Tuesday 22 May 2018

'I was involved in drugs and drinking... stealing and vandalism' - How Olympic hopeful Michael Conlan turned his life around

Boxing star Michael Conlan relaxes at home with his fiancee Shauna and their young daughter Luisne
Boxing star Michael Conlan relaxes at home with his fiancee Shauna and their young daughter Luisne

Michael Conlan is all too aware that things could have turned out a lot differently for him.

Today he's a world-class boxer unfazed by the weight of expectation on his young, powerful shoulders as the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro loom large.

Virtually everyone in the sport expects the popular west Belfast man to bring gold home to Ireland from the greatest show on earth later this year.

They expect to see him crying with joy in Brazil, with fiancée Shauna by his side and delightful young daughter Luisne in his arms, and with that priceless medal draped around his neck.

But very few among the millions watching around the globe will be aware that the road to Rio has been far from smooth for the devoted family man who has always appeared to have the world in his gifted, gloved hands.

They won't have known about the under-age drinking, the drug-taking, the theft and the vandalism that were part of Michael Conlan's formative years before top-level boxing, Shauna and Luisne came into his life.

Indeed, up until now, and aged 24, he has even declined to tell his parents about it.

But today one of Ireland's great Olympic hope is breaking his silence in a bid to inspire disillusioned youngsters to turn away from the vices that once gripped him.

As the current Belfast Telegraph Sports Star of the Year freely concedes, he was one of those troubled, lost teenagers who could have ended up like the friends he knew back then who are no longer with us.

Boxing was his salvation, a path out of his own inner darkness, and now he wants to be the inspiring voice that tells others there is a way to banish the demons - because he found one himself.

"I fell in with the wrong crowd between the ages of 13 and 16," admitted the reigning world amateur bantamweight champion.

"Growing up in west Belfast, it was kind of the norm.

"My parents still don't know exactly what I was up to back then, but I was involved in drugs and drinking from a young age. And stealing, and vandalism.

"I always tried to hide it because if my older brother Jamie knew I was doing any of that stuff he'd have slapped the head off me.

"But I never used my boxing ability in the street, never attacked anybody. I actually hate the thought of fighting in the street. One punch there, and you could die.

"I was young and stupid, but when I look back now I wouldn't change it because I realise it's made me who I am today."

The three-time Irish national flyweight champion clearly remembers when it all started to turn around for him - the day he learned he'd been selected for the Commonwealth Youth Games.

"Up until then I was kind of leading a double life - the boxing life, which everybody knew me for, but when I was with my mates I was a different person, doing drugs and drinking," he revealed.

"I went to the Games, lost in the quarter-finals, came back disheartened and dipped my toe back into the drugs.

"The following year, however, I won the Ulster Seniors. That's when I realised I was good - and that's when I vowed to stop all that nonsense for good."

The father-of-one says his boxing talent saved him from becoming a potential victim of the endemic depression which has produced alarming suicide statistics in the area where he was raised.

"A lot of people - friends, and friends of friends - I've known growing up have killed themselves and I couldn't believe they'd done that," he said.

"The suicide rate is very high. There's a big problem with young guys in west Belfast, and I definitely could have been one of those statistics.

"Being from there, there's a high possibility that that could have happened. I never told my family - anyone - what I was doing. What saved me, I believe, is boxing."

Michael - who was Boxer of the Tournament at the 2015 European Championship in Bulgaria - says he became an ambassador for Aware NI, the only mental health charity working exclusively for those with depression and bipolar disorder, in order to help the sort of troubled youngster he once was.

"I want to show them that I know what they're going through and tell them that they don't have to be stuck to that type of environment," he said.

"I want them to believe they can go and make something of themselves the way I have."

It's no surprise that so many people look up to the fresh-faced Conlan, who was RTE Sports Personality of the Year in 2015, with a combination of admiration and pride.

He has certainly turned his life around, becoming a renowned boxer, a loving partner to Shauna and a doting dad to 14-month-old Luisne, all of which have brought focus and meaning to his life outside the ring. "Fatherhood is the best thing that's ever happened to me, better than anything I've ever won," said the 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist.

"It has grounded me, and made me want to succeed more for someone other than myself.

"Being a father to Luisne (Irish for 'Little Flame') has actually made me a better athlete all round. It has given me that drive: everything is for her now, not for me."

Although Shauna has assumed the lead parenting role to facilitate Michael's full-time preparation for the Games, he is still eager to do as much as possible.

"I'm a very hands-on parent," said Michael, a gold medallist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

"At the start I did the night feeds and I was up all the time. I like to be involved in doing as much as I can for my daughter.

"I do it happily - and, 100%, I'd love another wee baby. In fact, I want about four or five, and Shauna feels the same way. But not just now, obviously."

The Olympics has put almost everything on hold, including a walk down the aisle for Michael and Shauna (23), who have been together for almost four years and live in Newtownabbey. "I think we'll decide on that after Rio," he said.

