Boxing

Irish Olympic hopefuls raring to go ahead of Abbotstown return says coach John Conlan

Irish coach John Conlan with 2018 World champion Kellie Harrington at a training camp in Ulster University last year. The pair will be reunited with the rest of the Irish team and coaches at the National Sports Campus on Monday. Picture by Hugh Russell
Neil Loughran

IRISH coach John Conlan has backed the country’s Olympic hopefuls to bounce back with a bang when they return to squad training at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown on Monday.

The Irish team was three days into the European qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics back in March when the plug was pulled as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, with all boxers and coaches self-isolating for a fortnight upon their return from London.

Rio Olympian Brendan Irvine managed to secure his spot at a second consecutive Games but there was disappointment for Kurt Walker and Carly McNaul, who bowed out before the competition was postponed.

George Bates, Michael Nevin, Emmet Brennan and Kiril Afanasev had all won through to last 16 clashes scheduled on St Patrick’s Day, while Michaela Walsh, Kellie Harrington and Aoife O’Rourke were eagerly anticipating their first bout at the Copperbox Arena the day after the qualifier came to a premature close.

They will resume their bid for a place at next summer’s rescheduled Olympics when the new qualifier date is announced – most likely in March again, with May expected to see the World qualifier take place in Paris 12 months on from its original date.

For Conlan and the other Irish coaches, it has been a case of managing the boxers’ training regimes in the meantime. And although they have been granted special dispensation to return to Abbotstown on July 20 – 12 days before boxing clubs across the country open their doors – it is still behind some other countries.

The likes of Great Britain, for example, recommenced training at the start of June. Conlan, though, isn’t worried that Ireland’s boxers have been left lagging behind in their Olympic preparations.

“I don’t think so.

“We implemented satellite training programmes, the athletes sent videos of their training sessions, we’ve had conference calls. Apart from the hands-on coaching it’s been business as usual really to try and keep them in a decent mental and physical place.

“We have ticked the boxes in terms of physicality, getting them to do homework on potential opponents. We have watched opponents too so we’ve used the time productively.

“There’ll be plenty of time to prepare for the continuation of the qualifier so I wouldn’t be worrying too much what everybody else is doing. The health of the country and the health of our athletes and their families outweighs any advantage of coming back.

“I’ve seen some teams plans for international training camps in Kazakhstan, Russia, and I think it’s absolute madness. It’s one step forward, 20 steps back. I’m happy enough with how things are being guided.”

And, despite ongoing concerns about whether Tokyo 2021 will still take place in a constantly evolving situation, Conlan remains upbeat.

“I’m a positive person, and the only way a coach can do their job is to focus on what tournaments are potentially coming up and prepare as if they are going.

“With London, deep down, I had been watching a lot of stuff and reading a lot of stuff before and I had to stop because it does affect you.

“We keep working and put our faith in the people who are running these tournaments. If they cancelled it, it would be a huge blow because it’s so difficult to qualify, it’s such a rare competition that potentially some athletes will have missed the boat on it.

“Then you think of other sports, the likes of Rhys [McClenaghan] or some of the other guys already qualified. It would be very difficult and very sad, but I’m working on the basis it is going ahead.”

PIECE TWO

JOHN Conlan could only watch on as son Michael was robbed in Rio, but four years on the Irish coach insists he “still has the Olympic dream at his core”.

A host of Irish boxers have turned over to the paid ranks during recent years, with the likes of James McGivern and welterweight hopeful Paddy Donovan opting to sign pro deals with MTK despite still being in the Tokyo 2020 mix.

Jamie Conlan is MTK’s vice-president, but the father and son are far from warring factions on this front.

“Jamie will tell them to speak to me [if they want to go pro] and I tell them no,” says John.

“Still at my core is the Olympic dream, even though I had a couple of bad experiences of it. I went to a show in Belfast and there was 14 boxers who had gone through our hands, be it with the Irish team or the Ulster high performance. If you were to ask every single one of them, they’ll tell you I told them not to do it.

“You’re telling them ‘you’re a talented athlete, wait your turn, it will come, try and improve’. But if they want to go, they want to go.”

As head coach of the Jordanstown-based Ulster high performance, Conlan admits there will be changes to how that unit functions for the foreseeable future.

“We’ve already written our health and safety and risk assessment protocols and submitted them to Ulster University. It will be a different training system because of numbers and trying to protect everybody.

“The Commonwealth Youth Games have been postponed, the Commonwealth Games isn’t for another two years, so I’m not in a hurry. What I would like is a definite date for the elites this year, or early next year, so we could work with our elites and prepare them for that.

“We need a tournament in the country for all the clubs and coaches to have something to look forward to and to prepare their guys for.

“We have been doing some fantastic work with our youth and junior programme, and we’d like to get that back. How it looks and how it’s going to run will be different, but we’re just working off the guidelines from the IABA and the government up here.

“We had a couple of camps planned that we had to cancel, but we’ve kept connections with the people and we’re very keen to work together – but there’s no way I’m sending a team to Germany when Germany’s having a resurgence at the minute.

“It’s just a waiting game, but I’d rather err on the side of caution rather than put anybody at risk. Even when they relax the restrictions on travel, I might look a bit more local. We get great competition in Ireland, so we might look to work with different regions to stimulate our guys.”

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