Saturday, April 30, 2011
Katie Taylor has been twice voted the world’s best female amateur boxer, considered one of Ireland’s greatest living sportswomen, and even made a self-confessed "old fuddy-duddy" like Barry McGuigan believe women’s boxing deserves to be in the Olympics. Though driven by the dream of winning gold in London 2012, she vows not to let herself be defined or compromised by it.
It is God that equipped me with strength and made my way perfect.
He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.
He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great.
A NUMBER of things strike you when you meet Katie Taylor. The first is how surprisingly petite she is; all that strength and muscle you see in that new Lucozade Sport ad is packed into a 60kg frame.
The other is how genuinely shy and mannerly she is, yet intertwined with that humility is a robust self-confidence. She knows how good she is at boxing, because she knows how hard she works at it.
She speaks softly but openly about what she believes in and what she doesn’t. For instance, sport psychology; it’s not for her. Nearly everyone else in the High Performance unit may swear by it and its 2008 Olympians give praise to the teachings of Gerry Hussey, but she declined the use of such a resource.
"Mental strength is something you either have or you haven’t," she maintains, leaving no doubt as to which side of the line she believes she stands on; God saw to it that it landed that way.
"The Bible," she smiles, "is my sport psychology manual. God is my psychologist. And my Dad is probably the best sport psychologist in the world."
With the two of them in her corner there is nothing she would want.
You can’t begin to tell the story of Katie Taylor without mention of those two guiding lights. Her mother, Brigid, is a born-again Christian, and the rest of the family all followed — Katie, her two brothers and sister, and her Dad, Peter.
Peter boxed himself. That’s how she got into it. One evening he was all set to train in the club in Bray, preparing for the national championships which he’d previously won as a heavyweight, when 11-year-old Katie’s athletics training was cancelled. It was too late to find a babysitter so he brought her to the gym "to do a bit of skipping and that". Before he knew it, she was in the ring, sparring with fellas. He thought it might just be a phase, a way of getting stronger to supplement her football, but she’s been in the gym since and Peter’s been with her ever since too, him and God.
That sense of values governs everything she does, to the point it shines brighter than even the Olympic gold medal that she yearns and strives for.
Take last autumn’s world championships in Barbados. You’ve probably heard about the dramatic way she won her third consecutive world title to go with the four European championship gold medals she’s accumulated. With 30 seconds to go in her semi-final with America’s Queen Underwood, Katie trailed by a point, having entered the fight feeling weak. But then she heard her father scream the score, and from somewhere, someone, she mustered the energy to land a flurry of devastating, precise punches to earn an 18-16 victory.
What you probably haven’t heard about is that on the eve of that semi-final, the authorities presented each boxer with a skirt and a tight-fitting vest rather than their traditional uniforms.
Peter Taylor could see what was at work here. With the Olympics approaching, the authorities were feeling the need to sex up their sport and distinguish it more from the male game, and this was the start of phasing it in. The Taylors weren’t having it.
"They said to us, ‘You have to wear the skirts.’ I said, ‘Katie’s not wearing that.’ So he says, ‘If you don’t wear them, you can’t box.’ And I said, ‘Okay, so she won’t box.’"
The way Peter calculated it, the world championships needed Katie more than she needed it.
As we know now, she boxed. The authorities would later claim the skirt was merely optional, and in the end only 14 of the 40 boxers who reached the semi-finals across the divisions wore a skirt. But, still, 14 of those boxers did don a skirt, out of fear of incurring the wrath of judges and officialdom. And the 26 who did defy the implicit urgings of the authorities did so safe in the knowledge Taylor was on their side.
Because in many ways, Peter was right. Katie was as big as the world championships.
She’s not as big as the Olympics though. Peter and Katie know that. And with the International Boxing Association’s president CK Wu advancing the case that wearing skirts would help viewers tell more easily the distinction between male and female boxing, a case with large support within the International Olympic Council, that could mean the ultimate confrontation between Katie’s principles and Katie’s dream.
But for the Taylors there would be only one outcome.
"She won’t box," says Peter. "Simple as that. We’ve got morals that go above marketing."
