A field in Ballywaltrim, Bray. A place where I played football, come rain or shine, but usually rain, every week for nigh on ten years, where the goalmouths were bare patches of sand, where empty beer cans frequently lay strewn on the sidelines, accompanied by the proverbial man and his dog. Where the goalposts were crooked, and covered with years of masking tape, used to hold the nets up, and matches were played out under the silent gaze of a row of council houses opposite, the inhabitants likely as harassed and weary as the referee out in the middle. Even by the standards of amateur sport and Sunday league football, this never was glamorous.
Today, though, there are almost ten thousand people amassed on this field, in bright sunshine, come to see irish sporting history be made. Something which would have been unimaginable all those years ago, and simply inconceivable for it to happen here. Ireland stood on the verge of ending a 20 year gold medal drought at the Olympic Games. The event? Women’s Boxing. Something that even 10 years ago, we would not have guessed we would ever see in the Olympics. And for all this, we had one remarkable woman to thank. One woman who was from round here, had attended the school across the road, had played football on these same fields, where now, thousands had gathered from all over Ireland to see, on a giant screen, that same woman fight Sofia Ochigava of Russia in the Olympic women’s Lightweight final: Katie Taylor.
Of course, this story had been bubbling for a while, ever since it was confirmed that women’s Boxing would be in the London Olympics, back in 2008. Katie was already a world champion then, and of course it was in no small part due to her tireless campaigning that women were allowed to box in London. They do it every Friday night in Bray, I hear. There’s been a few jokes about Bray on Facebook this week, but as they say, better to be noticed than not at all.
Anyway, as soon as the draw was made, Katie Taylor was widely held to be the favourite to win the gold medal. We knew there’d be a bit of hype – Ireland don’t win many Olympic golds – a grand total of 8 in history, if you count the 3 Michelle Smith won in Atlanta (which, for some inexplicable reason, the IOC still do). But as the bell went for the start of the first round, the cheers went up as Katie landed her first blow, and the realisation dawned that the entire country was watching this, and pinning so much hope and expectation on this one quiet, modest woman – recession or no recession, an awful lot of this crowd must have pulled a sickie or left work an hour early to watch this fight. This was something special. Most of them would never ordinarily watch a Boxing match in their life – TV viewing figures prove as much. But this was something even bigger than that. The first inkling I had that something special was happening was during Taylor’s semi-final, when so many people thronged the centre of Bray, many of them could not actually see the giant screen that had been erected. And now, here in Ballywaltrim, on this fields where the only camera of any kind I had seen before was from Crimeline, there were no fewer than 15 cameras… just to film the crowd!
And what a crowd. We oohed and aahed our way through an intriguing, cagey, Jimmy Magee may have used the words ‘tactical’ and ‘sizing each other up’ several times, but there was little in it, until Taylor appeared to land a decisive blow right on the bell. We could barely see the screen, and people all around were asking ‘What’s the score?’ as the TV showed Pete Taylor, Katie’s father and coach, giving precious paternal pearls of wisdom as she swilled her water. It came up, and I squinted… was it 2-2? It was hard to tell, we needed binoculars really, but the subdued reaction from the front of the crowd confirmed it. Perhaps the judges had missed that last blow?
Now they came out again. All we could hear was Jimmy Magee and ‘Olé Olé Olé’ all the way from London, and tricolours fluttered in front, oblivious, almost, to the action on screen, where Ochigava had come out stronger, and Katie was struggling. Ochigava kept coming in close, and Katie wasn’t landing any punches, but she stopped her opponent landing too many, and as the bell went, we felt optimistically that she might just have done enough to tie this round, too.
She hadn’t. As the scores came up on screen, showing Ochigava 4-3 ahead, a hush came upon the crowd, as though, for the first time all afternoon, it occurred to us that we might have come to witness, not the glorious triumph we had anticipated, but an implicitly less glorious defeat. It had taken a while to get here, not the 40 minute walk from my house, to be followed by the much more dreaded 40 minute walk to work straight after the fight, but the years of training, and coaching, and fighting. She had sacrificed so much, had Taylor, put so much into it. She couldn’t fall at the final hurdle, could she?
She didn’t. She came back in the third round with an immense, incredible round. As much as any boxer ever, surely, she floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. She buzzed around Ochigava, waiting patiently, dodging the blows that came, and when she struck, she struck hard. Suddenly she had all the energy, the momentum, she jumped and skipped around Ochigava, even finishing the round with a little jig. A delightful moment, and as the scores went up, so did the cheers, the scarves and the green and orange flags: she had won the round 4-1. She had a 2 point lead going into the final round. It should surely be enough.
The final round started off jubilantly in the crowd, but those of us with wiser heads knew that Ochigava would have to come out fighting, and she did. Credit to her, she made us all very nervous, as Katie, perhaps, didn’t know whether to stick or twist. Fend off her opponent, run down the clock, or take the fight to her? She nearly hit the floor, not once but twice: once was just a slip, but once was the result of Ochigava’s right hook. Is it possible for 10,000 people to hold their breaths at once? It is, as we collectively gasped and clasped hands as Katie skidded across the canvas, before picking herself up again. The gasp of relief could be heard in Blessington, I’m sure. Still, it seemed certain that Ochigava had shaded the final round, and nobody in the crowd was quite confident enough to start celebrating during the unnaturally long wait for the judges. Finally, the result came… GOLD FOR IRELAND!!!
You know the rest. Us, we were too busy jumping up and down, and daring everyone around us to streak in front of the many cameras. Thankfully, nobody did.
And then, well, we milled around for a few minutes, cheering again when the TV beamed pictures of our reaction at the result back to us, and looking at the images of Katie sinking to the canvas, hands held heavenward in victory. Everybody was happy and relaxed now, mingling and chatting with friends, acquaintances and strangers alike. As we were leaving, I ran into Brian from UCD, who I last saw in Skopje at Macedonia v Ireland last year. There was nothing much to say about the fight itself. It just needed time to sink in, and allow us to enjoy the moment, when an Irishwoman, a Bray woman no less, took on the world and won.
Leaving the football pitches behind, across the road her old school, St. Killian’s, had draped a ‘Good Luck Katie’ banner. The picture on the left was recent, showing her in full fighting mode. The picture on the right was taken from her first year class photo. A shy little girl, still a little bit chubby around the cheeks, stared sweetly at the passers-by, come to see her fight. She was not a champion back then, it’s true, she was just one of us. But the spirit and determination must have been within her all the time. She’s come a long way indeed, all the way from St. Killian’s and the less salubrious parts of Bray, to London, Olympic Gold, the global stage and fame, via tournaments in far off places like Jilin and Almaty, that we hardly even knew which continent they were on, yet she still always came back victorious. She does and continues to inspire: Bray Boxing Club, which used to be run out of the back of a shed, now has its own premises by Bray harbour, with 60 young boxers, half of them female. We knew, we have known for years, that she was a champion. Now the whole world knows it too.
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