Katie Taylor: ‘I want to tell girls it’s not how you look that’s important’
The boxer believes girls should have more female sporting role models, and so she is mentoring teens in Sky Sports’ Living for Sport programme
Katie Taylor with third-year pupils, from left, Rebecca O’Grady, Shannon MacAnaspie and Lauryn Groome, at New Cross College, Finglas. Photograph: Eric Luke
‘She’s amazing, basically. She doesn’t get enough publicity compared to the men. I love her. I love boxing: you can take out your anger and any emotions.” That’s 14-year-old Shannon MacAnaspie talking, having just met her heroine, Katie Taylor, when the boxer was on a visit to Shannon’s secondary school, New Cross College, Cappagh, Finglas. “She’s an inspiration and a role model. She shows that girls can do whatever they want.”
Rebecca O’Grady (15), whom Taylor has her eye on as an upcoming talent, has been kickboxing for four years in Blanchardstown. “You can get your emotions out and control them at the same time,” says Rebecca.
“Katie Taylor was the only one I watched in the Olympics,” says cheerleader Lauryn Groome, adding that you don’t have to be a boxer to gain confidence. Why does she love cheerleading? “I love how you have to be really sassy, and put on a smile and personality, and don’t hold back. I used to be shy, and now I’ve got confident. The coaches are inspirational, and my teammates are my best friends.”
All three young women have experienced Ireland’s Sky Sports Living for Sport programme, of which Taylor is an ambassador. After being piloted at New Cross College, which is in a designated deprived area, the programme has been rolled out to more than 100 schools around Ireland, to thousands of children.
Katie Taylor is involved in it, she says, because “there’s not a lot of positive role models of women in newspapers and magazines. I think it puts pressure on girls. They think that the image put out, it’s the way you have to look. I want to tell girls, it’s not about make-up and how you look that’s important; you are so much more than how you look.”
For girls, participating in physical challenges can be transforming. Research by Chrysalis last year found that 91 per cent of participants improved in self-confidence and self-esteem. Nearly 90 per cent improved their attitudes towards other students, staff, health and the future.
Team sports can be daunting for young people – boys and girls – who are picked last or have no interest in competition. When young people engage in physical activity that they are actually interested in, their optimism and ability to engage with others improves.
The Chrysalis research found that 88 per cent of participants engaged more in school life after taking part in the Living for Sport programme, while 84 per cent engaged more in learning and 81 per cent found their behaviour in school improved. Meanwhile, 92 per cent of teachers felt that the programme had a strong positive impact on the development of teamwork skills. Social skills and communication skills were also found to have improved, by 90 per cent.
Unfortunately, many girls will do whatever they can to skip PE. Girls tend to spend many hours in front of the mirror, trying to match up to a skinny, fake-tanned, toned stereotype, rather than exercising.
Katie Taylor is one of the few Irish female sporting role models for girls. “We don’t see enough about her in the media,” says Shannon MacAnaspie.
Taylor the enigma
Taylor is a bit of an enigma, appearing shy on camera and always on-message to a frighteningly professional degree, with her father and coach, Peter, hovering nearby. Yet, after sparring with students in the gym at New Cross College, she appears energised, warm and authentic, and she takes a genuine interest in the young people.
Between interviews with a range of sports journalists (all male and all preoccupied with her wrist injury), she takes kickboxer Rebecca aside and walks down the hall with her. The pair talk about training and competition nerves. It’s a moment that Rebecca is unlikely to forget, as Taylor makes the youngster the star.
Taylor says the message she wants to give young people is that “sport is a great way to keep fit. It’s a stress reliever. You’re clearing your mind during a workout. Boxing is a great sport for girls; it’s really safe.”
She handles the pressure of competition well. “I have confidence in my own ability, and my father is very supportive,” she says.
She thinks she is a “better, stronger” boxer now than in the Olympics, where she won gold. She is in awe of Brian O’Driscoll and Conor McGregor, but while she enjoys watching UFC, she tells me she has no plans to do it herself, despite what has been reported.
