Sunday 22 October 2017

Nobody pushes harder than the best female boxer in the world

Katie Taylor's quest for perfection remains a gruelling, lonely slog, with the golden hue of the Olympics already a distant memory and frustratingly familiar obstacles threatening to hold her back, writes Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

'C'mon jog. Jog back down. Don't walk!" Pete Taylor's voice cracks through the frigid morning like a whip flicked across a parquet floor. "Ten to go," he says. "Dig deep now." The two athletes go jitterbugging back down the narrow, curved strip of tarmac, slipping out of sight again.

He shouts as they disappear. "Straight away now, soon as ye get to the bottom, turn and sprint."

The November light is golden here, but it carries no heat. Trees are bare, their coppery skeletons listless and defeated. When he speaks, Pete's voice punches out steam pockets.

"Katie hates this," he says. "Hates it with a passion."

The climb recommences, just a sound at first. Feet scraping for purchase, mouths panting. Katie Taylor rounds the turn, maybe three yards clear of Alicia Traynor. "Push now, keep pushing," bellows Pete.

They carom past, a blur of pumping limbs and swishing wind-cheaters. All the way up to the wrought-iron gate at the top, before turning. Nine to go.

This is the invisible torture, a ritual enacted away from prying eyes on a steep descent to the tartan running track by Shoreline Leisure Centre in Greystones. The girls wear shorts over tracksuit bottoms and, in Alicia's case, a woolly hat. A sheen of perspiration makes their faces glisten.

When it is over, they will descend wearily to stretch their burning legs. Thirty times they have gone vaulting up that hill, its gradient pitched steeper than the roof of a semi-detached house. Alicia smiles.

She is a garda based in Tallaght who loves this parallel life. Boxing began as a way of getting fitter to play soccer, but now it consumes her. The minute she walked through the doors of Bray Boxing Club, she understood something profound was changing in her life. It was maybe five years ago and she boxes for her country now.

So what Katie Taylor does in training, Alicia follows. She does so recognising that they will never share the one destination.

"I don't know," she smiles now, her breath slowly settling. "Halfway up that hill, Katie just seems to find this rocket-boost. Either that, or I'm running on banana skins!"

THEY THINK GLORY COMES FROM ABSTRACT things, as if winning gold is no more complicated than stripping the pith off an orange.

Katie is familiar with a world that draws ignorant conclusions. The price of stockpiling titles is you create an illusion and the more you win, the more that illusion grows. People forget what it is you do, their attention drawn only to the fleeting celebrity of homecomings. Boxing has broken Katie Taylor's nose four times, yet she remains beautiful. That feeds the fairytale.

She sits now on a table, articulating the frustrations of a post-Olympic year. It feels as if all that emotional impetus women's boxing accumulated through those tumultuous days in London's docklands was, somehow, allowed dissipate.

Last July, she won her fifth consecutive European Union gold in a tent in Hungary. The memories are underwhelming. In London, Katie's quarter-final bout against Britain's Natasha Jonas was voted best fight of the Olympics, male or female. One year on, it felt like that this awakening was a blur.

"It was just the facilities," she sighs of Hungary. "Boxing in a tent, no air-conditioning, no dressing-rooms in which to change, no toilets. Maybe a hundred people watching. The hotel, I suppose, was just a couple of hundred yards away, so you could go back and forth. It was very, very warm out there, but even warmer in the tent. The conditions were crazy to box in.

"I just feel as if people are getting complacent. Women's boxing is in the Olympics and they're just happy that it's there. They're not really pushing on. And I can't stand people getting complacent, I hate that."

Pete nods in agreement.

"It was ridiculous," he sighs. "People were losing three or four kilos in maybe four rounds of boxing. Katie suffered heat exhaustion after her semi-final. But, again, it's an attitude of, 'just be happy that you're in the Olympics now.' It's patronising".

Hungary felt like being trapped in a time capsule. The bad old days reprised. Katie's first World Championships took her to Russia and a juddering reality check that would educate her to the pitfalls of presumption.

The conditions were "terrible," the food inedible. She lost in her second fight and could not wait to get a flight home. Thereafter, the Taylors never again made the mistake of imagining that the prestige associated with holding a major championship guaranteed a duty of care from organisers.

In women's boxing, the wise thing has always been to pack a suitcase of food, arrive early, do reconnaissance for the local equivalent of Tescos and play hard-ball on room arrangements.

"They tend to be the worst hotels around really," says Katie.

In China last year, for a tournament doubling as a World Championships and Olympic qualifier, the boxers were housed on a football campus. "The walls were paper-thin," she recalls. "You could hear every conversation going on around the place. It can be hard to sleep a lot of the time before fights anyway, but when you can hear everything that's going on ... "

Mum, Bridget, was staying in a nearby hotel, so Katie took to bunking in with her, just for that simple luxury of sleep.

This glamorous life ...

