Thursday 25 December 2014

Raging belle

Pól ó Conghaile meets a young woman on the brink of realising her destiny -- Katie Taylor is poised and ready should female boxing become an Olympic sport

Welcome to the world of Katie Taylor -- pound for pound, the best female fighter on Planet Earth. She doesn't drink. She doesn't smoke. She hasn't got time for a boyfriend. On the rare occasions when friends coax her out to a nightclub, she slips away after an hour or two. She thinks about boxing almost 24/7 and, before she competes, recites Psalm 18 like a mantra.

Taylor, 22, is hard to pin down, but I finally arrange to meet her at the boxing club run by her father, Pete Taylor, in Bray. Pete is there early, first poring over a diary, then lugging open the club's steel doors.

Inside, punchbags dangle, inspirational quotes adorn the walls, and a sparring ring stands empty of action. The world champion's is a broody, hopeful den.

Soon enough, the champ herself shows up in a tiny Toyota Yaris. She's been fending off a bug the past few days, but when she steps into the club, she owns the place. Later, I ask why she loves boxing.

"I suppose it's in your control whether you're going to win or not," she replies. "In soccer, you're depending on so many different people to play well. In boxing you're only accountable for yourself."

Taylor is demure. Stick thin, but with noticeably broad shoulders, she doesn't make much of her good looks. She has beautiful skin, but there isn't a jot of make-up. After Pete sorts out the drinks at a local hotel (coffees for the boys, a pint of blackcurrant for his daughter), he slumps beside us. It's clear from early on that they come as a team. Pete has trained her for a decade, and whenever Katie's stuck for words, she nods in his direction.

Chilling out

The Taylors trained twice a day in preparation for an amateur competition in Turkey, where Katie won gold last month. I wonder how life differs when she's not in preparation mode. "I just eat loads!" she laughs.

"I don't have to make my weight so I eat as much as I can, go to the cinema, just chill out in the evenings." When it comes to partying, she says, friends accept her choices. "I kind of come home early... It's okay for an hour or so when you do go out, then everyone around you starts getting drunk."

Does she spends time online -- on Bebo, for instance? "Not any more. I was on it for a while, but I was getting stalked," she says, shaking her head. "I should have put it on private, to be honest, but I was glad to get off. I was getting sick of it. I didn't report it, I just cancelled the page. It was a few lads and a few girls."

Surprised at how easily she bats this off, I mention an interview I recently did with Anne Nolan, ex of the Nolan Sisters, about a biography in which she reveals that she had a stalker who appeared outside her house. "Oh my word!" Taylor exclaims. "Mine wasn't that bad."

Pete laughs: "Ours would be the wrong house to appear outside, anyway."

He has a point. Pete is a former Irish boxing champion. Katie's brothers -- Lee, 28, and Peter, 23 -- both boxed to a serious level (her sister, Sarah, 24, she has described as "a real girly girl"). Her mother, Bridget, was the first female referee and judge in the country, and remains a loud ringside voice.

Katie's first visit to the gym was a happy accident -- one night when her father couldn't find a babysitter, he simply took her along. She was 10. The rest is history.

"When I got into the ring I loved sparring and training. I loved the competitive aspect of it. I was always competitive. Every sport I was involved in, I always wanted to win."

Her family remains hugely supportive of her -- an essential thing, given the financial sacrifices made to reach the top level of amateur sport. Katie gets grant aid from the Irish Sports Council.

Pete, however -- who in the past has trained his daughter in the kitchen and garden shed -- works as an electrician by day, and pays his own way. "I go away by choice," he says. "I wouldn't want anyone else to go away with Katie. If you gave me €1m and said 'don't go with Katie for the World Championships', I wouldn't take it. I want to see Katie on the podium."

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