The Best Of Times: How Katie Taylor carried a nation with her to gold

Ireland’s Katie Taylor drops to her knees after being announced as the winner of the women’s lightweight final against Russia’s Sofya Ochigava at the ExCel Arena during the 2012 London Olympics. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

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Day one. It was her dad Pete who suggested using a private room at the back of the building. Being Katie Taylor had started to kick in. Already it was a struggle for privacy. Katie was beginning to live with it. She was learning to become a reluctant celebrity.

We sat in the coffee dock of the Wilton Hotel opposite the golf club on the southern tip of Bray town. A pool of well wishers hovered, trying to make eye contact, clutching their pieces of paper.

Late September and Katie had just returned from a family break in Spain after the 2012 London Olympic Games. A gold medal required a book. Here she was, the hot August winds blowing through the ExCeL Arena in East London and Russian Sofya Ochigava now three, four weeks in her rear view mirror.

Today there were no southpaw counter-punches to read. There were no combinations to empty. Things had changed. There were selfies. No problem. There were autographs, sure. A chat, why not. A group photograph, yep. An octogenarian turned on to boxing late in life, that’s great it’s a broad church. Kids with pictures to sign, mothers with pictures to take of their kids getting pictures signed.

In the foyer of the hotel an elderly woman sitting by reception looked up and recognised her. ‘Ah it’s Katie . . . Katie Price, ” said the woman. Polar opposites grinned Pete walking away.

High wattage, low maintenance Katie smiled and kept moving. She sounded and looked as people wanted her to be and there was no deceit in that. That was her gift, allowing strangers believe that they somehow knew her. Her patience and deft, soft touch were sweetly rock solid. But having a coffee in public had become a slow churn of meet and greet.

They circled her table seeking eye contact. Any signal to dart in with a scrap of paper. From Katie there was no charged space or flashing body language to tell them to stay away. Maybe we should use a back room said Pete quietly.

Day two. Downloading Katie Taylor. Katie the woman. Katie the thinker. Katie the fighter. Katie the believer. Katie the pioneer. Ruthless Katie. Ambitious Katie. Trail Blazer Katie. Placid Katie. Famous Katie. Ass kicker Katie.

“I’m not very reflective,” she said that day.

The book was a challenge to her because it betrayed a mood to look back. That’s what she didn’t want to do at that moment of her career. The wave she generated six years previously had crushed her when women’s boxing was not added to the Beijing schedule. But in 2012 when it crashed on the docklands in London, it was bigger for her, bigger than it ever could have been in China.

Katie Taylor walks to the ring with her father Pete and Ireland coach Zaur Antia ahead of the final. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Katie Taylor walks to the ring with her father Pete and Ireland coach Zaur Antia ahead of the final. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The way she saw it, that job was complete. She was looking ahead. She was post gold medal, spirited but in a frame of mind not to reflect too hard but push towards the next thing. She was blanking out, for the moment, much of what she had achieved to achieve more.

The shuttering included life-defining moments. Katie remember you went to the White House prompted Pete? Oh yeah, she said. She was in Washington twice, in the White House twice and barely remembered to mention it.

On one of the occasions president Barack Obama came over to her and said ‘so you’re a boxer?’ He looked down, grabbed her hands and began to examine the calluses and welts. Michelle Obama struck a pose, stuck up her fists and pretended to shadow box. Even that was stored away in her head locker.

The gold medal wasn’t the end, it was a pause. It wasn’t completion, it was the start of something else. Everything was being sealed for some other part of her life, not now. But for that moment in time post Olympics Katie Taylor had captured the zeitgeist.

London was the candles on the cake. It came after six successive European Championships and five consecutive World Championships and yet. Yet, she seemed already restless to build on to a legacy that was already a cathedral. In her head Olympic champion could not be an end in itself.

Katie knew her life had changed but in the following months she would avoid television appearances and interviews beyond her sponsorship commitments.

“It is taking me a while to get used to this,” she said. “And it is something I find difficult to handle. I have no interest in fame or celebrity. I have never made a decision motivated by trying to increase my public profile.”