"It'll be abroad. I'd like to go to Italy. I've looked at a couple of places along the Amalfi coast. I'd have to give friends and family time to save up for it, though, so it won't be next year."

A typical day for Michael when he's Belfast-based currently involves getting up at 8am, helping with Luisne while Shauna gets ready for work as a legal secretary, driving the little one to creche - and then getting stuck into the serious business of becoming the first Northern Ireland-born athlete to win individual gold at a summer Olympics (Dame Mary Peters, our hero of 1972, was born in England).

"I start training at 10am, pick my daughter up at 1pm, have some fun time with her and then drop her off with one of her two grannies before resuming training at 4pm," he explained.

"I train in Dublin from Tuesday to Friday. It's very tough being separated from the girls and it's getting harder as Luisne gets older. I know she misses me and I miss her a lot when I'm away."

When Michael jets off to Brazil, however, his family will be with him. "I'll be in the Olympic Village and they'll be staying in a villa in Rio with my mum and Jamie," he said.

"I'm still going to be nervous having them there because Rio is a dangerous place.

"But, unlike Rory McIlroy, I'm not really worried about the Zika virus because I'm not planning on having kids in the next few months. I will, however, make sure to get checked out by a doctor before I do decide to try for babies again."

Naturally, Rio dominates Michael's thoughts and he will approach the Olympics with confidence gleaned from becoming the first Irish fighter to win a world amateur title - although that triumph in Doha, Qatar, brought surprisingly mixed emotions.

"It was such a proud moment for me and my family," he said.

"Being the first from Ireland to win that title was something really special.

"At the time, though, I didn't enjoy it as much as I probably should have because I got knocked down in the final round. That kind of took the shine off it for me, dented my ego a bit. I think I'll appreciate it a lot more when my career's over."

So what would it mean to take home gold from Rio?

"That's the dream - and that's what's going to happen," he declared.

"Nothing's going to stop me; not a cut, not an injury, not a fighter anyway. I won't underestimate any of my opponents and I know it's going to be tough but I truly believe this is my time."

Michael insists he isn't feeling the weight of expectation from people on both sides of the border who regard him as one of the only genuine gold medal contenders.

"I actually love the fact that people have that belief in me," he said.

"I don't find it a pressure; it's a comfort."

People who meet the polite, good-natured Conlan find it hard to believe that this is a young man who beats people up for a living.

But he argued: "What I'm doing is a form of art; showing complete and utter skill in combat sport.

"I wouldn't ever go into a fight wanting to seriously hurt someone, but you do need to stop them because they're trying to stop you reaching your dream.

"So I'll do anything to take them out of the way. You can be a nice guy even though you're punching people for a living."

With father John (54) a boxing coach and older brother Jamie (29) a fully-fledged professional - and reigning Commonwealth champion - sporting pugilism runs deep in the Conlan family.

Indeed, Michael's other brothers Brendan (28), a gas engineer, and Sean-Paul (21), a web designer, both dabbled in boxing as well before pursuing other careers.

Mum Teresa (55), a lecturer at Belfast Metropolitan College, does her bit too - on the psychological side.

"She's into self-meditation, self belief and positive thinking," said Michael.

"She's a great part of my career and a great part of my life. I'm probably more a daddy's boy because he's my coach but I am very close to Mum too."

And surely a little envious of Jamie too? After all, he has already made it in the professional game.

"No, I'm very proud of what he's achieved," said Michael.

"I would never say envious, it's more a case of being inspired because he's the person I've always looked up to.

"Every boy wants to be like their older brother. Jamie led me into boxing and he's kept me in boxing. Him doing well has made me want to do well."

A mural depicting Michael in his boxing singlet and medals from the London Olympics near his parents' Cavendish Street home suggests their boy has already done well.

"The first thing I thought when I saw it was, 'I'm not dead, am I?' and that these things are normally reserved for dead paramilitaries," he said.

"I was completely shocked at the time it went up but now, every time I drive past it on the way to my mum's I feel very proud."

And Michael says he's equally at home boxing in the colours of Ireland come the Olympics, and for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games.

"First and foremost I'm an Irishman and I'm proud to represent Ireland in the Olympics," he said.

"I'm just as proud, though, to represent Northern Ireland at the Commonwealths. Very proud to represent both."

Michael's popularity, allied to his exceptional talent in the ring, make it a sure bet that he'll command eye-watering sums when, as is widely expected, he turns professional after Rio.

"It's all very well having loads of money, but it doesn't mean anything unless you have happiness in your life," he said.

"If I can just make a great life for Shauna and Luisne I'll be happy.

"If I could get in and make enough money by the time I'm 30 I would happily retire then. That's a good age to start another career. You don't want to be in the sport too long - I've been in it 18 years this year - and getting punched for 18 years isn't good for your head."

If you have been affected by any of these issues, please contact Aware NI, the mental health charity, on 02890357820.

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