'There's been so much shite thrown my way, I've just stuck to the process and got on with it all'
Three months ago Brendan Irvine didn't know if he would be ready for an Olympic qualifier, never mind an Olympic Games, as he battled back from injury heartache. On Monday night, he fought like he had never been away to secure his spot in Tokyo - Neil Loughran talks to a man who is determined to put the pain of past behind him...
FOR those with a long enough memory, the difference was stark. Four years ago, the 19-year-old Brendan Irvine leapt so high even Michael Carruth must have been watching on in awe.
This time, though, eyes raised to the heavens, index fingers pointing towards the sky, Brendan Irvine stepped through the ropes and out into the eerie quiet of London’s Copper Box arena, barely a smile crossing his lips.
In Samsun, Turkey, three months out from the Rio Olympics, a lifelong dream had been realised when he beat Daniel Asenov in a box-off. Coming on the back of a first Irish elite title, European Games silver, multi-nations successes, everything was new, exciting.
The cycle that led him towards a second Olympics has been a different experience entirely – a challenge of mental will as well as physical perseverance.
After returning from the Commonwealth Games a complicated wrist operation kept Irvine out of action for six months and, when he did eventually come back, a freak sparring accident left him with a broken foot as he was preparing for last summer’s European Games.
Sidelined for another four months, being put back into an orthopedic boot for a month following the relief of having it removed after six weeks, and facing a serious period of physio and rehabilitation to get back bouncing around the ring, lesser men would have walked away.
From somewhere, even in his darkest moments, Irvine summoned the strength to carry on.
A few weeks before the Olympic qualifier in London, during an exercise with psychologist Kevin McManamon, the Dublin footballer asked every member of the Irish team to jot down a word they associated with comrades. ‘Resilience’ was the one that reappeared time and again as Irvine’s name was called.
When his hand was raised after overpowering tough Hungarian Istvan Szaka on Monday night, there was no jumping about, no fist pumps, virtually no celebration. Instead, he could only wonder how the hell he even got here.
“I was a bit emotional, to be honest with you,” said the St Paul’s flyweight, who was made captain of the Ireland team by high performance director Dunne.
“Compared to four years ago, it was completely different. Growing up, ever since I started boxing, it was my dream to go to the Olympics. My next dream was to get to the Tokyo Olympics and get that medal, but the whole build-up to both was a world apart.
“The four years before Rio was gruelling, I put everything into it. I moved up from 49 to 52 kilos to qualify, but then this time overcoming all the obstacles, even to get the chance to go to a qualifier, I can’t put that into words.
“Like, I didn’t even know if I was going to get the chance to go to these… I couldn’t walk properly three months ago. I was walking with a limp.
“A month ago, I didn’t know whether I was boxing in trainers or boots. I have insoles in my boxing boots to help. I was as low as you can be at times; only my family and my coaches understand where I’ve been.
“There’s always that wee bit in your mind where you don’t know if you’re going to get back to where you used to be. It was one thing after another there, and you do think ‘maybe it’s just not meant to be’.
“There’s been so much shite thrown my way, I’ve just stuck to the process and got on with it all, but I trusted everything the physios, John [Conlan], Bernard [Dunne] told me – everything they said they stuck by it.
“I’m grateful to them for keeping faith in me. They stood by and fought for me and I appreciate that.”
The mental fortitude developed during those trying times served him well in the bizarre environment in which all the boxers found themselves during the past week.
Uncertainty surrounded the Olympic qualifier from the outset, especially as almost every other event in the immediate sporting calendar fell by the wayside in the wake of the escalating coronavirus crisis.
Just an hour before Irvine was due in the ring, the International Olympic Committee announced that the qualifiers would come to an end at the close of the evening session. The Irish coaches and staff knew, but did their best to shield Irvine ahead of his date with destiny.
“I actually heard one of the bus drivers shouting over to Kevin [McManamon] that it wasn’t going ahead tomorrow. He knew, but when I asked him what the bus driver said he was like ‘nothing, he’s talking bullshit’.
“I could see they are all talking and whispering when I was putting my gear on but they didn’t want to tell me.
“It’s been weird, the whole thing. I was off Facebook, Instagram, Twitter for five days previous so anything I was seeing was on the TV, or if my ones were texting me out of concern, wondering was it still happening.
“John [Conlan] said to me ‘look, we’re here, this tournament’s going ahead, just stay focused’. I managed to do that, even though there was so much going on outside.
“The fact I knew I had just one fight to qualify after the draw was made on Friday, that was probably the main thing that kept me focused – I was within touching distance. It was everything or nothing. I was so tuned in, I wasn’t thinking about anything else.”
In normal circumstances, there would have been a huge party at St Paul’s boxing club to welcome home their hero. Instead, Irvine returned to no fanfare, and is currently holed up in the attic of mum Brenda’s west Belfast house.
“They’re all passing stuff under the door because I’m trying to stay away from my family for a few days. Just in case I was to get any symptoms – we’ve been away for a week, in London, with every country in Europe, so I don’t want to take any chances.”
The Irish team left London first thing on Tuesday morning, so many of their dreams put on hold. Irvine feels fortunate to have his future resolved, and has no doubt he will be part of a strong Irish team by the time the Tokyo Games eventually take place.
“I was grateful to even be in a position to qualify because there were people who didn’t even get the opportunity to box out there. I’m a bit gutted for the team because we were all flying, the performances were showing that.
“Everybody was boxing really well and I know, 100 per cent, we would’ve got more on the plane to Tokyo. But it’s just a matter of time.”