Every night now, Pete is economical about the following day's schedule. He knows the threat of repetition, the ease with which a schedule can become a tyranny. So he keeps changing training plans, venues, everything. Katie's hatred of this hill particularly encourages keeping that diary closed.

"He didn't tell me I'd be here this morning," she smiles. "Which was probably a good thing. Because I slept like a log last night. Sometimes knowing I've this session ahead of me will actually keep me awake.

"That's how much I hate this! It's probably the worst part of boxing."

She trains twice a day, six times a week. Always. If it has been a low-key year, there has been no room in it for low-key preparation. There are no sabbaticals in this life, no relenting in the push to be the best that she can humanly be. Sometimes she wonders if any of her opponents push themselves this hard.

The suspicion that they don't comforts her through this kind of pain. But this year has been difficult.

"It's been difficult in that I feel I haven't really had the same opportunities as the lads are having with the WSB (World Series of Boxing) and that," she says. "Training away, without any attention, doesn't really bother me at all.

"But I just want the same opportunities the lads are getting with the WSB. I don't understand why that's not happening for the women. We were promised that it was going to and this is the year it should have happened.

"A quiet calendar and an opportunity to build from the Olympics. Last year was the best year possible for women's boxing and while it was fresh in people's minds, they really should have pushed on from that. That's really the frustrating part about it.

"Putting in these hours is just normal for me, normal practice. This is where all the fights are won really, when nobody else is watching. Obviously there are times when I'm just not in the mood, when I don't feel like getting up for training. But that's normal for anybody.

"My dad always told me from a young age that these are the days that will make the difference between winning and losing."

She looks back on the images of London now and, sometimes, sees a person she cannot recognise. Only hindsight tells her of the stress she and her family carried into the ExCel Arena, a whole nation presuming upon coronation. The day of the final, her mam came – as she always does before a big fight – to put plaits in Katie's hair.

As Bridget worked, she prayed aloud, repeating Katie's favourite piece of scripture, Psalm 18. Katie could sense the emotion in her mother's voice, but neither would admit it. So much of that day was about internalising emotion, denying its existence.

"It's only when I look back that I realise the amount of pressure I was under," says Katie now. "Until the Olympics, people just kind of saw me coming back through the airport with gold medals. They never realised how hard it was to win them.

"I knew the Olympics was no foregone conclusion. My whole family knew it. But people had been putting the gold around my neck before I'd even qualified. That was very, very difficult to deal with at times and I definitely wouldn't have been able to cope without my family.

"They were saying to me, 'boxing doesn't define who you are. You're more than any gold medal or any Olympics'."

But this gold would carry a different lustre. Katie didn't fly home into a small copse of arms from welcoming friends this time. She sailed straight into the gaping mouth of a spellbound nation.

"The moment we landed, I knew my life had completely changed," she remembers. "My dad had been telling me that everything would be a little bit mad.

"But I couldn't believe the reaction. I never expected it."

IT IS DARK NOW, THE BOXERS pouring from a night of plummeting temperatures into the great, echoey shell of what was once a plush, multi-storey Bray gym.

The Raven went the way of so many Celtic Tiger vanities. Its carpeted floors are patterned with phantom shapes of lost treadmills and weights machines. Loose, naked light fittings hang from an upstairs ceiling. On the window-sill, East Coast radio blares from a sound-system. It's playing Meatloaf.

"Some days it don't come easy;

Some days it don't come hard;

Some days it don't come at all;

And these are the days that never end..."

While their harbour clubhouse is being renovated, Bray Boxing Club pays for the use of this ghostly husk of a prosperous past. Kids as young as seven are signed in by their parents to the same book that registers promising teenagers, flat-nosed ring veterans and fitness fanatics for whom boxing pares a body down better than anything else they've tried.

The boxing ring is on the first floor, but Pete takes a group of maybe 20 to the second where there is room to run small, aerobic circuits and do some group sparring. Five of the 20 are girls.

Pete stands in the middle, directing them through the warm-up. He is hands-on and watchful. Some nights, if they are short a spar, he will track down his old gum-shield and pull on gloves. "Takes me about three days to recover," he laughs.

Yet, Pete's movement when demonstrating a move suggests he lies. He is visibly sharper than most of this classroom, simulating moves with easy flair. By 7.45, the boxers put on head-gear and he splits them up into viable spars. Disparities in size are factored in, but not gender.

The girls in Bray spar with the boys. It's what made Katie who she is.

Tonight, she goes two rounds with Casey Berry, a highly-ranked 17-year-old just back from injury; two with Seamus Allen, a 69kg southpaw; two with Cillian Dowling, a 19-year-old Leinster champion; and, finally, two with Alicia.

Katie glistens with perspiration, bobbing and weaving, throwing those crystal-clean combinations that make her look so natural in the ring. Pete says his daughter is still improving. To the naked eye now, it looks like he might be right.

