Thursday 14 November 2019

Flag fluttered behind her like a cape for the superhero she is

ALL the air was suddenly sucked from the boiling arena. It was the longest hush. Time slowed and stood still. Time to recollect all our gut-wrenching defeats, our last-minute wretched disappointments, the moral victories when we caught a glimpse of the Promised Land before tumbling back down the mountain.

Silence, worry, sinking feeling, a gnawing in the pit of the stomach. We wanted this badly.

The gleaming gold disc that proclaims that one of us is the best there is. Someone who made it all the way to the mountain top.

And Katie. Oh how she wanted it even more. This was everything she had worked for, prayed for, dreamed of, planned for, hungered after, down all the long days and nights sweating in the dingy, cramped gym down by Bray harbour.

She wandered around the ring looking a little lost. In the red corner her father Pete hunched over the ropes, an agony of half-hope, half-dread. And meanwhile, the blue-clad Sofya Ochigava strutted about, one arm aloft, exuding confidence.

The judges seemed to be taking forever. Then the music stopped. And so did every Irish heart.

On any other Olympic day, a silver medal would do nicely. But not for Katie, supreme warrior, pioneer, fighter, artist.

It was gold, or nothing.

The screen flashed red. Katie's arm shot up.

It was gold. Gold, by the grace of God and Katie Taylor.

A mighty shattering roar erupted, rolling like thunder through the rattling roof of the ExCel, rippling down the Thames, rushing down the city streets.

We won.

Our golden girl sparked into joyous life again. She gambolled around the ring, jumping towards the heavens, shadow-boxing. Swathed in a tricolour, she scampered around and around. And rushed into her father's embrace. Peter, her rock.

But bloody hell, it had been close, 10-8 the final result. But then again, we don't ever cruise to victory. We scrap and bleed and dig deep and conjure up the winning point just as the final curtain begins to fall.

The noise in the arena grew louder. 'Athenry' was roared out, exorcising the sad ghosts of Poznan forever. Katie took to the floor for a victory lap, flag fluttering behind her like a cape for the superhero that she is, as men and women cheered and wept.

The sheer relief of it all. For it hadn't really gone according to script -- the one which had plotted that Katie would come out dancing and box the Russian lassie into the middle of next week and the celebration party would kick off by round three.

After all, Katie had beaten her before, and Sofya now definitely deserved a thorough thumping after her trash-talk the evening before.

As the crowds arrived for the final, our last gold medal winner -- 20 years ago almost to the day -- Michael Carruth was strolling about the arena, looking as fit as a ceilidh-full of fiddles.

The river of green washing up at the ExCel was "phenomenal", he said. "When she gets here it's going to be like fighting in the National Stadium. Nerves will be there but there's no problem about that. When she gets the first dig on the nose or she delivers the first dig, it's gone and she gets back into tactics."

Nor did Michael believe that Katie would lose to Sofya. "I think she's far too good and she's going to beat this girl hands down. I hope she does, because the Russian was a bit mouthy last night, saying stupid things, and the only way to shut people up talking is to put something in their mouth, it's gotta be Katie's glove," he declared.

Proper fighting talk. Inside the arena the beer and the songs were flowing. Lads in green hats and Viking horns and Katie T-shirts were belting out 'Walking in a Katie Wonderland'.

The stage was set. The warm-up act was the flyweight final, British woman Nicola Adams against China's Cancan Ren. There were a few hundred British supporters in the arena at most. So the 8,000-plus Irish cheered her on.

Then it was Katie in the spotlight, fighting in the final of a sport her physical power and star-power brought to the Olympics for the first time.

But she was nervous. It was 2-2 at the end of round one. Irish hearts began to flutter. Then the Russian fought back. Katie slips behind. 1-2. Dear God. No.

Then in round three, out came the steel in Katie, a fury of jabs and hooks. This is what we came to see.

For this wasn't just about boxing, and Katie isn't just another sportswoman.

Kate first pulled on gloves at the age of 12 in 1998. And while the Celtic Tiger roared and the dazzled cubs chased gold, Katie boxed and boxed.

As the gold turned to fool's gold and the rampant Tiger died with a whimper, Katie boxed and boxed.

Katie's dreams were of gold too. But it was the gold of achievement, of excellence, of dedication and patriotism, of glory without power or gain or wealth.

It was the gold of never saying die when the money ran out, or when men said women can't fight. It was the gold of getting up off the canvas every time, no matter how hard the punch that felled you.

It was the gold of self-belief and inspiration and pure never-say-die guts.

And every punch that Katie landed in those crucial last two rounds was a blow for anyone who has found themselves flat on the canvas. Every jab landed yet another crack in the glass ceiling above the heads of women striving for equality. Every hook landed in the soft pinstriped bellies of the greed-heads who put our country on its knees.

We were all in the ring, fighting for Ireland. Our pride had been on the ropes for long enough.

And with what pride did an arena roar out 'Amhran na bhFiann' as our flag rose higher than the rest, and Katie, all dazzling smiles and sparkle, bit her gleaming gold medal just to check, before kissing and kissing it.

It was no fool's gold. Like Katie, it's the real thing.

Outside, the broad concourse of the London arena seemed paved with gold. The stewards gave up and just let the massive river of green sing their songs and roll towards the sunlight.

It was a river of emotion. It sang 'You'll Never Beat the Irish', and it belted out 'Molly Malone'.

Now there's an idea. A statue of our lass somewhere in our capital, standing strong and clutching gold, one arm pointing to the sky.

A reminder that some things are always worth fighting for.

Irish Independent

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