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Fighting Irish: Katie Taylor, The Best Amateur Boxer in the World

by Meg Heery

August 10, 2012

While much of the world was watching the exciting U.S. women's soccer finals, many of the rest of us were transfixed as Ireland made history. Specifically, we were watching Katie Taylor -- the victor in the very first women’s boxing tournament in Olympic history, who also became the pride of a nation.

The Irish are known for their hyperbole. But, this week, Irish commentators really meant it when they said that lightweight boxing champion Katie Taylor had brought the country to a standstill.

So many people tuned in to the fighter’s Olympic semifinal on August 8 that they crashed  the servers of the RTÉ,  Ireland’s national television broadcaster.  The next day, virtually the entire country stopped again, to watch her fight for – and win – the gold medal.

To think that only 15 years ago, many of boxing’s leaders, such as Frank Maloney, the manager for former Olympic heavyweight Lennox Lewis, derided women’s boxing as “a freak show.”

Yet, at the same time, an 11-year-old Katie Taylor had another plan. In an interview for a local radio program in her hometown of Bray, just south of Dublin, she said, “I saw my dad and my brothers box and I thought I’d have a go of it....I’m not afraid of getting hurt because I never do get hurt….And I’ll go all the way to the very top,” she said with a laugh.

Years later, when Taylor had amassed one of the strongest boxing records for any fighter in the world, male or female, she realized that there was one barrier left. She started campaigning, virtually single-handedly, for a women to be added to the Olympic boxing schedule. As The New York Times marveled in 2010, Taylor had become  “a poster girl for women’s boxing worldwide, putting on exhibitions for the sport’s big shots when they were trying to determine if women’s boxing should be an Olympic sport.”

Meanwhile, she became involved in the Irish Sports Council’s SuperValu Kids in Action Programme and the European Institute for Gender Equality’s Women Inspiring Europe,  becoming a role model for girls and women to pursue whatever path they wish.

Fast forward to London 2012.  Back inside the ExCel Centre, the 2,500 rabidly cheering fans, all of whom, it seemed, were there for Taylor, stayed put after the fights were over. The Irish fans in the crowd -- who seriously outnumbered all others –cheered for everyone, but especially for their own. They cheered for a beaming Pat  Hickey, Irish member of the International Olympic Committee, who was on hand to distribute medals. As the Irish national anthem played, voices overflowed the arena.

Ireland's prime minister, Enda Kenny, called Taylor "not only an Olympic champion, but a force of nature."

Michael Ring, Ireland's minister of sport, added that "Katie's been a role model for the country, and she's given a lift to the country. She's a credit to the country, she's a credit to women, she's a credit to boxing."

In her hometown of Bray, near the neighborhood of Oldcourt where Taylor grew up, supporters exulted to RTÉ News. "It's brilliant that one girl can lift the nation, and lift a town like Bray out of its misery," one man said, while a woman proclaimed, "The most amazing day for an estate like this. And that she single-handedly fought to make this an Olympic sport…we're so proud of her."

This isn't just hyperbole or national pride. Ireland's Radio 1 relayed a theory one listener e-mailed to the station (I paraphrase):

 The Irish are a Celtic people, and as Celts they are matriarchal at their core. Katie Taylor – down to earth, spiritually devoted, soft-spoken with an accent that makes her words slip by, and a right cross that can flatten anyone – is the nation's modern-day Queen Maeb, maternal warrior deity. And that is the energy that will save Ireland (and the world, the listener suggests) from its troubles.

A bit of a stretch – Taylor is first and foremost an individual with a passion to do what she does as well as she can, and that is the approach that put her on top of a close fight. But I don't entirely disagree.

Did I mention Taylor is also a soccer player? She played with Ireland's national women's senior football team until she turned her attention toward the Olympics, and is rumored to be considering a return to the sport.

I also know that when 2,500 people sang, "We're children of a fighting race that never yet has known disgrace" and all eyes were on a young woman who looked a lot like this Irish-American girl,  I'd never felt prouder.

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Meg Heery is a freelance editor and a regular contributor to the Jersey City Independent and NEW magazine. (On Twitter, check for her more frequent notes on the Games@megheery.)

See also:

Meg Heery,  "Women Box Their Way to Medals in 2012." Sports Cafe, On the Issues Magazine, August 7, 2012.

Alex Channon, "Why Sex Segregation is Bad for Society." On the Issues Magazine,  Spring 2012.

Meg Heery, "This is What Winning Looks Like." Sports Cafe, On the Issues Magazine, August 6, 2012.

Martha Burk, "Who Owns Sports?"On the Issues Magazine,  Spring 2012.


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