05 May 2008 – by Neil Pritchard
With a performance base set-up that most professional organisations would be proud of, the IABA find themselves in a position where they can boast five Irish representatives at this years Beijing Olympics, an outstanding achievement when you compare that headcount to the number in previous campaigns.
Paddy Barnes, John Joe Nevin, Ken Egan, John Joe Joyce and Darren Sutherland will be on the flight to China having proven their worth against some of the worlds best amateur boxers.
Much of this success has to be attributed to Elite Performance Director Gary Keegan and his team who have succeeded in moulding the fighters into athletes capable of sustaining performances that allow them to compete at the top level.
Speaking exclusively to irish-boxing.com, Keegan reiterated that preparations had gone well going into the final qualifier in Athens at which time only Ulstermen Barnes and Nevin had booked their places.
It was a lot of hard work over a long period of time and performance at this level is fickle sometimes, he admitted.
Sometimes you think youre prepared for it and it doesnt come off. After the world championships we felt there were a few improvements that we had to make in our approach and we made those improvements. When we got to the last qualifier we maintained and sustained those changes and the atmosphere and environment around the team was very relaxed.
We had become comfortable in our high performance scheme and we found a place where we could deliver our best performances. All we needed to do was hold it together, pay attention to detail and everything else would take care of itself.
In order to achieve such success, Keegan also emphasised the amount of work and commitment that has been put in to the system.
One of the main things that was missing was something that the rest of the world had, which was a professional set up. Other nations were investing a whole lot of money into their programmes which involved four-year-plans.
They were planning from one Olympic Games to the next. In many ways we were lucky to be planning from month to month, because we didnt know what resources we had and how far they would stretch. We now have a performance set up where weve gone from a scenario of having no full-time coaches to having three full-time coaches, with a pathway programme looking after 52 youth, junior and senior boxers.
We have full sports science and medicine back up support with access to strength and conditioning three times a week. We have physiotherapist support for all our events and all our grades. We also have three days a week administration support for our medical programme which is run by our head physio. Now that we have all the services we require backing the team, we just have to fine tune the quantity and level of service that we require from these particular professionals.
Such a professional approach to their training has allowed the boxers to look at their careers in the long-term. Keegan has also seen changes in the fighters under the new programme.
The biggest changes have been in culture. These guys see themselves as career athletes. They are looking long-term; they are looking to Olympic Games. Kenny Egan has been here five years. Hes been through an Olympic cycle and hes seen Athens pass him by, but hes hung on in there for four years when other fighters would have jumped ship.
There is faith in the system and the boxers are happy to be here. They train as professionally as other athletes. I see a big change in their self esteem and how they communicate with the media and the rest of the world.
The preparations and performances speak for themselves with three of the places on the Olympic team being obtained at the final qualifier in Athens.
All three of them went out and did the business. I think what Kenny Egan achieved was exceptional, given the pressure he was under, being team captain for the last five years and currently the most successful boxer on the programme. Going into the qualifier there was a lot of pressure on his shoulders, everyone expected him to win. The fact that he managed to hold together in terms of performance was quite phenomenal to see.
Also, the dominance at which Darren Sutherland won his qualification was quite astonishing, nobody came anywhere close to him. Jon Joe Joyce was a little bit special as well. In the second qualifier he came within 4 points of qualifying against an Olympic bronze medallist. He came away from that really devastated. He had to recover quickly from that as there was only a number of weeks before the next qualifier, so for him to go out a repeat that type of performance was really encouraging.
With all five boxers producing some polished performances recently, confidence is high ahead of the trip to Beijing.
We are completely performance focused, for everything we do, we want an outcome. If we manage the performance then we think the results will take care of themselves. We know we are good enough. The draw will be critical, there are a lot people in there that we can beat but we could also be beaten by poor opposition if we dont get our performance right.
What were interested in is sustained success. If we look back we can see how those performances were achieved. Thats very important in terms of being able to repeat it, especially in terms of the future of the kids coming up behind them. Weve shown that even as small country, if the system is right and you have talent in the system, then you can deliver the performances. If we continue to grow and evolve then the future of Irish boxing looks very good.