Boxing clever, Egan gets his life back on track
Kenneth Egan was hailed as a sporting hero when he won Olympic silver in Beijing, but he nearly threw it all away when alcohol addiction took hold. The 32-year-old tells Barry Egan how he managed to win his battle with the booze and get his life back on track, with plans now afoot to help others. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes
Published 09/02/2014 | 02:30
'Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear," said Mark Twain. "My biggest fear is becoming the person I was at the end of my drinking," Kenneth Egan says sitting by the boxing ring in the National Stadium. ("Kenny was my drinking name. I'm Kenneth.") His mastery of his predominant fear is what keeps Kenneth Egan sane – or maybe even alive. He is aware of the cliches. He is not a recovering alcoholic. He is a 'reformed hellraiser'. His greatest fight is outside the ring with his inner devils, blah, blah, blah.
Tabloid banalities notwithstanding, the public psychodrama of Kenneth Egan's life appears to be over. The Dubliner from Neilstown isn't a religious man, but, perhaps, he has found finally a form of redemption after a long walk through the valley of the shadows. (He smiles at the word 'redemption' and says he likes it. "Redemption, exactly.")
Kenneth took every opportunity to screw up his life. He had everything going for him – 10 light-heavyweight Irish titles, an Olympic silver medal – yet he pissed it up against the wall outside of whatever pub he was lunchtime drinking in.
On the wall in the boxing gym behind him is a quote in big, bold letters: "It's OK to make mistakes, so long as you learn from them" – Kenneth Egan. There must have been times when he wondered just who this Kenneth Egan man was who kept making the mistakes, but he says, now, he has learned from those often very painful and psychologically wounding errors.
He has been to the edge of the abyss many times, had a good look down, and pulled back just when it seemed for all the world that he was bent on fatal self-destruction, courtesy of his alcoholism, his addiction to hurting himself – and those around him, the people he was supposed to love. He is emotionally intelligent enough now to realise that, if he goes back on the drink again, the consequences won't be pretty.
He hasn't touched alcohol in more than three years. He goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings instead. "My AA meetings are my substitute for drinking," he says. "I don't need drink any more.
"There is a lot of religion there," he says, meaning the 12 Steps of AA ("Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him"), "but I am not a Sunday mass-goer. I don't believe in God. I believe in a higher power, to some degree. Something stopped me that day," Kenneth says, referring to the day he stopped drinking and stopped trying to kill himself with alcohol. I ask him to take me back to that day.
"I was in Naas on a bender and my mam found me," he answers.
As his mother Maura told Brendan O'Connor on The Saturday Night Show in February, 2011: "There are two Kenneths. There was the nice Kenneth, when he wasn't drinking, and there was the different Kenneth, when he was drinking. But we had to do something to stop it."
"My mam came down with Sharon," Kenneth says now, referring to his then girfriend, Sharon McHugh. "They walked into the pub. I don't have a bull's notion of the name of the pub. I didn't think of those things. Just – 'Is there drink? Give it to me.'
"I had a pool cue in one hand and a half pint of Guinness in the other. It was about half one in the day and I was ready to go again. I put my drink down, put the cue back and got into the back of the car, and I didn't say a word all the way home from Naas. And I haven't drank since."
That was August 12, 2010. August 13, he classes as his first day being clean. He hasn't had a drink since. "Don't get me wrong. I have had the odd urge here and there. Pubs are a no-go for me."
How do you deal with the temptation to drink again? How do you handle that urge?
"One answer to that, pal," he says immediately. "I fast-forward 10 days after my first drink and look at the carnage, and that puts it into perspective."
Part of the carnage was recalled by his mother on The Saturday Night Show. She said: "The worst thing for me was waiting for the police to knock on the door to say they'd found him dead somewhere. I was waiting for that blue light to shine outside, and for there to be a knock, and I'd be told: 'Right, we've found him.''' Part of the carnage was also Kenneth vanishing to Spain on a bender at the time his father was having open-heart surgery in a Dublin hospital.
"That's where drink brought me," he says "So selfish," he says, "not a care in the world, just as long as I was drinking and having a laugh. Sad, really. I felt terrible that I brought my mam to feel that way. Also, not being there for my dad was another low point. The list goes on, but it's not like that today."
I say that his parents are probably more proud of him for giving up drink than winning any Olympic medals.
"My mam says that all the time," he says immediately. "The medal means nothing. It was a great achievement, but it was just a moment. My mam is just proud that I'm sober. She says that beats any medal. And it's true. But winning that medal got me into AA quicker.
"I went into AA in April 2010," he continues. "That was the first time. Then I had my slip at the end of July in Uganda [where he was building houses for a children's charity] and then I went back in AA in August and I haven't drank since.
"I felt ashamed going back into AA after drinking. I thought, 'They're all going to be talking about me.' That's just not the case."
I ask him does he ever see the crowd he was with when he was on the booze?
"Oh, yeah. They're still drinking, but they don't have the problem. They're not pissing themselves or whatever. When I came off at the start, people didn't take me serious. 'He'll knock it on the head for a few weeks and then he'll be back.'"
Do you think you'd be dead if you hadn't stopped?