All her boxing life has been about becoming an Olympian, so if she gets there she wants to look like one, not a dolly bird. The fact Katie is an attractive-looking woman doesn’t come into it. In that ring she’s supposed to be a boxer first, and a woman second. Why would the authorities want to reverse that? In all the other Olympic combat sports like judo, female participants dress in the traditional style of those sports, because sport is supposed to be about how good you are, not how good you look. Why should boxing be any different? Beach-volleyball, it ain’t.
"It’s discrimination," says Peter. "It’s men making these decisions and it’s wrong. It’s just marketing. We don’t need the marketing. If they just let the girls box as they are, people are going to be amazed how technically good they are."
Barry McGuigan knows what that discovery is like. When women’s boxing was in its infancy in the early 1990s McGuigan was one of its most high-profile opponents, grimacing at the thought of women trading blows.
Then he saw Katie Taylor spar — with men.
"My personal considerations were blown away," he’d say, owning up that he’d been an "old fuddy-duddy".
"Her skill, power, speed, technique and attitude are all top class. Double left-hooks, right hands over the top; it’s just extraordinary." Now McGuigan is not just a fan but a friend of the family. He worked with Peter in the RTÉ series Lord of the Rings. His own son has sparred with Katie in their gym. When Katie broke her nose in the run-up to the 2008 world championships in India, McGuigan brought over from England special headgear she couldn’t find here. Another believer in Camp Taylor.
I pursued my enemies and overtook them, and did not turn back till they were consumed.
I thrust them through, so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet.
For you equipped me with strength for the battle; you made those who rise against me sink under me.
IF there is one reason why the Goliath of women’s boxing keeps winning, it’s because she keeps thinking like David, keeps reading from David. When the High Performance Unit asked her a few years ago to give a line to the motivational phrases on the wall of their gym, she chose from Psalm 18, the story of David’s redemption.
The day of every fight, she’ll comfort and lose herself in the Bible, often Psalm 18 or Psalm 20.
And that is the approach she brings to every fight, every workout. She never thinks like Goliath.
"I don’t get complacent because I know if you slack off, you’re going to be found out. This is international boxing and every fight is a tough fight. I’m winning these competitions because I’m boxing well in these competitions; it’s not like I’m just turning up on the day and boxing." The secret is to respect every opponent but not to befriend any. She was on Facebook awhile back but then an increasing number of her opponents were asking her to add them as friends. She didn’t want to grant them such status and access, and since even refusing them was a distraction, she’s quit the site altogether.
She’s always been driven to win. Peter remembers when she’d be running in the Community Games, and while all the other kids before the race would be floating all around the place, Katie would be over in a corner, quietly focusing on the task ahead.
But, of course, sometimes she loses; six times and all now in a 110-plus fight-career. Back in February in Bulgaria, a local, Denica Eliseeva, was adjudged to have beaten her in the final of the Strandja Multi-Nations, 5-1.
Taylor had beaten the same opponent 16-1 in last year’s European Union final and, according to most neutrals, should have won by a similar margin in Bulgaria. Even Eliseeva apologised to Taylor.
"It wasn’t her fault. She’d boxed well throughout the competition and was just going into the ring to box, just like me. But I was very disappointed. It’s gone down as a loss on my boxing card. It’s very discouraging, when you’re depending on judges being honest and fair. You wonder, how can they get away with that? They were so nice to us before the fights — then to be so two-faced like that."
Thirteen judges from the Bulgarian federation have since been suspended. Even the night after the fight, she had moved on in her mind, taking solace in the fact that she’d really won the fight and that the judges’ decision was outside her control.
Those are the vagaries of the game she’s in. Three of her six defeats have come against Gulsum Tatar from Turkey — all three coming in Turkey. The five times they’ve met outside Turkey, Taylor has won. In one of the fights in Turkey Taylor floored Tatar six times — and still didn’t get the verdict. The point though is that Katie still went that second and third time to Turkey. "We knew we were going to get robbed," says Peter, "but we went over to get a contest."
May the Lord answer you when you are in distress; May the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary And grant you support from Zion.
May he remember all your sacrifices And accept your burnt offerings.
May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy over your victory And lift up our banners in the name of our God.
