God, gold and me

Mon, Nov 5, 2012, 00:00

Inspired by faith and family, Katie Taylorblazed a trail for Irish sport and Irish women at the London Olympics. In the first of two extracts from her new book, she talks about negotiating her way through the hype and to the final.

Rituals are important

As far back as I can remember, I dreamed of becoming an Olympic champion and I imagined standing on the podium and having the gold medal placed around my neck. Most kids have big dreams like that, every child wants to be a professional footballer or a great champion or a movie star but for most people, life has a way of telling you that you're wasting your time with fanciful dreams. I guess I never got that memo! As I got older and became more involved with sport, my child-like dreams became my desires and my desires became my ambitions, until winning an Olympic gold medal became the most important personal goal of my life. I didn't even know what my sport would be at that time, I just knew there was an Olympic champion in my heart.

Mam was with me on the morning of the Olympic final against Sofya Ochigava. She had come over to my apartment in the athletes' village in Stratford in the east end of London to help me prepare for the bout. In a few hours' time I would fight against the Russian for the gold medal, and after that my Olympics would be over.

After nearly 150 fights and four world championship gold medals, she doesn't need to ask me what I want her to do, our preparation is the same every time. She picked up my hairbrush, wet my hair as she always does, and began to put it into plaits.

I was standing with my back to her and, as she was doing my hair, she prayed out loud over me. I could sense the emotion in her voice but she had to hold it together for my sake, this is perhaps the most important part of my pre-fight ritual. Ma repeated some of Psalm 18 to me, which is one of my favourite pieces from the scriptures. This is a psalm that I regularly read when I am away in competition. It is a reminder that it is God that trains my mind for battle and He is my shield of victory.

The focus of our prayers was to ask that I performed to the best of my ability and that I was able to express that ability when I stepped into the ring later. It was also about praying that God would help me deal with any negativity that might creep into my mind, or any comments from outside that might distract me. I tried to listen to what He was saying about me and not what other people were saying. It was important for me to be reminded that my Olympic dream began first in the heart of God before it ever began in me - this was my God-given destiny.

The night before, Mam had spent some time praying about what scripture she was going to read to me. It's never a random choice of words plucked from the pages of the Bible. She wants the meaning to be specific to the moment and to my needs, something that she could share with me that would give me assurance and confidence.

Mam is my spiritual rock and she is as much a part of my boxing team as anyone else, but she also has a great understanding of the sport. It may surprise you to learn that she was the first in our family to challenge the view that women and boxing don't mix, for in the late 1980s she became the first female judge to be appointed in Ireland. Needless to say, she faced a lot of opposition at that time from within the boxing community but now it is commonplace to see female judges and referees. I like to think that I have carried on her pioneering spirit.

Sofya Ochigava

For my final against Sofya Ochigava, Mam picked a scripture from the book of Isaiah that speaks about what God said about people with faith: 'That no weapon formed against you will prevail and that you will refute every tongue that accuses you and that this is the heritage of those that belong to the Lord.'

That might seem like a strange choice of scripture from all of the promises of the Bible, but it was exactly what I needed to hear, because my Russian opponent had been publicly saying some bad things about me in the days leading up to the final. I didn't know at the time exactly what she had said, but I knew she had been disrespectful.

These verses reminded me that Ochigava's critical words were just dirty tactics in an attempt to undermine my confidence in my Olympic dream. The words were a promise that God will shield me from any negativity and accusations that are thrown in my direction. If I had spent any energy before the fight dwelling on Ochigava's comments, then her tactics would have worked.

But the verses my mam gave me were telling me not to focus on who was standing opposite me in the ring, but to focus on the God who is always standing beside me, both in and out of the ring.

For those who think that I saw the fight as an opportunity to settle a score with Ochigava, I can honestly say that her words were not a motivating factor at all. Ochigava had said a lot of disrespectful things, but at the time I didn't fully realise the extent of what it was, as I had avoided the newspapers and was too focused on my own build-up to worry about anything else that might have been going on.

I had heard that negative words had been said only because a journalist came up to me after one of the earlier fights in the ExCeL Arena and mentioned it. Although it was in most of the newspapers and online, even now I don't fully know all the details. To be honest I was surprised with her, that sort of behaviour is usually more common in professional boxing than in the amateur code.

