Katie Taylor's Olympic hope no longer just a dream
Walkover secures Olympic place -- now Taylor is determined to go to London as World champion
IT isn't the end of the story but, for Katie Taylor, that explosion of tears in Qinhuangdao yesterday declared it a pretty monumental punctuation mark. The moment her father and coach, Pete, burst into the changing-room of the Olympic Sports Centre with news of Estelle Mossely's defeat, the last 10 years of Katie's life suddenly made perfect sense.
Women's boxing probably would not even be included in the programme for the London Olympics if the sport hadn't found Taylor's poetic talent with which to articulate its case.
Yet, until yesterday, Katie still dreamed an abstract dream.
"For her, it's been more or less an illusion until now," revealed Billy Walsh yesterday. The head coach of boxing's High Performance programme explained: "There's incredible relief that she's finally qualified. It's been a long time coming, but there's absolutely no sure things in boxing. I'm consistently saying that.
"You look at Joe Ward. He was a sure thing that didn't happen. That's boxing, anything can upset the odds. You are only one punch away from defeat at any time."
Taylor has been the poster-girl of her sport for almost a decade, winning five successive European lightweight titles and now standing just two wins away from a fourth consecutive world crown. Yet, every ounce of sweat expended in that time has referenced her burning desire to be called an Olympian.
She might have turned professional (the offers have come in multiples) but for the International Olympic Committee's decision in 2009 to include women's boxing in the London Games.
And now that qualification is finally secured, the 25-year-old finds a compelling motivation to retain her world title in north China. For if she wins gold this weekend, Katie will go to London as No 1 seed, a status rewarded with a bye straight through to the quarter-finals. In other words, if Katie comes home again as world champion, she is just one fight away from a guaranteed Olympic medal.
Little wonder there were tears then. As Pete Taylor put it: "It's been a hard journey for her, for the two of us to get there. You can't explain, you can't put it into words how it felt."
Katie has never previously boxed tomorrow's semi-final opponent, Mavzuna Chorleva of Tajikistan, but she will understand how the popular expectation now is of a weekend gold medal decider against that familiar foe, Sofya Ochigava of Russia.
Ochigava, a two-time world champion herself, is favourite to win a semi-final battle of southpaws against Liverpool's Natasha Jonas tomorrow. But the tournament has taken a wrecking ball to so many big reputations, it's unlikely that presumption will infect her approach.
Three opponents that Taylor considered major threats in China -- Gulsum Tatar of Turkey, Queen Underwood of the US and local favourite Cheng Dong -- all fell by the wayside and are now in serious danger of not making the Olympic Games.
Tatar has previously beaten (albeit controversially) Taylor in Turkey, Underwood was seconds away from defeating her in Barbados at the semi-final stage of the 2010 World Championships and Dong was Katie's opponent in the last two world finals.
Yet, typically, Taylor last night called on the sport's governing body to use their discretionary powers to get all three girls to the London Games.
"I think there's still a few wild cards to be given out and it's important that they give them to the best boxers, the highest-seeded boxers," she stressed. "The likes of Dong and Tatar and Queen Underwood. There are so many great boxers out there who deserve to be at the Olympics.
"We need to showcase the best talent out there. That's so important for the sport, everyone needs to see the best female talent in the world. So I hope they make the right decision and give the wild cards to the best boxers."
Pete Taylor has consistently ascribed his daughter's extraordinary success to the quality of sparring she gets with male boxers, either at her home club in Bray or in the High Performance gym on the South Circular Road.
She is now the sixth Irish boxer to qualify for the London Olympics and, this year alone, has been to training camps in France, Germany and the Ukraine with her male counterparts.
That latter trip threatened to be problematic when, initially, the Ukraine head coach refused to accept a female boxer in the camp. Male and female boxers always train separately in the Ukraine and a compromise was reached only when the Irish agreed to bring two female sparring partners for Taylor.
Local attitudes changed instantly, however, the moment Katie stepped into the Kiev ring. Her talent startled those watching. Eventually, the Ukraine coach even permitted some of his fighters to spar with Taylor, and one onlooker at ringside was Beijing gold medallist Vasyl Lomachenko.
Winner of the Well Barker prize for 'most technically perfect boxer' of the last Olympics, Lomachenko asked afterwards to have his picture taken with the Bray girl.
Yesterday morning, she took a giant step towards Olympic qualification when her quarter-final opponent, Mihaela Lacatus of Romania, failed a medical on a neck injury and had to withdraw. But, with only three European places up for grabs, she still needed Mossely to be beaten by Chorleva to be certain she was there.
While Katie did not watch the fight, her father admitted staying ringside, cheering on Chorleva. His daughter, Pete revealed, "broke down" when he brought her the good news.
"It's a dream come true, I can't believe it really," she said later. "It's years and years of hard work just to get there, now I'm going to be an Olympian. I want to thank everyone for the prayers. God has been so great to me over the last few years. I achieve nothing without him.
"Now I want to go to the Olympics as a current world champion."
If, as expected, she meets Ochigava in a weekend battle for gold, it will be a repeat of last year's European final in Rotterdam, which Taylor won 10-5. That victory avenged her first defeat in three years when, at a Grand Prix meeting in the Czech Republic in March of 2010, Ochigava was handed a contentious 8-1 verdict.
For Pete Taylor, Katie's Olympic qualification follows that of another protege, Wexford's Adam Nolan, who had already booked his ticket for London alongside John Joe Nevin, Darren O'Neill, Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes. There are still hopes too that Ward might be reprieved by a wild card entry after his recent controversial defeat in Turkey.
Taylor, though, is now -- officially -- Ireland's number one medal hope for the upcoming Games.
Walsh reflected last night: "I keep saying that people won't realise what Katie Taylor is and what she has got until she's gone. There won't be another athlete in this country who will ever achieve what she has achieved. Even among her opponents, she's looked upon as the supreme athlete.
"But she keeps a low profile, she's a very shy girl who doesn't hog the limelight. I hope the whole country might begin to appreciate what they have."
Taylor's semi-final against Chorleva will be shown live on RTE2 television tomorrow (8am).