"I think I would have been in a world of hurt," Kenneth says. "It's a slow oul' death, they say, being addicted to alcohol."
Where do you think your addiction came from in your life? What was the need? What void was it filling?
"Your question is only for the AA room," he answers, adding that he can't go into further detail, as the AA stuff is confidential.
"It was just something I enjoyed from a young age, and alcohol was part of my life from a very young age – 13 and 14."
Kenneth recalls the times his mother brought him to the graves in Tallaght of two of his brothers, who died as children – Keith and James. She told him that, if he kept on boozing the way he was, he'd end up in the cold ground with them. She told him that she didn't want the pain of having to visit a third grave of one of her children.
He and his mother visited the graves on the day before Christmas Eve last year.
During the darkest times for Kenneth, committing suicide by throwing himself off the West-Link bridge would sometimes cross his mind.
"I had thought of suicide on a number of occasions," he says now, "only from heavy drinking and the aftermath of benders. I was in a deep depression, and not being able to stop the drinking would bring the idea of suicide into my head," he explains in an almost matter-of-fact manner.
"I thought about suicide. It did come into my head in the depths of it. You know, across the road was the West-Link bridge. I had images of going over and jumping over the thing. I don't think I had the balls to do it. And, I got so selfish with the drinking," he says.
"When I got the phone call that poor Darren Sutherland died," Kenneth says, referring to the 27-year-old Irish Olympic medal-winning boxer who took his own life at his flat in London in September 2009, "I was in Oliver St John Gogarty's [pub in Temple Bar]. I was, like, 'Jaysus!'
"And in my mad head," says Kenneth, "I thought, 'The funeral will probably be the end of the week. So that means none of the team is going to be in training, so I can have an extra few days on the piss.' "I used that as a reason to go on the piss without getting into trouble, being the selfish bastard that I was. I turned up at the funeral dying for a drink. I couldn't wait to get away from the funeral, to go back on it again, knowing that there was a few days off after the funeral because I was mourning. Of course, it was terribly sad."
What is the meaning of your life for you now?
"Life is not to be wasted, as we don't have this life for ever. I enjoy my life now and appreciate it so much more.
"I think how life can be so simple, and I don't have the fear of turning lives upside down, and not having people worry about me. When I got well, people around me got very well – the ripple effect. Life is good now and it's simple. I'm going to keep it that way."
Kenneth believes that he inherited his relaxed, chilled personality from his father. From his mother, he feels, he got his edge – "wanting to push myself to the limit."
He retired from boxing in February of last year. "It is a year since I have been in the ring. I am doing bits and pieces, doing talks here and there. A bit of personal training. I want to get into the coaching end of things. I love helping kids in the gym and in the ring. I was always happiest when I was in the gym, training for a living. The job I had wasn't a job. It was the perfect life."
I ask him does he have regrets about his career because of his drinking. "If you're asking me if I didn't drink would I have won more than I did? Yes, maybe I would have – in certain competitions I lost out on medals due to not being 100 per cent fit, but the Olympics? I was the best out there."
With the brutal honesty and integrity that marks his life these days, Kenneth doesn't duck the question when asked what competitions he would have won if his fitness wasn't compromised by his drinking.
"The World Championships in Milan. I should have won a bronze medal, but I got beat by a French guy in the quarter-finals that I should have beat, but didn't have the engine I needed. I should have been in the World semi-final. Also, I got beat by the same French guy in Moscow in the 2010 European Championships semi-final. It was the same thing. No power in the engine. Lost out on a Euro semi-final. I had to settle for bronze."
Did your trainers never say to you when you came in rough – "For fuck's sake, Ken"?
"I came in one day. We had to line up before we started a session, and Billy [Walsh, the Irish boxing team coach] said: 'Kenneth, get out of here.' He knew, because I hadn't turned up for weeks on end. I was supposed to be the captain of the team. I was the one that everyone looked up to.
"I came in one day, after being on a bender for a week and a half, and my vision was gone. Like, I couldn't see!
"I tried to jump over the hurdle hops, and I was falling over and slipping. I wasn't drunk. It was the aftermath. I could see the young seniors on the team looking at me. I packed my bag and went home."
Reading his aptly titled 2010 autobiography, My Hell, you would have been forgiven for expecting Kenneth to be some washed-up casualty trapped in a dry-alco hell. You certainly wouldn't have thought that he would be in the bona fide good place he is in now.
His descent into a personal hell officially started after he returned with a silver medal from the Olympic Games in Beijing in August 2008 – a working-class superhero and new-found celebrity, King Kenny.
"I am delighted to learn of Kenny's wonderful accomplishment today in Beijing," President, Mary McAleese, said. "The people of Ireland are uplifted by this outstanding achievement, which continues a tradition of Irish Olympic boxing excellence dating back to 1952."
Rather less uplifting was the fact that Kenny was drinking himself stupid. His drinking binges were epic GBH of the liver, lasting for up to two weeks sometimes.
They all would inevitably end in shame and self-loathing – and frequently toe-curling appearances in the red tops. King Kenny had become Eejit Egan. He was ill-equipped for life lived in the glare of tabloid flashbulbs. "There are no courses you can go on when you suddenly become famous in Ireland," he says.
