Interview with Katie Taylor: In the clearing stands a boxer
Twelve months on from London 2012, Katie talks about how life has changed
In an age of soundbites, Twitter and Facebook promotion, Katie Taylor remains stylishly outmoded, a reluctant participant in the celebrity cat walk. Despite her indifference to the showbiz swirl she became one of the spirits of London last summer when the world was watching, an accidental zeitgeist of women’s boxing in the biggest show on earth.
It is as it always has been almost exactly a year after winning the first women’s lightweight Olympic gold medal. August 9th was her time, her moment – a raised hand, a glance to her father Pete, a tilt of her head for a quick thanks and to her knees. The country went with her.
Her ring of authenticity still chimes and now after a year of regeneration there is time to cast her eye just briefly over her shoulder but more urgently forwards. Hers is an undimmed, academic calculation of what improvements she has to make to repeat London 2012 at Rio 2016 and if there is any preoccupation in her voice or in that of Pete, it is the certainty that the world’s best female boxer needs to improve to avoid future calamity.
“When Rio comes around I don’t think people will recognise Katie from London. I think she will be 30 per cent better,” says Pete. She nods her head. She believes she will be. She has rarely been wrong.
“People say you will be 30-years-old, you’re too old, you’ll get your nose broke, say dad’s a pushy dad,” she adds, pointing absurdly at Pete. “You hear stupid things and put them out of your mind. Age is a chronological number. That’s all. There is plenty of time for my life afterwards. I’m still a young woman.”
When she arrived home last summer and the dust had settled everyone wanted a piece. Speculation was an Olympic sport; a book, a documentary, who, what, where was her boyfriend, her favourite shop, colour, film and recipe. And she was house hunting, a bird ready to fly the nest and planning to express her success in bricks and mortar. A full page spread on a pad in Rocky Valley at the foot of the Sugarloaf mountain in Co Wicklow appeared as the perfect €1.5 million bolt hole for an Olympic champion.
“We looked at two houses. We looked at one when we came back and then another one. There was a big article saying we’d a €1.5 million budget to spend,” she says with an incredulous expression. “It showed a picture of the house. Like . . . we didn’t even look at it. I’m in the public eye. I’m recognised a small bit more. That’s part and parcel of it.
“I’m still living at home, same place . . . I’ve the same friends around so nothing much has changed in my personal life.”
There has been little change and there have also been seismic shifts. She looks the same but she is slightly heavier. She thinks no differently but is more ambitious, has achieved her life’s goal and has constructed others. There is no standing still.
This year at July’s European Union Championships was the first she ever had to work to make 60 kilos. It’s not a problem but another adjustment and she knows her body’s rhythms like the violinist who can tell the humidity of a room by the timbre of the strings. To listen to her roll off the numbers is to catch a glimpse of a boxer’s enduring relationship with the scales as well as Katie’s changing landscape. Like the rest of her accords with the sport, it’s not obsessively unhealthy but calculated and in check.
“I’d lose 0.5 or 0.6 of a kilo overnight. It’s always the same. I usually go to bed at 60.4 kilos and wake up at 59.9 or 60.0 kilos. I definitely struggled with the weight this year compared to previous years. During the EU Championships I had to do a few sessions to get my weight down and that’s the first time I’ve had to do that. I’m a full 60 kilo boxer now. It’s something I have to mind.
Mind and body
“I never go over 63 kilos anyway. It’s just the last kilo, that’s always a killer to get off. The heaviest I’ve ever been is 65 kilos. That was during my Leaving Cert when I was just studying and eating chocolate.”
The year has been patterned to pull the mind and body together. There were Brian Peters promoted bouts in the Bord Gáis Theatre and a low key EU Championships, none televised, but 2013 has been her personal gathering.
“This year being a bit quieter is a good thing for my body and for my mind,” she says.
