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Monday 14 July 2014

Katie Taylor: 'I don't want people to define me by my medals, but by how I live my life'

Katie Taylor is looking forward to proving that women’s boxing deserves respect and, as she tells Vincent Hogan, using the Bible as her ‘sports psychology book’ will help her handle the pressure

Published 16/04/2012|05:00

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Katie Taylor

Pain is the big, unnoticed secret of great boxers' stories. So the Katie Taylor you think you know doesn't really bruise, bleed or worry.

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She's as real as Mary Poppins, a fairytale hurtling towards a happy ending. In a world of loose teeth, black eyes and busted noses, Katie still comes to us as an unblemished dream.

She is, arguably, the most talented Irish sportsperson alive and, later this year, the assumption remains that that status will get some kind of formal recognition.

Katie and the Olympics is a long-running story. She has yet to formally qualify for London, but she's been the poster-girl of women's boxing for so long, the idea of her missing the Games is pretty much unthinkable. The authorities do have a discretionary power to invite her if things go wrong at the upcoming World Championships, but champions don't go to work programmed to look for kindness.

Everything about Katie in a boxing ring looks so natural, so picture-perfect, she has -- you suspect -- cursed herself with the creation of an illusion. When you have three world titles and five Europeans, the stock-piling of medals acquires an air of easy formality. But people still punch her when they can. Katie Taylor bleeds.

We meet her a day after a routine 10-round sparring session with two male clubmates in Bray left her fearing her nose might be broken. It's an occupational hazard of the path she follows. The nose has been smashed maybe five times before and she's needed two operations to keep it straight. Ever see Julie Andrews with a nosebleed?

The rest of the sport has been keeping Katie at arm's length of late, maybe trying to avoid being blinded by her light.

Pete, her coach and dad, tried entering her in three separate tournaments abroad this year and was rejected every time. So he busied himself organising a couple of shows in the Royal Hotel, Bray, and she's boxed two internationals against the Netherlands as well as a recent brace of emphatic victories over American lightweight, Liz Leddy. It's no big deal.

The measure of Katie's readiness for battle has always been the quality of her spars with male boxers at home in Bray or in the High Performance gym on the South Circular Road. Go YouTube a recent session with Beijing medallist Paddy Barnes and you'll be a little closer to understanding what it is she does. Or, more pertinently, how.

It's one of the things that excites Katie now about the five-ringed circus.

There remains a certain sense of public disquiet about women's boxing, but the Olympics will shine a light on the sport that should leave little doubt about its credibility and seriousness. "At least the world is going to know now," says Katie. "The world is going to see how competitive it is and I think people will be shocked when they see it."

We may even be shocked in Ireland.

For Katie might be one of the country's highest profile athletes but, to most Irish people, her genius is just a rumour. Newspaper coverage of her major championship victories has been largely terse and functional. And RTE television consistently seems indifferent to her story.

Recently, she fought Norwegian world No 5 Ingrid Egner in Bray and the only TV camera present belonged to Sky Sports. One night earlier, there was none for her defeat of Switzerland's Sandra Brugger.

The scant access to footage of Taylor in action routinely leads to some formal embarrassments. "It can be frustrating at times," she concedes. "Especially at awards dinners when all these action clips of people are being shown and they have no clips of me. Or the clip they show might be from years ago.

"It feels a bit insulting, but I try not to think about it."

She stops herself there, for it simply isn't Katie Taylor's way to carp or belly-ache. This life she leads gives her more joy than she can readily articulate. If anything, the worst moments of stress and extravagant expectation offer her most pleasure.

The dressing-room minutes before a big fight take Katie to a place she feels most comfortable. "It's amazing, it can be so nerve-wracking," she smiles. "But there's no place I'd rather be."

Pete nods sagely, albeit maybe not with the most conspicuous enthusiasm.

He smiles. A father worries for his daughter, even if she happens to have a heaven-sent gift. "I think I'm going to have a heart-attack sometimes with the stress," he says. "An hour before a fight, it's unbelievable. Sometimes I wonder is it worth it?"

They are Born Again Christians and faith is probably a good friend to have when faced with the presumption of strangers. Through her entire boxing career, the only fights Katie has lost have all been asterisked by dubious judging. In February last year, she dropped a highly suspicious 1-5 verdict to a Bulgarian opponent in Bulgaria.

Taylor had beaten Denista Eliseeva emphatically in two previous contests and would beat her again the following June at the European Union Championships. But the standard of officiating at that Strandja Multi-Nations was so questionable, it drew formal rebuke in the shape of 13 judges from the Bulgarian federation being suspended.

Even Eliseeva apologised to Taylor when the verdict was announced.