Weal and woe. She then vanished from constant visibility post London and months later would emerge for the next chapter. Katie, ageless and unchanged. In that people trusted and admired. Her lifestyle contradiction was to be simultaneously covert and low lying but unashamedly in pursuit of spectacular success and a glorious life statement. She has willingly become that vessel to attain a kind of greatness.

To that back drop was her Holy Trinity of family, training and church, her safe places. Even now that surface of Katie Taylor hasn’t been scratched. People may not fully understand the strength of faith or that savage conviction that burns when she talks about the scriptures.

But the good heart has never failed to win. They may mistrust her for turning towards the spit and sawdust of professional boxing but have not stopped following. They can be frustrated by the limited access she gives, the ducks and dives on camera and her disinterest in being pinned like a butterfly for public edification. Who is Katie Taylor is for her alone. But her disdain for personnel revelation draws people closer.

It was London that gave Katie opportunities. London and the winning of the gold medal was the end and it was the beginning.

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Katie Taylor shows the tension of the moment as she awaits the outcome of her final bout against Russia’s Sofya Ochigava. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Katie Taylor shows the tension of the moment as she awaits the outcome of her final bout against Russia’s Sofya Ochigava. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Nothing was left to chance. Each morning Pete would meet her in the Olympic Village and take off. Arriving at around 11.0am the two headed out to walk around the sprawling Olympic site or over towards the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, beginning the walk often not knowing where they were headed. It was their time alone.

Pete talked about how to play the next bout, what to expect and any particular threat. Katie knew it all anyway. It was part of the process, the advice and reminders layered over the months and years of work.

She had always known Ochigava would be a likely opponent, most likely in the latter stages. Between them there was no love or animosity. But there was a past rivalry, a recognition of Ochigava as being spiky and dangerous.

Katie’s only pressure was to beat everybody, win the gold medal. Sonia O’Sullivan had faced the challenge 12 years earlier in Sydney. It was not easy.

The first win over Britain’s Natasha Jonas was eye-catching and brutal, a high octane toe-to-toe hit out. A pleaser for everybody. “It was like feeding time in the zoo,” said Katie.

A more measured and tactical win over Tajikistan’s showboating Mavzuna Chorieva, a boxer she had beaten 16-6 in the semi-finals of the World Championships earlier that year, drew more disciplined tactics. Her jab never stopped.

She drew the Russian ticket in the Olympic final. She said it was a seed planted in her heart 16 years before. She said it was God-given. She said it was her destiny.

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Katie Taylor celebrates as her hand is raised as the winner of the women’s lightweight gold medal at the ExCel Arena during the 2012 London Olympics. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Katie Taylor celebrates as her hand is raised as the winner of the women’s lightweight gold medal at the ExCeL Arena during the 2012 London Olympics. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

But dreams don’t win Olympic finals. Prior to arriving in London, the Irish team spent time in training camp in Assisi, Italy. Pete handpicked the sparring partners specifically with Ochigava in mind. She was left-handed and unorthodox . She jabbed with her right hand as Katie jabbed with her left.

Their meetings always made for moving chess pieces more than assault and battery. Cagey and coloured with bluffs and feints, patience and holding nerve trumped aggression. Scoring points, it was all about scoring points.

Ochigava was also a counter-puncher. She built her scores around the attacking moves made by her opponents. Each time Katie went forward to hit, Ochigava would try to tag her once or twice in what many just saw as a blur of exchanges.

Simulating the Ochigava challenge Katie had gone many rounds with Irish southpaw Eric Donovan. He was one of the group brought to Italy to provide the lefty counter-punch style.

Bray’s Stephen Coughlan and Michael Nevin, another Irish southpaw, was also drafted in as was the nephew of Billy Walsh, Dean Walsh, who was tall and lean. Dean was used to provide a similar body shape to another possible opponent, the Chinese fighter Cheng Dong. At six feet she was one of the tallest lightweights in women’s boxing.

