Sunday 15 December 2019

Colum Kenny: Golden girl Katie boxes clever to do nation proud

It may not be ladylike but we like it. Katie Taylor last week qualified for the London Olympics. Those who are against boxing in general -- and against women boxing in particular -- will be dismayed.

Many Bray residents, including myself, welcome her success. It is her own decision to fight. From her training shed by the sea, Katie now goes to England to face the biggest challenge of her career, a chance to win Olympic gold.

There are those who find it disgusting. They include the 'I am a feminist, but . . .' brigade. As in, "I am all for women's rights but I still think that there is something wrong about girls hitting one another". Others claim that it is dangerous.

Bray is not just a nice seaside town below the Wicklow Hills. It also has the Mermaid Theatre, art galleries, one of the best public libraries around and its own local history journal.

But it has a proud history of boxing too, with clubs at Ballywaltrim and by Bray harbour. There is a lot to be said for small towns where people meet and mix.

Early in her career, Katie became a familiar sight running in Bray. She developed a simple routine on fight days, as she told RTE in October 2009: "We do the weigh-in, then go for a walk, then have breakfast, then I listen to worship songs on my iPod, because I'm a Christian. I always read the same Bible verses too. We do the same warm-up a lot of the time as well. But, I have no superstitions before a fight."

Behind every budding boxer there are coaches and clubs. Seeds for Katie's success were sown in Bray as far back as the Forties. The Irish Army's boxing club was active in the International Hotel, which stood on the site of the present Bray Bowl and housed soldiers during World War Two. Army boxer Paddy Kenny of Bray won national and international titles.

Since then, volunteers such as Tony Pouch, Tony Kelly, Al Morris and Leo Green have kept things going. And, of course, Pete Taylor.

In 1978, Katie's dad, Peter, came to Wicklow from Leeds with his parents, who were working in the amusements on Bray seafront. When his parents later returned to England, Pete stayed on. He had already started to box, and in 1986 won the All-Ireland Championship and the Irish light heavyweight title.

Pete married Bridget and the couple had four children. Bridget herself became a boxing judge. Boxing is in Katie Taylor's blood.

At the age of 35, when people must stop boxing, Pete started to put his energy into ensuring that future generations would continue to have somewhere to box in Bray.

But there is more to life than boxing, and in 2001 Katie's brother, Peter, and two of his fellow pupils at St Killian's Community School, Bray, won the Young Scientist of the Year Award for a group-study of symmetrical shapes formed by polygons, and went on to win third place at the 13th EU Contest for Young Scientists in Norway.

Aged just 15, in 2001, Katie herself fought and won in the first women's boxing bout to be officially sanctioned in Ireland. Her opponents soon came to respect her strong left hook.

She took European titles as the 60kg weight-class champion in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009 (there was none in 2007 or she might have won that one too!). Her gold medal in 2005 was the first ever won by an Irish woman at a senior European championship.

She has also won four successive World Lightweight Championships, including her victory in China yesterday (for which RTE could muster only male commentators, one at the ringside and no fewer than four in its Dublin studio!).

She now faces the prospect of competing in London in the first women's bouts ever included in the modern Olympics, an inclusion for which she and others long campaigned.

It was not always easy. Getting even an old shed from the council took a lot of hard work, and it then had to be fitted out. If and when Katie wins gold, it will not be because public funding was thrown at boxing in Ireland.

In 2008, Katie was presented with the International Amateur Boxing Association's top prize for boxing excellence at its annual awards ceremony held in Moscow. At that time, the IABA said: "The two-time 60kg world champion is one of the best in the business and is proving to be a major draw card, not only in her native country but around the world."

Protective gear is intended to ensure that amateur boxing will not have adverse effects in later years. The British Medical Association warns that trauma to the breast can cause a condition called fat necrosis, in which part of the tissue dies and becomes a hard lump, and says that "the effectiveness of breast protection is limited". It also warns that "participation in amateur boxing matches may diminish neurocognitive functioning despite the use of headgear".

Michelle Obama does not appear to be too worried about it. During 2009, Katie Taylor was invited to Washington for St Patrick's Day celebrations. Katie said at the time: "It was a great honour to be there, and to meet President Obama and his wife. Michelle said she did a bit of boxing when she was young and, like me, was trained by her dad. It was a tremendous experience and I never imagined in my wildest dreams that my boxing career would present me with opportunities like that."

She now faces her biggest sporting opportunity so far, as do the other Irish sportsmen and women who travel to London for the games that begin on July 27. Go for gold, Katie!

For more on the history of boxing in Bray, and on the town in general, see the current 'Journal of the Bray Cualann Historical Society'

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