By Michael O’Neill
The 2016 IABA Elite championships Male and Female get underway in the National Stadium this weekend with semi-finals set for Friday and the finals themselves a week later . We have already previewed this year’s event and will bring you updates throughout as the chase for places on Team Ireland for the Olympic qualifiers heats up.
Today though let’s concentrate on the Irish Elite women, three of whom will be hoping that they take the crown and eventually get a place in Rio 2016 via the European Confederation championships in Istanbul or 2016 World’s in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Let us remind ourselves that due to the failure of the International Boxing Association (AIBA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) there will again be but three women’s weights in Rio, those fortunate enough to be able to weigh in at 51kg, 60kg or 75kg. That of course means one of two things – either the boxers do make the weight ‘naturally’ or alternatively have to either gain or lose many kilos and as medical experts will confirm that can often be dangerous.
On the other hand, boxers can enter the Elites simply to win an Irish title or indeed to be selected to represent Ireland at the 2016 World’s in Astana. So one would have expected a record entry this year and with the previous record number, being less than 30 that should not have been difficult to set a new record. Sadly only 24 had entered by the closing date for entries last week and that was whittled down to 22 by time of the weigh-in with Bray’s Laoise Traynor the current 75kg champion having to withdraw due to injury.
Today though let us look at the 60kg Lightweight championships and in particular one of the three entrants, Clonmel BC’s Shauna O’Keefe who like Kilfenora’s Kayleigh Murrihy-McCormack will endeavour to qualify for the final and a title against the reigning Olympic Gold medallist, Katie Taylor. Both are aged 21 so a daunting task awaits Friday’s winner just seven days later.
On the line from the Clonmel club Shauna told us how she became a boxer, her career to date and her future aspirations – though it has not all been a “bed of roses” for O’Keefe who, like many sportsmen and women, has had to overcome serious injury in her young life.
So when did you join the Clonmel club, Shauna?:
“I became a boxer at the Clonmel Boxing club when I was 14, exactly 7 years ago and it’s the best decision I ever made, I found a love for the sport before I joined from watching my two brothers who were in boxing at the time. They gave me the confidence to join and I soon knew this is what i wanted to do.”
You obviously have great coaches at Clonmel – tell us who they are and how have you benefit from their coaching?:
“We have a great team in our club that starts with our fantastic coaches Martin Fennessy, Rob Scanlon, Keith Galvin, John Mackey and our female coach Jade Fennessy, all great coaches dedicating their life and time to the sport and everything I’ve accomplished wouldn’t have happened without them”.
Apart from Tipperary and/or Munster championships, have you won any National titles yet?
“I have won 4 national Irish titles including my Intermediate title I won up in Dublin recently, two fantastic bouts I had dominating every round and securing another title.”
You have any sponsors yet?
“I have no sponsor yet! ”.
Now there is an opportunity for some Enterprising Company in Tipperary or elsewhere in Munster to sponsor one of Ireland’s future hopes for National and International honours. Much less expensive too than sponsoring say Rory McIlroy, Conor McGregor or even the Tipperary hurling team!
Looking back through our records, I see you have already represented Ireland overseas in two major championships. Tell us about those?
“Yes, I represented Ireland in the 2nd European Juniors in Calais-Sangatte in 2010 and at the inaugural World Youth championships in Antalya – it was the best achievement in my life representing my country following in the footsteps of our great international boxers Con Sheehan, Dean Gardiner an Kevin Fennessy, 3 exceptional boxers and also 3 great leaders.”
In that Irish team in Antalya were such fighters as Christine Gargan, Austeja Acieute and Michaela Walsh, all of whom gained bronze medals whilst in the 60kg the gold medal went to Anastasia Beliakova of Russia, whom man experts consider to be Russia’s most likely entrant in Rio (and not Sofia Ochigava), if she qualifies. Michaela will also be looking for an Irish title on Friday week to add to her Commonwealth silver in Glasgow
Shauna, we mentioned earlier “injuries” – can you elaborate on those?
“My boxing career has been a bit of a journey you could say, I have been battling through the toughest injury in my life, an injury no boxer has had to deal with let alone come back from. I have recently overcome a serious knee operation I listened to my doctor, my physios’ and my body and now I’m fighting fit and better than ever I have. Having overcome the biggest and hardest battle in my life ,I am ready for anything.
I have been training twice a day everyday, on a very good strength and condition programme that has made me stronger, faster and hitting harder than ever ; my boxing is better now than it ever was.”
So how about your Friday’s ‘battle royale’ with Kayleigh (McCormack). You are obviously looking forward to that?
“In Kayleigh,I am up against a very good boxer that I have crossed paths with on three previous occasions – it is going to be a great contest as we are two very good technical boxers. I have beaten Kayleigh twice and she has beaten me once so as you can see from the scoring this will be a brilliant contest between us both.
You have a big fan club then, many of whom I’m sure will be in the National Stadium come Friday evening?
“Absolutely! I would really like to thank all of my family and friends that have supported me and my boxing all through and years and also my fantastic coaches – I couldn’t have done it without them, I would also like to thank everyone in Clonmel for all of their support, they’re a fantastic community.
To end with the Olympic Gold medallist, one unique point to remember is that though she has won five World titles, six Europeans, five European Union crowns and that inaugural European Games Gold earlier this year, Katie Taylor has never actually won an Irish Elite title in the ring.
True she has won the title by on four occasions by walkovers and in the 2015 Championships had to withdraw due to the injury sustained in the World final in Jeju but this will be the first time she has actually to fight for the title. Her long time ‘friend and foe’ Alanna Murphy had to withdraw on a previous occasion due to a family bereavement.
How we wondered does Katie feel about the small number of entries for the Irish Elites and about her having an opponent in the final?
“I’m looking forward to actually boxing for a title this year – it’s been a long time coming,” said Katie Taylor this week. It’s something I’ve wanted for years, to get a bit of competition in the national championships and I haven’t boxed since the European Games so it’ll be good to get a fight under my belt.
“I need to stay busy and get a few fights,” she said. “I definitely don’t like being out of the ring for so long.”
The reigning 60kg champion is Debbie O’Reilly from the Olympic club in Galway who won the 2015 crown against fellow Connacht woman, Louise Donohue from the famed Geesala club who produced among others both Katie Rowland and Ciara Ginty. There will be a new titleholder this time round as neither Debbie nor Louise has entered. Others like Ginty and Dealgan’s Amy Broadhurst did not meet the AIBA’s ‘age limit’ requirements for females
Katie Taylor though is as enthusiastic as ever about the sport and is looking forward to her new challenge.
“We’re all gearing up towards fighting and the last thing you want is girls pulling out. It can get very frustrating but it’s not going to happen this time. The two girls weighing in are well up for a fight.”