Tuesday 27 January 2015

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

'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.

Kenneth Egan: Jacket; trousers, Armani, Brown Thomas. Vest; shoes, Marks & Spencer
Kenneth Egan: Jacket; trousers, Armani, Brown Thomas. Vest; shoes, Marks & Spencer
Kenneth Egan: Vest, Marks & Spencer. Trousers, Armani, Brown Thomas
Kenneth Egan: Vest, Marks & Spencer. Trousers, Armani, Brown Thomas. Braces, Hackett

"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."

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.

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