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Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan want gold for their little girls at Rio Olympics

By Steven Beacom

Spend time with Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan and invariably you come away smiling. Both have sparkling personalities and are full of wit and wisecracks.

They are also world-class amateur boxers with fast hands and feet which dazzle opponents as much as the ring smarts they have displayed numerous times on the big stage.

The pair, in Rio determined to become Olympic champions, have so many skills, it can be easy to forget just how strong the Belfast duo are.

These guys are tough in mind and tough in body. Rock hard.

Chat with them about their beautiful young daughters though and their hearts melt.

Paddy is intent on bringing home some gold to two-year-old Eireann while Michael wants the same colour of treasure for his little girl Luisne, who is approaching 18 months.

While the boxers have been away preparing for this shot at glory, their partners Mari and Shauna have been taking care of things at home.

Barnes and Conlan are well aware of the sacrifices their other halves have made.

The two fighters have made their mark winning bronze medals at the greatest show on earth before, but never as dads.

You get the feeling Rio might just mean a little more to them than their previous Olympic experiences.

The fact that both genuinely believe this is their time to stand on top of the podium adds greater weight to the argument.

Light-flyweight Barnes says: "I would be training hard anyway, but the thought of being able to hang a gold medal around my daughter's neck has made me train even harder.

"That would be the best thing ever. I'm very proud to be a dad and love spending time with Eireann and the thought of winning in Rio for her, Mari and my family is a big motivating factor for me."

The same goes for bantamweight Conlan.

He says: "I want to win gold for my daughter. That is a real driving force. Ahead of a big event like the Olympics you are away training a lot so when I get back from Rio, I'm looking forward to spending time with Luisne and Shauna and my belief is that I'll be doing that having won a gold medal."

Before 29-year-old Barnes gets in the ring to begin his quest for glory, he has an important task to undertake as flagbearer for Team Ireland in the Maracanã Stadium in Rio on Friday night.

Having claimed bronze medals at Beijing in 2008 and London 2012, he is a deserving choice.

Son to Paddy and Ellen, the two-time Commonwealth Games champion is well known for his fun side, especially on Twitter, but believe me he knows when to get serious.

"I won bronze medals in the last two Games but this time I really believe that I can go all the way to the final and become Olympic champion," he states.

"It's been a dream of mine for a long time and after all the years of hard training I'll enter the competition feeling I can win in Rio."

Barnes, who was delighted to see his close friend Carl Frampton win the WBA World featherweight title by beating Leo Santa Cruz in New York at the weekend, isn't just confident in his own ability.

He has great faith in the other Irish boxers, who as well as Conlan include fellow Northern Ireland men Steven Donnelly (welterweight) and Brendan Irvine (flyweight).

"I think our boxing team is the strongest Ireland has sent to an Olympics and I believe if all of us fight to the levels we can, we could all come home with medals," says Barnes, who has yet to decide whether he will turn professional after Rio or continue in the amateur ranks.

Conlan is more likely to turn pro after reaching what he sees as his destiny in Brazil.

"I only see one outcome in Rio and that is me winning the gold medal," says 24-year-old Conlan, who created history last year by becoming the first Irishman to win a World Amateur title, to add to the European and Commonwealth crowns he had already claimed.

"When I won bronze in London I was very young but I'm entering this Olympics with a lot more experience which will be a big help to me " adds Conlan, whose dad John is a highly respected coach in the Irish boxing team and mum Teresa is just as inspirational in her own way.

"Having won the World championships in 2015, I will be favourite at the Olympics but it doesn't bother me. I know I will go there and win the gold. No one is going to stop me.

"Being a World champion is incredible. I am Commonwealth champion, European champion and World champion. Now I want to complete the set and be Olympic champion."

Legendary athlete Dame Mary Peters and hockey heroes Stephen Martin and Jimmy Kirkwood are the only sports stars from Northern Ireland to win summer Olympic gold medals.

Don't bet against the brilliant Belfast boys adding their names to that illustrious list.

They have the class, character, self-belief and motivation to deliver.

Belfast Telegraph

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