She's lost too to Turkey's Gulsum Tatar, but never outside of Turkey. And when Russia's Sofya Ochigava inflicted a first defeat in three years on Katie in the Czech Republic last March, it was subsequently reported that two of the five ringside judges were Russian nationals. In her European semi-final last year, one judge marked heavily in favour of Katie's Swedish opponent during the final round despite the girl not landing a single punch.

All of which you might imagine would unzip a certain paranoia. Not so.

Pete explains that, although boxers get to see the names of those judging their contests beforehand and have a right to protest if unhappy, it's simply not an intervention they would countenance.

"We never even look at the judges' names," he says. "We don't care. Just go in and box to the best of your ability, that's our attitude. Anyway, things have improved dramatically under president Wu (the IBA chief). You get very few robberies in major tournaments now. There are more good judges than bad, more honest ones than dishonest ones."

Katie admits to incredulity at some of what she has seen, but shares her father's faith that -- ultimately -- justice will prevail. "It's hard to understand how some people can be so bad or so dishonest at times," she reflects. "How they get away with it, I don't know. Have they no integrity at all?

"It's just not right but I try not to think about it. There are things you've just got to put in God's hands really. If it's God's plan, I'll win the fight."

This isn't, we should be clear, to suggest that the only threats to Katie's Olympic dream will be underhand and clandestine. Standards are rising all the time and father and daughter see legitimate danger in just about every corner now.

At the 2010 World Championships in Barbados, Taylor was seconds away from semi-final defeat against American, Queen Underwood. Katie says a 15-second flurry of punches from Underwood essentially put her in trouble that day. It led to something like a six-point swing in the score and only a desperate, late rally rescued her defence of the title.

She felt weak in the fight and was brought to the very brink, winning 18-16 in the end.

Katie recalls: "I was very nervous that day and she was just so much stronger than me. Then she really hurt me in the fourth round and began to box out of her skin. One punch can change a fight and, that day, it almost did. I was really lucky to get through that one."

Then there's the Russian, Ochigava, with whom Taylor's fights always seem to develop into cagey games of chess. There's Tatar too and there's the Chinese, Cheng Dong, she's now beaten in successive world finals. And there are others lurking in the shadows, all hugely accomplished boxers capable of wrecking Taylor's dream. Even Egner, recently defeated in Bray, lost only on a split-decision when they previously boxed in London.

So presumption is a danger that Katie chooses to keep at arm's length.

She has pulled back from all media work between now and next month's World Championships and won her personal crusade against efforts to get women boxers wearing skirts and tight-fitting vests in competition, a tasteless effort to 'sex up' the sport. The authorities tried to force the issue at those World Championships in Barbados, but the Taylors didn't buckle.

"We've got morals that go above marketing," Pete told them. The skirts idea was subsequently dropped.

They can feel the energy building at home now, the sense of the country preparing a drum-roll. Boxing has always been Ireland's best shot at Olympic glory and Pete reckons another three men could be on the team with those already qualified, John Joe Nevin, Darren O'Neill and Michael Conlan. But it is Katie's perfect face that smiles down from the billboards.

Last year, she flew to Los Angeles to make a TV ad with rapper Tinie Tempah and the Blink 182 drummer, Travis Barker. She's been to the White House to meet President Obama and was last year's Grand Marshall for Dublin's St Patrick's Day parade. She's been included as one of only six international competitors to participate in an IOC video that will be broadcast to the world at London's Opening Ceremony.

Complete strangers are drawn to her with an odd sense of familiarity, though few have ever seen her box.

And Katie admits she dares to dream of the podium in London now. How could it be any other way? She imagines gold around her neck and, maybe above all, hears the strains of 'Amhran na bhFiann'. She's been learning Irish and would like, one day, to be fluent. Her nationality, palpably, matters to her.

And the pressure?

Her faith, you can tell, offers serenity in every storm. She has never used a formal sports psychologist, smiling that "the Bible is my sports psychology manual, God is my psychologist."

Pete says that, in any event, the Olympics won't define his daughter. He's right, of course. For Katie Taylor's achievements already fly to a place that most mortals could but dream of accumulating in a multiple of lifetimes. That said, he believes Katie can be "25pc better than before" at next months Worlds. "I don't think the other girls would like to hear that," he smiles. An understatement of Olympian stature.

His mindset, you can tell, is that China next month won't simply be about Olympic qualification. "We want to go to London as world champion," reflects Pete.

Katie, meanwhile, retains that gentle grace and humility that seems so at odds with such a hard, adversarial sport. The only aggression she ever conspicuously summons is channeled into the science of her ring-craft. She has a refinement to her, an easy femininity.

So Ireland's greatest hope of gold in London carries the burden of that tag without apparent struggle.

"Obviously I'd love to go down in history as one of the greatest female boxers (which, of course, she already is)," says Katie Taylor. "But I'd like to be remembered for being a good person too and for my faith in God.

"I don't want people to define me by my medals, but by how I live my life."

Irish Independent

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