‘Only the strongest shoulders can carry the hopes of a nation…’
Every Olympic athlete is required to perform under pressure. Not many take on the burden Ireland’s Katie Taylor carried in to London 2012. Prior to the Games no Irish man or woman had won an Olympic gold medal for 16 years. As the reigning and four-time women’s world amateur lightweight boxing champion and undisputed world No.1, Taylor knew that every Irish eye was on her…
“Only the strongest shoulders can carry the hopes of a nation,” Taylor said, on the eve of London 2012.
The 1.65m lightweight has a formidable presence and obvious physical strength but, six years on, even she is surprised by the remarkable resilience she showed ahead of the biggest moment of her career.
“Looking back at it now, I don’t know how I handled it all,” she said, with a quiet laugh. “When you are in the moment I suppose you just focus on what you have to do. You get up every day, you train as hard as you can and you take it day by day.”Getty Images
To be fair, some of the excited furore around the then 26-year-old from Bray, County Wicklow was very much of her own making. Open, amiable and seriously good at her sport, Taylor had been building up to her Olympic moment for as long as she can remember. And she hadn’t been shy in sharing it.
“From such a young age all I talked about was the Olympic Games, it was my dream since I was nine or 10 years old. I was always really vocal about it,” she said. “I don’t think there was a day that went by when I didn’t actually think about the Olympics.
“Everyone in Ireland knew that this was a lifelong dream for me and I think everyone really wanted it for me. I think my dreams became the nation’s dreams as well.”
Crucially, Taylor put in place a series of safeguards to ensure her shoulders did not buckle under the weight of all that expectation. First up, she underwent the perfect preparation – “I was 100 per cent in shape for those Olympics. That was where my confidence came from, I knew I could beat anyone who was put in front of me.”
Next, she did something more mundane but just as critical.
“I turned off my phone three or four weeks before the Olympic started because I didn’t want to deal with any outside information,” she said. “I just locked myself away into a little bubble. I needed to do that to stay focused.”
Joyously for all of Ireland, those measures combined with her extraordinary talent to deliver the golden ending everyone craved. More than 9,000 of Taylor’s compatriots were there in London’s Excel Arena to see her narrowly defeat Russia’s Sofya Ochigava in the final. A few more watched back home.
“The crowd gave me the boost I needed. I did fall one point behind in the final and it was the support of the whole crowd which really brought me through,” Taylor recalled. “After the final, doing the interviews I was looking back at the clips and saw the amount of people back home who were watching the fight and the crowds that were building in my home town of Bray. I think the whole country came to a standstill when I was fighting in the final.
“The initial feeling, when my hand was raised, was pure joy but also relief as well, that I hadn’t failed at the final hurdle and it wasn’t a hard-luck story.”
Things did not go so well at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games – “I would love to be sitting here as a two-time Olympic champion but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be.” Once again favourite for gold and once again carrying the hopes of her nation, Taylor lost to Finnish fighter Mira Potkonen in the quarterfinals. The low point of a stellar amateur career that yielded a final total of five world championships titles, it prompted a major change in Taylor’s life.
“I needed a new challenge. My mind became a bit flat in the amateur game and I didn’t really have the same desire I’d had before,” she explained. “Once I turned pro I got that fire back in my belly again. I started to enjoy boxing again and that, to me, is everything.”
The 32–year-old has proved herself to be just as dominant in the pro ranks as she was in the amateur game and just as important a figure. To date she boasts a 10-0 win record and has already picked up the WBA and IBF lightweight world championship belts.
“In professional boxing you can’t really afford to lose,” she said. “You are putting everything on the line every time you step into the ring. If you lose a fight in the pro game it really does set you back a few fights – that is one of the great things about this sport.
“And even though I haven’t got the Ireland vest on, I am trying to represent my country with great pride. I am trying to be a great ambassador for the sport as well.”
There is no doubt she is fulfilling that final role. Perhaps no other person has done quite so much for women’s boxing as Taylor. You would imagine that those shoulders must be aching by now, but even if they are, it’s all worth it.
“The most satisfying part of it is looking back at the growth of women’s boxing and seeing how many female boxers there are around all the boxing clubs in Ireland,” Taylor said. “When I was growing up, as a 10, 11-year-old, women’s boxing was unheard of really. There was no women’s boxing at all in the country really. It really is a huge change.”