In the eye of the storm prior to and during London, she was so strung out on the act of achieving that the stress was worn almost like a badge of honour, an accepted rite of passage. But on reflection it was a forgivable but deliberate act of self deception. It was as if a pause for breath would have unconsciously deflated the whole rolling enterprise. While it never got out of hand or knocked her focus, the ferocity of it was noticed only when it lifted.
It was in leaving behind the ExCel Arena, the gold medal ceremony, the interviews, the Mansion House, the welcome home at Bray and the award ceremonies that she realised she’d survived the machine. It was a gold medal forged from frayed nerve ends, fleeting self doubt and perhaps most importantly that she may not honour the talent, unquestionably God given.
“I think we tried to bluff that it wasn’t that stressful, that the Olympics were just another competition,” she says. “After the final it was relief, emotional relief. I didn’t realise how intense that had been. It was a lifelong dream and my dream had become the family’s dream because we were in it together. It was definitely a burden. Afterwards I felt thank God I’ve done it and can move on.”
There are three more fights in the pipeline 12 weeks away, two in Ireland one in the USA or two in the USA and one in Ireland. American Queen Underwood will probably be involved, but whether they are in Boston or Chicago, they will be the last of 2013 for Katie. Next year provides another test of mettle with the European Championships and the World Championships. Old ghosts will reappear but the Olympics also turned on the tap. New faces are pouring in.
More than ever Katie is an Irish scalp to be taken, everyone’s measuring rule. Form a line to have a crack at the Olympic champion. Pete says her opponents’ levels raise a notch as soon as their feet touch the canvas, that plodding journeymen dance like Michael Jackson. He believes they fall into two groups, those that rise to the threat of Katie Taylor and those that crumble. Few, if any are unmoved by the challenge.
“That girl I beat in the semi-final of the EUs, her dream was to box an Olympic champion. She’d been waiting a year to do it. That was her Olympic final,” says Katie. “She went to war for four rounds. That’s what you face now. Those girls are raising their game all the time. The three girls I boxed there I’d never boxed before.”
There is also a new boxing scoring method to unpick as the amateurs move to the 10 point system, where fighters win rounds instead of points. It means they can’t build up large point margins that are almost impossible to bridge. Like the professional ranks aggression will also be a consideration.
She is also of the belief that women will not be wearing protective head guards in the Rio Olympics. Under current regulations they still do but the men have shed them for proclaimed medical reasons, which begs the question why women still wear them. The international boxing federation are prone to edicts without explanation but in such an instance of medical importance what’s good for the goose is surely good for the gander.
“I don’t think I mind the head guards coming off . . . until I probably get hit and experience it,” she says touching her nose. “I don’t think it would have any psychological effect on me. I’ll enjoy that challenge. The more experience you get without the head gear the more you adjust as they do in the pro game, where there are not many head clashes. In the WSB (semi-professional), when they started there were cuts every time, dropping their heads but now there are no cuts.
“Obviously you’d spar without head gear. People have often said that to me about getting cut and my nose getting broken. But that doesn’t bother me at all. I wouldn’t want my nose broken or get cut. It’s my job not to let that happen and that’s why I train so hard. That’s why I put in all that preparation. It’s an occupational hazard.”
Her immediate thoughts are with her sister Sarah, who is getting married in a few weeks. “I’m the worst in the world” she says of her maid of honour duty. The wedding has taken priority. But only just.
There’s the €300,000 renovation to the Bray gym, her concern over Irish boxing’s apparent disregard for their Olympians, TV’s aversion to her sport now the Olympics are over. There are always issues and traditionally she has been the one out confronting them. You can see what you want on the horizon and for Katie it’s Rio. Even three years out her eyes for the real goal are not for clouding.
“I take it week to week. I don’t ask what’s happening for the next few months because I’d be overwhelmed,” she says. “The possibility of becoming a two time Olympic champion is amazing. I want to make history in my sport. I want to be the best.
“We have a saying that you can never be too strong or too fast,” she adds. “People didn’t see the best in London. The performances were great . . . I’ve more to show.”
There’s nobody in the sport would doubt it.