Wiley Ochigava was also a trash talker. Her ‘fixed fight’ was one of the lippy sub narratives that ran in the days leading up to the final alongside her conspiracy theory that Katie had already been anointed for gold. The Daily Telegraph referred to Katie as “British”. It apologised. Fairfax Media of Australia did so too.

An article in the Age, Brisbane Times and the Sydney Morning Herald even drew a complaint from Irish ambassador Noel White about “lazy stereotyping” with references to Guinness, whiskey and potatoes.

USA Today echoed the caricatures. “Back home on the emerald-green isle, pints of Guinness flowed freely, perhaps enough to replenish the Irish Sea.” Yes, really. It seemed endless and exhausting until August 9th. Then the moment sprung with unforgiving urgency.

Katie Taylor takes in the moment during the medal ceremony. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Katie Taylor takes in the moment during the medal ceremony. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

As Katie walked to the ring more than a few in the crowd of 10,000 knew it was her heavy lifting that had done most to get women’s boxing in to the Olympic schedule. Then as loud as it could be, the East End hall fell to instant silence. Like a sacryn bell to a congregation, you could hear the huffing of the boxers and the glove contact from the back of the hall.

The opening phase was muddled. Katie’s head was cloudy and she couldn’t release her punches. The bout fast fell into a predictable choreographed scorpion dance, the two circling the ring.

Unlike the fight against Jonas, where the crowd were on their feet for the entire match, ripples of noise echoed in the tinny building, the fans hyper strung and uneasy. They shrank into their seats and erupted for the exchanges.

The score was level, 2-2 after the first round. Ochigava led 4-3 after the second round. At the end of the third it was 7-5 to Katie meaning she had won the third two-minute round by a 4-1 margin. It was the third round that won the Olympic title.

A two-point lead with a two-minute final round remaining and the scales had tipped. Katie was cautious and conservative, Ochigava coming out desperate to claw back lost ground. Quick as she was, she couldn’t tag the World champion, who feinted and bluffed and stayed out of reach.

When the final bell sounded she glanced to the corner at her dad and coach Zaur Antia and asked ‘is it me?’ She didn’t know the score. Nobody did. The hall fell silent. In her head she raced through the final two minutes and counted the scoring shots Ochigava might have landed.

From the corner her dad nodded. He saw the final round as even. He calculated the Russian did not win it by two points or more, that Katie’s lead from the third round would hold.

As the judges laboured doubts swirled in her head. She flipped from win to maybe lose and back to win again. After five days and three bouts a vigilant silence held in the arena.

It was a gold medal won by inches.

She then fell to her knees.

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Katie Taylor shares a joke with Sofya Ochigava during the medal ceremony in London. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Katie Taylor shares a joke with Sofya Ochigava during the medal ceremony in London. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

That night, she said, she met with her family. They made the short journey from the east of the city into the centre of London and found themselves in McDonalds in Leicester Square. Exhausted Katie sat looking out the window eating chicken nuggets watching people throng past or running to catch the night buses home, the first Olympic lightweight gold medal ever won by a woman stuffed deep in her tracksuit pocket.

Few people had ever seen her fight before London. They had never seen a televised World Championships. She knew it. They read about her, saw short news clips. Nobody had seen a full four rounds or three successive fights.

There had never been a homecoming after a perfect 2009 European Championships in Ukraine, when she did not concede a single point, when nobody, not one opponent, could hit her. But Ireland knew she was something.

The day after the Olympic final RTÉ released a 1.1 million average viewer figure for the 10-8 win over Ochigava. A nation in standstill. A ruthless, driven, ambitious 26-year-old woman in the glare and looking as she always does, unbreakable and oddly vulnerable.

It fell to the seafront at Bray for the bus ride, the homemade ‘Love Katie’ posters, the popcorn and the 99s, the smell of burgers and spilling pints on the promenade. It was kids and grannies and men on common ground. A country with a crush. It was her dream to pour her life into one week in London. And she did.

But something more fundamental was achieved. Breath by breath, out on her own, a woman’s frame carrying a nation.