Irish boxing's poster girl is tipped for gold
Katie Taylor, who used to have to pretend to be a boy just to get in the ring, is about to give female pugilists Olympic limelight
Women's boxing appeared as an exhibition sport at the 1904 Olympics in St Louis. It then vanished underground for a century, but when it resurfaces in London 2012, it will do so on the biggest stage in sport. It will divide opinion, inevitably, and it will conquer a number of misconceptions.
Katie Taylor cannot wait. She is no Emily Pankhurst and, a gentle and deeply religious soul, will only ever use her fists for sport. But the prolific Irish lightweight has done more than anyone to give rise to this epoch. "At least the world is going to know now," said Taylor earlier this year. "The world is going to see how competitive it is and I think people will be shocked when they see it."
Until Taylor was 17, she had to push all her brown hair into her protective headgear and sneak into the ring on the pretence of being a boy in the sport she had taken up at the age of 10. Finally the Irish Amateur Boxing Association allowed women's boxing and her star began an extraordinary ascent that will, in all likelihood, end with an Olympic gold on August 9.
Sweden were the force behind the licensing of women's amateur boxing. The first sanctioned British Championships had taken place in 1997 and the inaugural AIBA World Championships followed in 2001, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Taylor arrived on the scene in New Delhi in 2006, won the 60kg crown and has retained it three times, while stockpiling five European titles. She has been world No 1 for an astonishing 69 months now, and you won't find shorter odds on any athlete, in any sport, winning gold in London.
Pretty as well as packing a punch, she is described as female boxing's poster girl, and the president of the world governing body, Dr Ching-Kuo Wu, frequently namechecks her as the most critical asset in the mission to prove there is credibility to this female boxing.
"This whole process has been a dream come true," says American lightweight Quanitta "Queen" Underwood, who had the temerity to almost beat Taylor in a World Championship semi-final in Barbados in 2010, but who only qualified for London on a wildcard, such has been the improvement in standards. "So many women have worked so hard to get us here, and now we just want to go out and put on a great show for everybody, and show we deserve to be right next to the men at the Olympics."
Ireland's recent Olympic history has been inglorious. All its gold medals since 1992 have been tarnished or taken away because of doping revelations. It is miraculous, then, that an Irish Olympian should be heading in this direction on unbackable odds to win. But Taylor – who believes in miracles – seems destined to become a star of these Games, so much so that she will feature in a video at the opening ceremony in the most exclusive company. Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Jess Ennis and Sally Pearson were the only others asked. The 26-year-old is an ordinary young woman and an extraordinary athlete. Bit by bit Ireland has cottoned on to the fact there is a world-class athlete in its midst, to the point where she is now mentioned in the same breath as Brian O'Driscoll, Padraig Harrington and AP McCoy as the Emerald Isle's galacticos.
Brought up on a council estate 20 miles from Dublin where she still lives with her parents, she is an unprepossessing figure, hiding from the spotlight. Unfailingly polite when drawn into the public eye, she is a born-again Christian and the only time she truly opens up is when talking about her faith, which fuels her dedication to training. "It's the single most important thing in my life," she says. "God gives me strength and confidence and I wouldn't be world champion without Him."
The other source of worship is her barrel-chested father Pete, an electrician from Leeds who met his wife, Bridget, in a nightclub while working in Ireland and told his family: "I'm staying." A few years ago he shelved his business to coach his daughter full-time, with stunning results.
The whole family will be in London to cheer on Katie, a girl with a simple set of priorities: her faith, her family, the friends she catches up with on Sundays, and now the Olympics. But before the door to London swung open, she had a successful football career on the side, earning 25 caps for the Republic of Ireland.
All the time she was furthering her ring craft, demonstrating why she deserved the same opportunities as the male boxers who have underpinned Ireland's Olympic efforts over the years.
"She lives the life of a world-class athlete," says Billy Walsh, head of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association's prolific high-performance unit. "Mentally she's very strong. And she has great physical attributes: her reactions, her explosiveness; her timing and accuracy could compare with any athlete in any discipline."
Most of her fights have taken place in distant corners of the planet, from the Black Sea to the Urals, wherever medals were at stake. Latterly her father has been able to pay for rivals to come to Ireland and she has begun to sell out arenas in Bray, Waterford and Cork. Some of her World Championship fights this year were televised live by the national network, RTE. But the average sports fan in Ireland will more likely refer you to a YouTube video of Taylor and Paddy Barnes, a Beijing bronze medallist from Belfast who is 12kg lighter than the country's leading lady, pummeling each other.
"It's great sparring because she's really fast," says Barnes. "I know I hit hard, and I've hit her with hard shots but it's nothing to her. She'd be just as powerful [as the best light-flyweight men]. She's faster than most of them too – her hand speed is unreal."
Taylor's life has been transformed by Olympic mania, and everything will change again when it blows over. Having reached 26 without ever really living, her father is desperate for her to retire after London, and doesn't want her to turn professional.
Team GB women who pack a punch...
Katie Taylor, 26, lightweight (60kg)
Born Bray, Ireland
The heavily-tipped medal hope is the reigning Irish, European and world champion, having won a fourth successive World Lightweight title in China in May this year. A talented sportswomen, she has also represented the Republic at football (soccer) and has played Gaelic football for her local side. She is the favourite to carry the flag for Ireland at the Games.
Savannah Marshall, 21 middleweight (75kg)
Probably Britain's best hope for a gold medal after becoming the first British female to win a World Championship in China this year – on her 21st birthday. A woman of few words, she is known as the Silent Assassin because of her hurtful punching and innate shyness.
Nicola Adams, 29 flyweight (51kg)
Britain's flagship female fighter as the first woman to win a major title, in the 2011 European Championships. Three-time world championship runner-up and has beaten world No1 Cancan Ren of China. As a TV soaps extra, hopes for more than a Games walk-on part.
Natasha Jonas, 28, Lightweight (60kg)
Spikey Scouser and university graduate who won a football scholarship to the US before taking up boxing. Bronze in world championships and strong contender for Olympic gold if she was not in same weight division as the redoubtable Katie Taylor.
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