Over the last couple of years when we've boxed each other in big championships at European or world level, our rivalry has sharpened. Outside the ring, we say hello, we're not unfriendly, but that's about it. Years ago, when we were in different weight classes, we'd probably have gone out after the competition, sat around and had a coffee. We were friendly and I found her quite a funny person to be with. But now we are in the same weight division, that option has gone - it's difficult to be close to girls you are competing against on a regular basis. Regardless of what she said, I still think she's a nice girl and her comments were uncharacteristic. She is a very talented boxer who is great for the sport.

Under pressure

All pressure is relative, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel it bearing down heavily on me. In every contest I've ever fought, there is some pressure to deal with. Often the greatest pressure is that which I put on myself. I knew the fans expected me to do well, and by now I was very aware of the massive support for me around London and back home in Ireland. So this time, I was feeling the pressure of other people's expectations creeping into my head in a way that I hadn't experienced to the same degree before. Normally, I'm strong at keeping out external things, but this Olympic final was something I had never faced before.

I wanted it to be over and done with, and that was a terrible way to think. On a couple of occasions in previous fights, when I haven't been able to enjoy the process of the build-up, I've fought and lost. I found it unnerving that on the most important day of my boxing life, and on the verge of fulfilling the dreams I've carried in my heart since I was a young girl, the nerves were knotting in my stomach and a part of me didn't want to face the battle.

Struggling to cope with finals is not what people expect of me. I think they believe that because I have won so many titles at European and world level, I'm mentally capable of coping with any boxing situation, and usually I am. It's one of the strongest facets of my game.

But, like anyone, I can have doubts, and it's at these times when it is so important to remind myself of the promises of God for my life. I remember speaking a verse from the book of Philippians to myself, it says: 'I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.'

Family support

In their support for me, my family play different roles, Mam prays and Dad talks tactics. On the morning of the final, Dad came over to me in the Olympic Village. We wanted to make sure that Thursday August 9th, 2012 was no different from over a dozen important finals I've been in, and we went for a walk as we always do. We walked for about 30 minutes, and it didn't matter where we went. We talked about the fight, how it was going to go, what might or might not happen, and how I was feeling - anything that we thought needed to be aired. This time was also about relaxing, getting prepared and being with someone I trusted, somewhere other than sat in my room.

Whatever city we are in, we have always found a route and we do the same walk over and over throughout the week. It's part of an unbreakable routine we have on competition day, and that day it began early at 8.00am when I had to get up for the weigh-in. After the scales, I went back to my room for breakfast instead of going to the main dining hall, because I wanted privacy and some space to do my own thing.

It was about 11 when Dad called so we could go for our walk, and we strolled out from the village up to Olympic Park and around by the athletics stadium, a vast, wide area where you can look across and see the velodrome, the aquatic centre and the basketball arena. When we came back, Mam arrived at about two o'clock to do my hair and pray.

It's the same ritual all the time and it has worked for me for years. It's a case of 'if it is not broke don't fix it'. We never change.

Throughout the day, I listen to the same worship songs on my iPod and I read the same Bible verses. When I'm boxing or preparing for a fight, it's when I feel closest to God.

This Olympic dream was too big for me to deal with on my own, so for the last 10 years, I have relied on God and I've put everything in His hands. It's hard to put everything you hold dear in the hands of someone else, because it's natural to want to be in control, but I've learned from experience that God will never let me down so I just try to trust Him.

The journey to the ExCeL centre from the village was about 30 minutes by bus. The team with me consisted of my dad, Irish head coach Billy Walsh and Zauri Antia, Ireland's technical coach. There were very few words spoken, except by Billy and Zauri, who were cracking a few jokes to try to lighten the mood.

Once inside the arena, I stuck to the same routine and did the same warm-up in the changing room as I'd done for my previous fights. I have quite a long warm-up session, which lasts maybe 45 or 50 minutes. I always wear the same warm-up tee-shirt which said on the front 'It is God who arms me with strength' and on the back were the words 'He trains my hands for battle'.

Before we left the tunnel for the final, my dad was constantly giving me instructions, reinforcing what he has been saying to me in the warm-up area.

He kept on repeating what he wanted me to do for the first 30 seconds of the first round, going over the tactics he had planned for the fight.

The warm-up

I used my long warm-up to focus on the fight and after that I practiced some combinations and some shadow boxing specific to how I was going to try to fight against Ochigava. After the pads, I walked around stretching, trying to see things in my head. Dad was focused and so was I. Some people can joke and laugh minutes before a fight, but Dad and me are the opposite and are really intense people to be around during that time. He became so nervous I could see the colour of his face draining away.

