on 2012 it’s going to be great to start to get acclimatised to what the whole Olympic experience is going to be like. Assuming of course that I’m selected!”
While the British Rowing team has developed a reputation for ruthlessness and lack of sentiment, it will be hard for the selectors to leave any of the newly-crowned world champions out of their plans for 2016.
Reilly-O’Donnell joined a select band of North-East world champions in any sport when he crossed the line on Sunday. Katy McLean, Tamara Taylor and Sarah Hunter were part of the England side that won the Rugby World Cup last month, while Savannah Marshall and Kat Driscoll hold world titles in boxing and trampolining respectively.
“It’s amazing to think I’ve done something that’s pretty rare in North-East sport,” he said. “The region has produced so many great teams and individuals down the years and I don’t really think of myself alongside any of them.
“But it’s nice to get somewhere close to what every sportsman and woman wants to do – and that’s get to the very top of their chosen sport.”
While Reilly-O’Donnell is now based close to British Rowing’s high-performance base at Caversham, the North-Easterner, who is known as ‘Noddy’, is proud to have learned his trade with St Leonard’s Boat Club on the River Wear.
“I started rowing at St Leonard’s when I was about 12,” he said. “And I owe so much to all the people I worked with there.
“Bill Parker was the main coach, and he was a big help to me, and the two other guys to play pivotal roles in getting me into the sport were Malcolm Proud and Peter Graham.
“Together, they created a fantastic environment to train and grow up in. They were instrumental to everything. They devoted a lot of time to making sure we were training hard and learning the right things, but they also put a lot of stock in making sure the mindset was right at the club.
“You wanted to push yourself and do well because that’s what everybody else was doing and the atmosphere was a mixture of hard work and enjoyment. That’s a pretty powerful mix, and it definitely helped turn me into the rower I am today.”