She tells a story of her new life. After the recent soccer international against Latvia, with all its attendant palaver about Martin O'Neil and Roy Keane, Katie felt oddly emboldened. She went down to the Aviva dressing-room entrance with one of her best friends, Susan Byrne, both of them former women's soccer internationals. For Katie, Keane's presence was a flame the moth in her could not resist. She had idolised him as a child and now wondered about the possibility of a photograph.

They asked a man doing security if, maybe, Roy was still around.

"Would you like to meet him?" she was asked.

"Well ... "

Soon, security returned with a message from the dressing-room. Yes, Roy Keane was perfectly happy to meet Katie Taylor. She takes it up from here.

"Meeting him was a dream of mine," she smiles. "He's an absolute hero to me, always was when I was growing up. So the absolute privilege of just meeting him ... it was an honour really. And he was a complete gent. I could relate to everything he said and everything he'd been through.

"When I found out he agreed to meet me, I was so nervous. I've met so many famous people since the Olympics, people like Daniel Day-Lewis, even President Obama. And I never get star-struck by anyone. Just always, 'nice to meet you ... '

"But when I heard I was going to meet Roy Keane, I went weak at the knees to be honest. I was going through the conversation in my head."

They were shown into a side dressing-room, where Keane sat with them for half an hour.

"I could have spent all day talking to him. He was a complete gentleman," Katie says. "He was just talking about his own career, very honest, very funny about everything, even Saipan. It was brilliant.

"I didn't tell him he was a hero of mine. To be honest, I didn't know what to say half the time. I didn't want to embarrass him I suppose because I don't think he really likes being praised too much. He was just kind of keeping the conversation going himself."

Keane told her of his own, evolving relationship with fitness, preparation and the sometimes self-defeating zeal of extreme sacrifice

"He was saying that he was a bit mad at the start of his career, that he wasn't as disciplined," she reflects. "Then he got to a stage where he got a bit too extreme the other way, to the stage where he couldn't even enjoy his sport. He said his body fat was down to something like 4.6pc, which is what you'd expect with a long-distance runner really.

"So he was just talking about the importance of enjoying your sport as well. You can't deprive yourself of everything. He said he went a bit too extreme at times.

"I mean I know myself I have to look after my body very well. So it was very very interesting hearing from him talk about that. Even hearing about the things that happened in Saipan. I was always on his side back then. As an athlete myself, going to the biggest competition ever, and all these things aren't in place.

"That still angers me now when I think about it. Because I would have encountered that myself." She stops herself then, keen not to betray a confidence.

Roy and Katie, polar-opposite personalities. Kindred spirits.

AT TRAINING'S END, SHE SLIPS downstairs for the ritual warm-down and stretch.

Her green T-shirt is soaked through with perspiration, but her eyes sparkle with good health and rising confidence. Katie believes she is a better boxer now than the one who took gold in London. She believes it because they've picked wrinkles from every performance and ironed them away.

If Pete is programmed to worry now about changed scoring systems or the likely removal of head-guards, he is guilty only of a father's care for his child. Katie herself is sanguine.

To some degree, they are chasing perfection. The dream is to arrive in Rio unbeaten in European and World Championships. "It's so important to keep winning and winning and winning, because that keeps up the mystique," says Pete.

"People come up against that and it makes a difference. It's a bit like Roger Federer; once you start getting beaten, people begin to get that little bit of confidence against you. So you've got to keep that mystique."

Routinely, Katie breakfasts now with a heart monitor strapped to her chest, so that they can ratchet training wisely.

The routines can be joyless over long stretches, the self-sacrifice mentally cruel. If Katie could be granted one solitary wish, it would probably be that chocolate was free of calories.

"My biggest downfall is I'm a bit of a chocoholic to be honest," she smiles. "And, coming up to a competition, when I have to make the weight and I can't have chocolate, that's when I get really cranky."

There is much she would happily change in Irish boxing. She laments the IABA's failure to tap into unprecedented public interest in their sport post-London, suggesting that John Joe Nevin's recent move to the professional ranks had less to do with money than with frustration at amateur boxing's inability to properly market itself in this country. The media focus runs only in four-year cycles and the IABA does little to rectify that.

"In an all fairness," Pete interjects, "Paddy Barnes has two Olympic medals, but if he walked down Grafton Street, who would really know him?

"Everyone would have been delighted to box for the Association in, say, the O2 after the Olympics. It would have taken organising, of course, but they could have made a €1m and been self-sufficient between now and Rio

"They could have done it by just marketing what they have: the best athletes in the country. They were sitting on a gold mine!"

It is his job to turn out the lights and padlock the doors now. As he does so, Katie heads for home and a soothing shower. "I don't think people have seen the best of me yet," says the Olympic champion as she goes.

Tomorrow will be a new day with old rituals. In the pain, they find a quiet comfort. The comfort of knowing that nobody pushes harder than the best female boxer in the world.

That is Katie's secret. That is her glory.

Irish Independent

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