Sunday 25 February 2018

Punching for national pride

Top sports stars like boxer Michael Conlan are dedicating themselves to Irish glory in Rio

Jack Gleeson

ROUND this time next year we’ll all be tucking into a feast of sport served up from the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro – and hopefully toasting a few medal successes as well.

The odds are always stacked against our small nation at what really is the world’s top sporting event but we’re good at punching above our weight, and literally so when it comes to Belfast boxer, Michael Conlan.

Michael was only 20, and very much an underdog, when he shocked the world and thrilled the nation with a bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012.

We all shared his joy as he jumped up and down in delight when his hand was raised after the victory over Nordine Oubaali that guaranteed bronze.

It was one of those rare, unforgettable moments that brings a surge of pride to the country, and it’s what makes sport great.

But being a winner takes a lot more than moments. It takes years of total dedication, unwavering determination, focussed preparation and the nation’s support.

Michael believes he has all those ingredients and is convinced he’ll blend them together in Brazil and cook up more Irish Olympic glory.

“I know I’m going to win an Olympic Gold Medal, I do actually know that,” he says with a reassuring air of confidence.

“After London, Rio felt like it was light years away but now it’s just around the corner, and I’ve one eye locked on it.”

The bantamweight boxer’s route to Rio couldn’t have been tougher. In order to qualify he decided to take part in the World Series of Boxing (WSB), a gruelling league tournament that takes place over 14 weeks, with bouts every second week.

Michael Conlan proudly holds his broze medal from London 2012
Michael Conlan proudly holds his broze medal from London 2012

“It was hectic,” he admits. “If I had gone the normal route, I would have been away solid for three or four months, but I’m only after having a wee baby, so that’s why I did it.”

It’s the classic dilemma every top athlete faces, balancing sport with raising a family and living a ‘normal’ life.

“Obviously I knew we were having the baby from last year so when I heard I could qualify through WSB and I wouldn’t be away for as long, I thought I’d go that way.”

Michael didn’t realise qualifying was going to be so tough. He had to contend with decisions going against him as well as a punishing schedule, and for a while it looked like the gamble wouldn’t pay off.

“I was fighting every two weeks and the weeks I was off I spent training, trying to prepare and keeping the weight off.”

Thankfully, Michael qualified for Rio and he was able to enjoy a bit of time with partner Shauna Olali and four-month-old daughter, Luisne.

With his seat booked on the flight to Brazil he didn’t need to participate in the recent European Games in Baku, but that didn’t stop him wishing he was there.

“I would have loved to be a part of it but it was too soon after the WSB,” he says. “I know 100 per cent I would have won a gold medal.

“It’s just unfortunate, the timing of it, but it’s not going to bother me. It’s only another competition and I’ve got bigger competitions coming up.”

He’s talking about the Olympics of course, but before that there’s the European Championships in Bulgaria in early August and the World Championships taking place in Qatar this October.

“Every fight is a learning fight now and preparation for the Olympic Games, whatever the result,” he says. “I always get in to win and I know I’m better than anybody in my division but even if a decision goes against me, or I don’t perform, it’s always a learning curve.

“Nothing needs to be perfect right now. I only need to be perfect in the Olympic Games.”

That quest for perfection comes at a price. The cost is measured in days or weeks away from family, hours spent in strenuous training and an endless commitment to healthy choices. But Michael is happy to pay.

“Boxing is my life,” he explains. “Sometimes you do miss being able to do whatever you want, and eat whatever you want.

“I’m a big eater and I love pizza and junk food but when I go into training I’m pure healthy.

“I’m not a big party-goer or anything like that, I know I have been in the past, but I have a wee baby now so I have a lot to live for and a lot to look forward to.

“I like to relax and I love my family and love being with them. That’s what I do find hard, when you’re away and you’re missing them.”

Michael acknowledges he wouldn’t be able to dedicate his life to bringing glory to Ireland without the help of funding, which he describes as “phenomenal”.

“The National Lottery funding we get through the Irish Sports Council is great,” he says. “It’s given me a life and the ability to be a full-time boxer and I’m very, very grateful for it.

“I don’t think I would be where I am without the funding.”

The funding of sport stars like Michael helps level the playing field for Irish athletes. Without it, we’d have less precious sporting moments to enjoy and celebrate, and the nation gets a great dividend through supporting sport as every success helps raise Ireland’s profile.

Michael says he can’t imagine life without boxing, which is hardly surprising given that it’s a real family affair. Two of his three older brothers, Jamie and Brendan, are boxers and his coaching father, John, boxed as an amateur and was in Michael’s corner when he qualified for Rio.

When his brothers took up boxing in the late ’90s, Michael was eager to follow in their footsteps down to the gym.

“They were my big brothers and I wanted to be like them,” he recalls.

Michael and his boxing brother Jamie Conlon at Breen's Gym in Belfast
Michael and his boxing brother Jamie Conlon at Breen's Gym in Belfast

“As soon as I walked into the gym I took to it. I’ve loved boxing since I was about seven and I haven’t looked back.”

The first year Michael could box competitively he won all his fights, culminating in an All-Ireland title. When he sparred, he sparred with older boys because he was so much better than those his own age.

The young Michael modelled himself on Prince Naseem, the British bantamweight famed for his showmanship and flamboyancy. They’re different fighters, but both Michael and Naseem have two things in common; bags of confidence and success in the boxing ring.

At just 24, Michael has plenty of time to match Naseem in world titles, but the London Olympics have given him a thirst for glory he’s desperate to quench.

“London has to be my best moment so far,” he admits. “I’ve got a European silver and a commonwealth gold, and while the commonwealth gold is a great achievement, the competition is about the same as it is in the Irish seniors.

“I think the Olympic Games shine through. It’s the pinnacle of amateur boxing so getting a medal there in my first games was an unbelievable achievement for me, especially because I was the least expected to medal in the games.

“I was only a baby back then and I was told beforehand not to worry if I didn’t medal because 2016 would be my Olympic Games, but I went there to win.”

And there’s no doubt that Michael will have that same desire to win in Rio.


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