Katie Taylor - The boxing champ who says she's not a feminist
In our exclusive interview, Vicki Notaro goes training with the Olympic medalist who expects to win gold every time
When you get an email asking if you'd like to step in the ring with Katie Taylor for an exclusive interview, it's one of those things to which it's impossible to say no. Of course, I had a moment of mild panic - this woman could floor me with a single uppercut, was she so inclined. However having heard of the Olympic gold medallist's sweet temperament countless times, the fear passed and excitement replaced it. After all, it's not every day you get to witness the brilliance of one of the country's top athletes in training mode, or meet a national icon.
What I should have been worried about was stepping into the ring with Katie's father, Peter. The man who trained the girl from Bray to world-class athlete status wasn't about to go easy on a pack of journalists, and had devised an hour-long routine designed to put us through our paces - and then some.
The woman herself was sweaty and out of breath by the end of it, so you can imagine how this marginally fit writer fared. It didn't help that every stretch and hook was and photographed, and self-consciousness limited any natural ability I may have had (cough).
Katie is of course used to being in the spotlight, and appears to have zero body or self-confidence issues. But of course, why would she? She's fit as can be thanks to Peter's training regime, twice a day, six days a week. She can do advanced static standing crunches with ease, when I couldn't even get my bum off the ground.
"My training diet can be quite strict when I'm coming up to competition, it's a weight-making sport of course," she explains. "But I eat quite healthily anyway, and it's less strict when out of competition.
"I love all sorts of food, chocolate especially. I eat well, but I like the odd Chinese, like anyone!"
Katie is after all, a normal 28 year-old woman, despite her seemingly supernatural abilities in the ring. She's gracious, chatting away and not laughing at our pathetic attempts to keep up with her, even allowing me to punch her in the face for a photo op.
The reason I'm perspiring and throwing punches in Bray Boxing Club is because Katie is the face of female friendly car insurance brand its4women.ie - no surprise considering she is literally the nation's golden girl, a pioneer for women in sport and an idol to millions of people, regardless of gender.
"I just thought it was a great brand to be involved with - they put females first, are for women and supportive of women."
Fair enough, but when I ask if she's a feminist, she says no. "I wouldn't really call myself a feminist. I obviously want equality and equal opportunities to the men. I just happen to be a woman and involved in sport, but that doesn't necessarily make me a feminist." Like many, she appears to take issue with the F word, despite clearly agreeing with its meaning.
Regardless, she's happy to share her poster-girl-of-Irish-sport title with other prominent female athletes. "Stephanie Roche is an absolute gem of a person, and a cracking footballer. And there are so many other brilliant Irish sportswomen coming to prominence now, like Niamh Briggs and Fiona Coughlan, it's great to be in that group. It's been a golden year in terms of sport, and sport for women," says Katie.
Before Christmas, Katie was very vocal in talking to the Irish Independent about a perceived lack of support from the national broadcaster.
"I don't know what we have to do to get the coverage or the support from RTE," she told the newspaper.
"They seem to always consume rugby and GAA but boxing is our most successful sport… the lack of coverage over the years is very disrespectful.
"Last year, when the lads' European championships were on, they [RTE] filmed the semi-finals and the finals but when mine came along they were nowhere to be seen. They always want to jump on the bandwagon when the Olympics come around every four years but that's not good enough."
However, today she's reticent in her criticism of the media, perhaps in part due to RTE's response that the IABA declined their coverage. "I think I've got great support; I feel like in terms of women's sport it has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. But it is hard to get that recognition and that's just the way it is. All I can do is keep going, and they'll have to take notice."
Next up for Katie is the European Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, in June. "My training schedule is amped up. I'm excited for the Europeans. Then the qualifying rounds for the next Olympics are early next year, so I'm training for all that."
I enquire as to the intensity of her sessions - was what we experienced authentic?
"They go on a bit longer than that, it was a shorter session!" she says. "Each session lasts about 90 minutes, six days a week. I get one day off, that's my favourite day. I get a nice rest. But I love it.
"It can be quite hard and sometimes I don't want to get up and go training but it's so worth it, I love what I do and I'm so grateful and privileged to be able to do it."
She keeps telling people on the day that she still has to qualify for Rio 2016, that it's not a given, but perhaps that's just the superstition of a professional athlete - surely there's no doubt she'll be there?
"I'm really excited about the year ahead I feel like the best is yet to come from myself. I feel like I'm always improving too, which is great."
It must be odd, I say, to achieve everything you've dreamed of since being a small child - how does she motivate herself to keep going?
"I don't really think too much about the past and what I've done," is her typically logical answer. "I try to look forward and improve always. The big challenge for me is defending titles, and just get even better at what I do."
Does she feel the pressure of the nation's expectations on her shoulders? She shrugs. "Nothing is as big as the pressure you put on yourself, in my opinion. I expect to win a gold medal in every competition. The support of everyone has been fantastic, it's so great to have the country behind me. It spurs me on when I'm going through low points, as everyone does."
What sort of low points? "People don't really see the work that goes in to getting to a gold medal position. The months and months of hard work... you don't wake up every day with a smile on your face - it's hard work. It's those kind of times you have to have perseverance."
Luckily for Katie, she has the support of her family. "It's great working with my dad all the time."
Is she just saying that because he's 10 feet away?
"No, if I have something to say, I'd say it to him," she replies adamantly. "We have a very close relationship and an open relationship. We can talk about anything. The whole family is very close. It's so great to have that support around me."
When I ask what she's most proud of, she says them. "There's nothing like having a good family around you. All these things will fade away - I'm going to retire at some point, I won't be boxing forever. The gold medals and the glory will fade away but family will always be there. They're my main priority."
Of course Katie is conscious of what she might do after she stops boxing. "I think I'd love to stay involved in the sport when I retire, as a coach or an ambassador, some sort of influence on the young girls coming up. When I was younger I really admired Sonia O'Sullivan and Roy Keane, and still do.
"I have great admiration for Brian O'Driscoll too, any Irish athlete on a world stage. I've aways had such a heart for sport, knew from such a young age, and had the Olympic dream from a child."
The by-products of Katie's success are obvious in her surroundings. Bray Boxing Club has been extensively renovated and is now covered in the logo of Adidas, her sponsor, with state-of-the-art equipment over two floors.
"This was all renovated after London and it's great to have it, but as I've said before, it's not the gym that makes the athlete, it's the ability. But of course it's really nice to have great facilities. I feel very lucky to be in a position I am with a few sponsors under my belt, I have a great team around me and they've done a great job with me."
Can Katie imagine what she might be doing if she wasn't a world champion boxer? "Good question!" she says, and appears stumped. "What would I be doing? Working for its4women.ie maybe!"
Good girl Katie. Keep those sponsors sweet.