It didn't help that from where we were in the locker room, we could hear everything that was going on outside in the boxing arena. The music was blaring and the crowd cheered and clapped every time they announced a celebrity in the arena. Before I went out for my final, I didn't know exactly who was in the crowd, but I was told afterwards that former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield had attended, and so did the British prime minister David Cameron and Olympic silver medallist Amir Khan.

I could hear the interview former world champion Barry McGuigan gave before my fight. Every introduction and announcement was audible, as the changing area was right beside the crowd. Ideally I like a quiet area to warm up in, but for an Olympic final you cannot expect to have such a luxury. Although I have no doubt it all added to the atmosphere, the last thing I wanted in my ear were the celebrity announcements coming in from the public address system; all I wanted to do was concentrate on the fight ahead. Much as I tried to shut myself off and detach myself, there was nothing I could do about it. In these situations when you can't control things, you just have to get on with it.

As I waited, I could sense the whole place was on edge; the atmosphere was so lively, more like a carnival or a concert than an amateur fight. I got my first direct taste of this when I walked out with Billy Walsh under the stands to have the bandages on my hands stamped by officials. The area where this was done was right out on the concourse of the arena, and when the crowd saw me at the official's table, everyone began screaming my name: 'Katie! Katie! Katie!' I realised then how many of the fans were Irish. It was crazy and on a completely different scale to anything I'd experienced at European or World Championship finals. When Billy Walsh came back into the warm-up area with me, he commented to my dad that the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up as the atmosphere was electric.

Into the ring

I had my mouthguard already in place before we left the locker room, which is something Dad and Zauri laugh at me about. When they put the gumshield in, they say it turns a switch inside my head and my face completely changes. So they put it in before I walked to the ring. The switch was tripped as the three of us stepped from the tunnel for my final walk to the Olympic ring. Everything else was blanked out. I expected the crowd's reaction and I knew there was going to be a rush of noise. There was and it was a wild, bring-the-roof-down welcome, but I couldn't allow myself to enjoy it. It was tempting to take a quick glance up and say: 'Wow! How great is this!' But I couldn't break my focus like that. I felt energised by the noise. I felt my nerves and the expectation on me, but I was also confident that if I performed to my ability that I could win. Dad was just telling me to relax and stay focused. So there was no other thought in my head except winning as I walked towards the ring.

I never looked up to the crowd. I didn't allow myself become drained or distracted. Other boxers I know glance around and suck up the energy and feed off it, or they smile and wave at everybody, or jump up on the ropes and shake their fists in delight to pump themselves up. That impulse was hanging there, but I ignored it. I ducked under the ropes and was so focused that I really couldn't hear much at all. The only voice I could distinguish was Dad's, which I've learned over the years to pick out. Everything else coming from around the ring was muddled, background noise.

I was entering the ring for my Olympic final, and there was no place in the world I would rather have been. I believed the moment was mine and this was my destiny. It was going to be hard, very hard; I knew I needed to maintain my discipline and make no mistakes. But if I did all of that, I believed I could win. I'd beaten her 11-7 earlier in 2012 to win the World Championship in China, and defeated her 10-5 the previous year to take the European Championship. None of that mattered now; this was a clean slate. The more you box against the same opponent the harder it becomes, you both become familiar with each other. I walked to the centre of the ring towards Ochigava's corner. I touched her glove with mine. I listened to the referee speaking. I thanked God for what He had already given me. I heard the bell and we began to box.

Katie Taylor - My Olympic Dream. Published by Simon & Schuster UK. Copyright: Katie Taylor, 2012.

Katie Taylor will be signing copies of My Olympic Dream at: Nov 10th – Dubray Bookshop, Bray, 11am; Nov 11th – Eason, O’Connell St, Dublin, 1.30pm; Nov 14th – BookStation , Charlestown Centre , Finglas, Dublin, 5.0pm; Nov 17th – Eason, Patrick St, Cork, 12noon; Nov 23rd – Eason, Blanchardstown Shopping Centre, 6pm; Nov 27th - Crannog Bookshop ,Church St , Cavan, 4pm; Nov 29th – Eason, Donegall Place, Belfast, 6pm; Dec 4th – OMahony’s Bookshop, O’Connell St , Limerick, 4pm.

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