The gloves are on


WOMEN’S BOXING:Ireland’s women’s boxing squad are preparing to take on the world, writes AINE KERR

THEY ARE AN eclectic mix of 17- to 30-year-old students, mothers and workers bonded by a desire to enter a ring and box. They are Ireland’s senior women’s boxing squad, bidding to represent the country at the European and world championships, and ultimately the 2012 Olympics, when women’s boxing will finally be added to the schedule.

For six weeks, the nine are taking leave of work, college, children and partners to train full-time in a boxing club in Dundalk, Co Louth in preparation for the European Senior Women’s Championships in Rotterdam next Sunday. And while world champion Katie Taylor, the only funded boxer among them, is likely to secure international accolades, the other eight have boundless determination and ambition.

Laura O’Neill is studying (she’s in the second year of a geography and sociology degree at NUI Galway), as the women converge in her room in a BB to discuss the day’s training. Breakfast is at 8.30am. The mini-bus arrives at 10.30am. The first warm-up drills start at 10.50am, followed by endurance running, sprints, interval work, shadow-boxing, strength programming, abdominal work, conditioning and intensive ring work from 4.30pm to 6pm. They eat lunch and dinner in the gym. They are divided into the 51kg, 60kg and 75kg Olympic weight categories, and while there is a daily weigh-in, there is no strict diet.

Each day ends with an 8pm team meeting with coach Brian McKeown. “Some of these girls are risking studies and jobs. Some will be left without income while they’re doing this. You have to commend their commitment to the sport. It’s not enough to guarantee them success but it’s enough to guarantee them respect,” McKeown says.

Laura O’Neill has been boxing for more than a decade, thanks largely to her then three-year-old brother receiving a punch bag for Christmas. When she first joined her local boxing club in Paulstown in Kilkenny, she was the only woman, and the idea of women boxing was “frowned upon”.

Nine Irish titles later, the 19-year-old is intent on boxing in Rotterdam and handing in assignments two days after her return. Others, such as Ceire Smith, have opted to postpone studies for a year to focus solely on boxing, “sharpen up” and “aim high” for the Olympics.

Michaela Walsh is also on a break from college so she can concentrate on her first senior tournament. “I’m still going for a gold. I’m not going out there to be beaten,” she says.

Lynn McEnery is the seasoned veteran among them, having spent 20 years kickboxing, and winning two world titles, before starting to box three years ago. The Waterford-based factory worker says she works around training from week to week, month to month, and she says next month is her “one chance” to make a breakthrough.

Christina Marks, who was the first licensed female boxer in Ireland and who helps train the new wave of women boxers, says the coming weeks are about boxing with clinical skill, showing the world that Ireland has arrived on the boxing scene, and possibly returning with silverware to give the country something to talk about.