Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Team Ireland's Katie Taylor goes down a storm

Katie Taylor, pictured, defeated Natasha Jonas to reach the Olympic semi-finals

She stood silently by the left side of the referee, waiting to hear her fate. Only seconds away now, from either having a Olympic medal secure within her fierce fist or from packing away a broken dream and returning home.

But Irish boxer Katie Taylor was the lone silent Irish soul in the ExCel arena. All around a sea of tricolours rippled and the hubbub of noisy joy swelled louder.

Everybody knew, even before Katie's arm was lifted that victory was hers. How could it have been otherwise after the dazzling display of skill, of power and grace, of determination and guts which had electrified the crowd?

The answer of course is that it could've been otherwise. This is the Olympics, where top dogs topple to underdogs, where the best and toughest and fastest have an off-day and fail.

It's the ultimate cauldron where champions can flame out, extinguishing the hopes of a nation.

And nobody was under any illusion that Katie would stroll to a medal. Her opponent, Natasha Jonas, was no walkover and what's more, she was boxing on home turf, part of Team GB which has been amassing more gold than a Klondike prospector.

And by 11.30am — a full three hours before the bout — a large contingent of ‘Team Tasha' were milling about the concourse.

But then gradually a river of green first trickled and then surged through the gates into the arena.

A burly chap was methodically hoovering the royal blue canvas in the ring, then the phalanx of judges clad in crisp white shirts marched in to a theme tune which sounded suspiciously like The Imperial Theme from Star Wars.

There was a nervous wait, while the four quarter-finals of the women's flyweight division took to the ring. The Irish amused themselves by cheering for the underdogs — the Venezuelan lassie over the American.

Finally, to a fanfare of 'We Will Rock You', out came Katie, clad in scarlet, cloaked in calm. The wall of noise that greeted her arrival was almost physical, a thump in the heart, a prickling of the skin.

But Katie appeared oblivious. She looked focused. She looked ready.

The first round was promising. 5-2 to Katie. The din increased. But then she looked a little vulnerable in the second, letting Natasha get too close with a few hefty jabs. Encouraged, Team GB began to sing. But Ireland came roaring back — outside the ring, Ole, Ole, Ole was at full throttle.

After listening to an animated monologue from her dad and coach, Pete, she flew out of the red corner like a whirlwind, her gloved fists a blur. Natasha rocked back, and the arena just rocked.

For once, on their own sod with one of their own doing battle, the English were out-sung. Natasha had to take a standing count. Katie looked as if she was enjoying herself.

Then the final round. 120 seconds from a medal. She never faltered. Not a step. The final bell went and she raised her arms. Natasha bowed her head.

Everybody knew. Still and all, the pandemonium which broke out when the result — a majestic 26-15 — was announced, was a sight to behold. Katie looked heavenwards, then ran to hug her dad.

Outside, a small mob surrounded boxer John Joe Nevin, who had come to cheer on Katie. “She was brilliant, just brilliant,” he said.

There was a feeling among the fans that they had all witnessed something special. Carlow man Pat Bolger has been to the last four Olympics. “This is the highlight of them all,” he reckoned.

Veteran Gaelic games commentator Micheal O'Muircheartaigh was sporting a smile. “Can you believe the sound of the crowd when she came out? It was obvious that almost everybody there favoured Katie — in London, fighting against somebody from England.

“It was amazing, the support she has and the respect there is for her. I had the good luck of meeting her yesterday and she was strolling around casually, taking nothing for granted but ready for anything and everything.”

And so she is. As she briefly released her dazzling smile, the crescendo of celebration somehow, incredibly, intensified to 114 decibels — just shy of a thunderclap.

But there were other cheers which were sensed rather than heard. They rose from homes and bars and beachfronts and motorways, a thunderous outpouring of noise rolling from Bundoran to Bantry and Bray to Ballymun.

There's a storm coming. It's called Cyclone Katie. Roll on tomorrow.

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