In February 2009, he did a runner from a bout against the USA in Dublin. He vanished to New York. Egan was fast turning into the tragi-comic Jake LaMotta character played by Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull.
In his book, Kenneth didn't pull any punches: hookers ("She had a head like 100 miles of bad road. I'd paid up, though, so I went ahead and did the dirty deed anyway"), threesomes, one-night stands, porn addiction, drugs ("I was a regular ecstasy-taker and tried my share of cocaine, too," he wrote).
The lad from Neilstown was living in the realm of the senses, in a parallel reality bent out of all shape. "I'd just go on Facebook and check out what different girls looked like. If one was good-looking, I'd add her. I didn't care if they were single, engaged, married: I was half-cut at the best of times and it was just add, add, add. Then came the usual lines. 'How are ya, love?' followed by countless one-night stands. I was completely addicted to porn, too. I'd wake up and go for the laptop and be watching stuff for hours," he wrote.
Do you think you gave critics ammunition by almost being too honest in the book?
"I have no regrets about the book. That was me at the time. That was my life. The papers only look for the dirt anyway. There is a lot more to the book than my drinking."
The sanctimonious, holier-than-thou – even hypocritical – view of Kenneth Egan is that he wasted his talent, squandered his gift. Surely, a much more morally edifying parable is of the lost soul who reclaimed himself and turned his life around? The lost soul who is now setting up an addiction counselling service to help others? This is more important than more medals in a drawer somewhere, surely?
"I'm looking at different options and getting lots of information from various sources. I'm interested in addiction and how it works," he says, adding: "Hospitals are full every weekend in Ireland because of alcohol-related incidents. It is just a curse. But, because there is money involved, they won't ban alcohol. Imagine someone on the news saying: 'That's it. Alcohol is banned for ever.' It is probably more dangerous than anything. Look, I am not superhuman. I am the same as everyone else out there. What's the difference between me giving up something and someone else? But I do genuinely want to help people. I want to make a difference with what I've learned."
Kenneth Egan's life, which lay in ruins, was made whole again by giving up the booze. He knows that better than most people. He likes his new life and wants to do everything he can to protect that.
He likes the benefits of emotional stability too much. "I don't get depressed at all now. I have ups and downs, but doesn't everyone?"
Kenneth says he cherishes his "peace of mind", as well as his beloved family. He has two older brothers: William and Paul, and a younger brother, John – with whom he lives in CityWest.
"My family would be, as they have been, on my side right from the start of everything and remain there today." He has, he adds, four or five close friends. ("I had lots of drinking buddies when I was drinking.") He likes to cook at home and go to the cinema.
He says he values his own company now more than ever; and his sense of humour.
"I laugh at my own jokes harder than the person I'm telling them to," he explains. He says he loves "the slagging amongst the lads." Do they slag you over your appearances on the dating site?
"No. That's history. Just slagging and having a laugh in general."
Kenneth also gets a great laugh from his two nieces – four-month-old Darcey and two-year-old Tiarnah. The latter, Kenneth especially enjoys, listening to her "trying to talk".
"I love the crack with her," he smiles.
And you want your own kids one day?
"I'd like to have kids some day," he says, his eyes lighting up. "I'm 32 now. There is no rush. We'll see. I'll try to get my career up and running first. I'd like to think I'd be a good father, as my own father was great to me and my brothers. Now that I have my sobriety, I'd be there for my kids and try to guide them the best way I could."
I ask him does he want to get married one day and do all the usual things, like be a dad.
"I'd like to do all that, yeah," he smiles.
"Things have come full circle for me now," he says – and then suddenly stops.
"I don't want to say too much about my personal life, but I am in a relationship. It has only just started. It is a bit fresh. But it has come full circle – it is someone that I had been with before. So, I am kind of happy with that. It hasn't passed me, all these years later. It is hard to believe. I'm lucky in that sense. It is a girl. I'm back with a girl that I was with before the madness had started, before the Olympics kicked off," he says, referring to Karen Sullivan.
"It is hard to believe that the two of us are single at this period of our lives. We'll see what happens in the future. It is early days, but we are being spotted out together and it has been in the papers. Karen is a great girl. We are taking it very slow. I'm happy. I'm lucky that it has come full circle and that Karen is still there, which is hard to believe, because she is an amazing girl."
And do you think you're an amazing guy?
"I think I'm a good guy. I'm a good catch. I am now. I wasn't back then. I was a time bomb. But I respect people now."
And do you respect yourself now?
He nods his head. "Oh, yeah."
Arise, King Kenneth.
Hackett, 21-26 Sth Anne St, D2, tel: (01) 677-0429
Shot at the National Stadium, Sth Circular Rd, D8. The Senior Boxing Championships start February 21 at the National Stadium, with the finals on March 7-8. For tickets, tel: (01) 453-3371, or email info@IABI.ie
Photography by Kip Carroll
Assisted by Michael McDonald
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Hannah Corkey and Jessica Gaffney
Hair by Roy Leigh at Brown Sugar, 33 Main St, Blackrock, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 210-8630
Make-up by Derrick Carberry,
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