Former Olympic boxing champion Kenneth Egan overcame alcoholism and adversity to turn his life around and qualify as an addiction counsellor. The family man talks about how focusing on helping others keeps his demons at bay
Lockdown has left most of us looking a little rougher around the edges, but not Kenny Egan. The glazed and slightly haunted expression he wore through his years as a tabloid wild child is gone and the superhero lantern jaw, which took so many literal and metaphorical punches, is now covered by a handsome salt and pepper-flecked beard.
Most of all the former Olympic boxer’s transformation is clear in the easy, confident way he speaks about his journey from the depths of despair, to life as a family man and addiction counsellor who guides others on their own recovery. In a sport littered with the body of young men who didn’t overcome their demons, it’s an inspiring story of redemption won the hard way and the former boxer is the subject of a moving episode of TG4 series Finne, to air later this week.
Egan saw a short clip of himself recently, in his early 20s, which reminded him of how far he had come. “I was in Wales before a fight and I was cocky and throwing shapes, outwardly very confident in my ability, but really I didn’t have confidence in myself”, he recalls. “And there was a kind of dark cloud of feeling not good enough and I could see that on my face there, too. I did what I could to deal with that and some of it was very self destructive.”
For much of his youth over-confidence and insecurity jostled within him. “I wasn’t the most talented athlete, I was a bit clumsy, I could fall over my own feet”, he tells me. “There were others who had more talent in their little fingers than I had in my whole body. But in other ways I had confidence. I loved the sport and I thought if I worked hard I would succeed. Between the ages of 11 and 13 I lost three All-Ireland finals in a row.
“I was tempted to turn my back on it, but something in me made me not want to give up.”
In 2001, when he was 19, he finally won his first All-Ireland title, but qualifying for the Olympics “scared the bejaysus” out of him. He wasn’t mature enough at the point to put in the work, and it was only the sight of Andy Lee, who was younger than Egan, going to the Athens games in 2004 that spurred him to try to qualify.
While he was diligent in showing up for training, always arriving with his hands wrapped, behind the scenes he was a raving alcoholic. “There are different types of alcoholic and I was a binge drinker”, he says. “I was very calculating. I’d know when I’d have to get back to training and I’d work out how many days I’d need to be off it so that I could walk back into the gym and look halfway presentable.
“When I came back off benders I’d have to build muscle because I’d have been drinking without eating for a few days in a row and I’d be skin and bone.”
Despite this cycle of binging he managed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and after that was away from Ireland for six weeks at a training camp, which helped him, since it meant temptation was far away.
He boxed his way to a silver medal, beating Englishman Tony Jeffries along the way, and while it was the moment of a lifetime, his inner addict saw it as a licence for destruction. “Ireland changed for me when I came home, I wasn’t prepared for instant fame. All the attention was on us. The media latched on to my party boy image. I had blinkers on, there was no structure in place for athletes who had been successful, we were just let off the leash.
“I went off and spoke to different promoters and there were million dollar cheques being discussed to turn professional, but deep down I knew that I didn’t have the mental capacity to make that big of a commitment to the sport. I knew I couldn’t sign on the dotted line and sell these people a dud.”
Once he had turned down the chance to turn professional, did his inner addict feel he had the space to really go for it, drinking wise? “Now you’ve got it, that’s exactly what happened. I took the easy route. I had no ambition to quit alcohol, and though I got a bronze medal in the Europeans the following year, I wasn’t really committed to the cause. The drinking and the madness was getting worse. The time frame was being cut shorter and shorter. When I think of the chaos I just think of all the lies I told. I just always wanted to get away from reality.”
Two moments symbolise how low he got. The first was the death of fellow boxer Darren Sutherland, by suicide, in 2009. “I was sitting on a stool in Oliver St John Gogarty’s during the day and my phone rang. Someone, to this day I don’t know who, was calling me to tell me that Darren Sutherland had died. We were due in training camp and that will have to be cancelled because of the funeral and that will allow me to drink more. I went to the funeral and gave everyone a hug but it was just incredible that I would use my friend’s death like that.”
Another moment came after he had been on one of his benders and was recovering in bed. “My mam came into me and she wanted me to go for a drive with her. I didn’t want to get out of bed but I went and she directed me where to and we went to the graveyard in Tallaght. She had buried two sons years ago, from meningitis and cot death, a long time before I came along. And she was on her knees in the rain, her knees on a plastic bag on the ground and she was picking at the grave with a shovel. I was thinking ‘what the hell are we doing here’, it was the worst weather in the world and I just wanted to get back into my bed.
“And she looked up at me sadly and said to me, ‘Kenneth, if you don’t stop drinking you’re going to end up in here with these two lads’. This was the kind of thing I put those around me through as they tried to get me on the straight and narrow.” His relationships with women took second place to alcohol. “In those years alcohol was always the most important relationship in my life.”
He discussed the idea of going into a treatment centre with a friend of his but the friend persuaded him to try an AA meeting first. “There was shame going into the meetings. I thought people would recognise me and I had my head down going in and immediately someone said, ‘howaya Kenneth, are you having a cup of tea?’ I had the tea and just sat at the back of the room and listened and honestly it could have been me sharing those stories. I identified so much with them. That was the start of the recovery.”
He hasn’t had a drink since August 2010. In the years after he rekindled his relationship with his partner, Karen, and they have since had a daughter, Kate. “They say you’re not supposed to get into a relationship for two years after recovery because you need to find yourself first and be comfortable in your own skin. I was away from Karen for five years after we broke up but I reached out and she took me back and I’m so grateful that she took me back. We have a daughter now and she is five. Becoming a father was amazing and I’m glad my daughter will never see me drunk.”
He also completed the diploma course in counselling with addiction at Cuan Mhuire addiction centre in Athy and went on to gain a degree in counselling and psychotherapy.
“That was another kind of milestone for me because I hated school, but going back into a learning environment years later with an older head on me, I actually got so much from it.”
These days he balances seeing clients in his private practice with his work as a Fine Gael councillor (he was elected to the council in 2014). He says that he has seen several recent trends in the type of addictions that people have. “Alcohol is still a big addiction in Ireland but drugs have been big during the pandemic, you’re seeing it with the amount of cocaine and cash being seized. (Ireland) is a hotbed of cocaine at the moment. Gambling is also really bad. The ads have to be looked at, they distort young minds. With porn, young lads have it on their phone and when they go to have sex with their partner their expectations are distorted. So that is very damaging.”
He says that, while he is well settled in his recovery, the pandemic has brought its own challenges. “I’m not going to pretend I’m totally fixed, that’s not how it works. When I think about drinking I think of a dark pub down the country where nobody knows my name. I think of that first pint. But I fast forward 10 days from then and I can picture the absolute carnage that would follow. I do AA Zoom meetings and I stay connected with people. I’ll always be an alcoholic but I’m ok with that.
“There’s a photo up on me in my local bar with my medal and I had a dream that I was nudging some young fella and saying, ‘see him, that’s me, I won that medal, will you buy me a pint?’
“I’m so glad that’s not how life turned out for me.”
Kenneth Egan’s testimony is episode five of the award-winning documentary series Finné on TG4, Wednesday February 10, at 9.30pm as part of their Wednesday documentary season