Many of us watched the Olympics just to see Taylor. In the boxing ring, she appears heroic, aggressive, larger than life. Meeting her, it’s a shock to see how small she is, at 5ft 5in and 60kg, and she is still girlish at 28.
She is currently preparing for the European Games in June, with a view also to Olympic qualification. Her absence from the Women’s National Senior Elite Championships in early January gave Debbie O’Reilly a chance.
But while Taylor is a lightweight in the ring, she’s no lightweight when it comes to being critical of a media obsessed with male sports, rugby and soccer in particular.
She’s not surprised to hear of schools where boys’ rugby teams have their own locker rooms and gyms, while the girls playing team sports have no such luxuries and are mentioned in the smallest paragraph in the school newsletter.
Taylor also mentions Olympic runner Sonia O’Sullivan as a role model, but the first two heroes she mentions are male. Is that because the female role models are not there? Or because they don’t get enough media attention?
Taylor believes that sports media definitely prioritise male sports. “It’s harder for women to get recognition than for men in the media, because sport is male-dominated. The only answer is to keeping winning competitions and you have to work harder than the men.”
Many other female athletes agree, including two other mentors in the Living for Sport programme, basketball champion Aoife McDermott and athlete Jessie Barr, who are visiting New Cross College along with Taylor.
“I’m lucky to be in a mixed sport with men and women,” says Barr, whose brother, Thomas Barr, is also an athlete. “Men and women train together, we go to the gym with them and we do it way better, and we meet at the same competitions, so sport builds confidence in girls and builds genuine, close friendships.
“I went from a small primary school to a big secondary, and the way I got to know people was through sport. Girls doing sports together, nobody cares what you look like. PE was a bad word when I was in school, but that’s changing. Suddenly it’s okay for girls to train.”
Aoife McDermott, who is 6ft tall, says: “I had low confidence and self-esteem due to my height. Then I played basketball and gained confidence. Representing my country is a huge honour, but I do notice that women’s sports never gets enough coverage.
“Even in basketball, where the Irish women’s 3x3 has reached the European finals and Olympics, the women were very much an afterthought to the men. Yet women basketball players are far superior to the men. The National Cup final in 2014 was described as one of the best games ever played, yet the men got more coverage. It’s annoying because you would love to get as much recognition.”
Another of the mentors, Christy Toye, of the Donegal senior football team, agrees with his female sporting colleagues. “Women don’t get enough coverage in the media. The boys in charge have to sort that out,” he says.
What’s it like to feel physically powerful as a woman? To be able to get into a boxing ring without fear and to punch an opponent into surrender? Taylor shies away from the question slightly. “Everyone has different gifts and talents. I feel privileged to do what I’m doing,” she says.
The popularity of boxing is huge among women in gyms in Ireland and the US. Go to almost any gym and you’ll see grown women taking our their frustrations on a punching bag.
“So, teach me to box,” I ask her.
“Just close your eyes and swing,” she says with a grin.
It’s hard to imagine a better motto for getting on in life, especially for Irish women, who tend not to be assertive enough, and who do better in education but lose out in the postgraduate and jobs markets when it comes to high-status positions. Earlier this month, Louise Glennon, of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, said she hoped the Government would reach its target of at least 40 per cent representation of women on State boards while it is in office.
Just as important as the message to engage in physical, confidence-building activity, says Taylor, is to “have a passion and follow your dreams. Nothing is impossible when you believe in yourself”.
But how do we get girls and young women to truly believe that? For New Cross PE teacher Eimear Cullen, the Living for Sport programme “is a medium for young people to go on a journey for what they really want in life”.
Pat Carolan, principal of New Cross, says that in a designated disadvantaged school, “sport can be used as a means to help these kids aim higher”.
Katie Taylor is certainly showing that in the way she lives. No make-up, hair in a rough ponytail, ordinary sports clothes with no fluorescent Lycra, Taylor practises what she preaches.