SHE knows there’s going to be no escaping the O word for the next 18 months, but she’s confident she can deal with it. She’s been touched by all the goodwill towards her.
"I don’t think," she says, "there’s any other female amateur boxer in the world that gets the support that I do."
She was particularly honoured to be this year’s Grand Marshal of the Dublin St Patrick’s Day parade, "though," she smiles, "I was mortified, not knowing where to look or wave".
The only real downside has been having to give up football. She represented Ireland over 40 times, and even up until last year was still playing with the club in an FAI Cup semi-final. She loved the camaraderie of hanging out with and being one of the girls, a nice contrast to sparring with the fellas and the grind of training alone.
But over the last few years she had been playing less and less football, feeling less and less sharp and more and more frustrated out on the pitch. Over the years she had been lucky enough that any time out through injury never clashed with any important fight. Now she couldn’t afford any time out.
This is the life she chooses and loves. She doesn’t mind not having time for a fella, she doesn’t mind giving college a skip ("I can always do that afterwards"), she doesn’t mind not going out on a Friday night and having a few drinks, because she’s never drank anyway. She’s still at home with our family, "still can’t boil an egg!", still meets up with her friends about once a week, often taking in a movie (naturally, she loved The Fighter, though can see why The King’s Speech shaded it for Best Film at the Oscars). The place she’s most at ease is in that gym.
Her father doesn’t have to push her. He once read somewhere that he was one of these tennis-dad types, but in all his time coaching Katie, he thinks he’s only had to give out to her three times. There’s a mutual trust there.
"If Katie doesn’t turn up in the gym at nine o’clock tomorrow morning, I’m not going to ring and say, ‘Katie, where are you?’ I’ll just go home. I’ll be grand when she’s finished boxing. She’s had her nose broken five times sparring with men. If we went home today and Katie said she wanted to pack it in, I’d say, ‘That’s fine.’
"To be honest I’m nearly looking forward to the day."
That day is a long way away. "I’m living a great life," says Katie. "I’m doing something I love doing every day. It can be tough, very tough, training every day, twice a day. Sometimes you’re going to the gym so knackered and you have to go into the ring and do a few rounds of sparring, knowing you’re not going to be at your best, knowing you’re going to have to take a few punches in there. But you dig deep and get through it and it’s great. Because you know you’re going into competition ready for whoever steps in front of you.
"The fights are the best bit. Dad always tells me, the hard bit is training; the fight is the easy bit. It’s a great feeling when things are going smoothly in the ring. Or even when you’re in a tough fight; that’s something you dream of as well, having to dig deep and coming out on top. Or even before a fight and the adrenaline is pumping. There’s nothing like it."
Some people call it pressure. Peter Taylor calls it Showtime. Pressure, he tells her, is a privilege; it means you’re the one they all want to beat. And that’s the way they’re approaching the Olympic Games. A nation pinning its gold medal hopes on the shoulders of a 24-year-old girl is a privilege.
Some of that expectation is also misinformed. Before London there is China. That’s where the qualifiers are, next May. Only eight fighters qualify. And with there being only three weight categories in these Olympics, you’re going to have world champions in the 57- and 64-kilo categories gravitating towards her 60-kilo division. There’ll be no seeding at these qualifiers. In the first round in China, Katie could be drawn against one of those fellow world champions, then meet another in the next round. It’s not how should it be but that’s the way it is. For the next 12 months, China is her Olympics. Get over and that and she’ll then worry about London.
And even if she doesn’t get a medal or get over China, she’ll get over that as well. The Olympics might be why she’s resisted going professional, it might be what drives her, but it will not define her.
"All I can do is my best," she says softly. "At the end of the day my legacy doesn’t depend on whether I win an Olympic gold medal or not. I’ve already done so well throughout the last few years. This is just a dream that I have, a goal that I have, so I’m going to train as hard as I can and try my best and just leave it in God’s hands then.
"Whatever happens — win, lose or draw — I know it’s God’s will."
Picture: RING QUEEN: Taylor shooting the new Lucozade Sport ad campaign. The three-time world amateur champ is with Tinie Tempah and Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker. Picture: Sportsfile