Sport

Wuhan, London and lockdowns - Gerry Storey taking the jab and rolling with the punches

Gerry Storey was in Wuhan two months before the first coronavirus case was identified and attended the ill-fated European Olympic qualifier in London - just as the pandemic was beginning to take hold on these shores. Life has been strange ever since but, as Neil Loughran finds out, the veteran trainer has never been one to let anything keep him down…

Gerry Storey is looking forward to the day when he can get back to boxing coaching, with clubs across the country having been shut for most of the last year. Picture by Hugh Russell
Gerry Storey is looking forward to the day when he can get back to boxing coaching, with clubs across the country having been shut for most of the last year. Picture by Hugh Russell Gerry Storey is looking forward to the day when he can get back to boxing coaching, with clubs across the country having been shut for most of the last year. Picture by Hugh Russell

IT wasn’t the first time in a long, distinguished career that Gerry Storey found himself at the eye of a storm - this time, though, he managed to get out of dodge just before untold chaos came calling.

The 84-year-old received his first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine last month, and is eagerly awaiting the call for his second shot in the coming weeks.

After “playing the game” and limiting personal contacts for much of the past nine months, the light at the end of the tunnel – the one Storey never lost sight of, even during the darkest days of the pandemic - is finally starting to feel closer.

Yet in October 2019, the legendary Holy Family coach was in Wuhan – the epicentre of the Covid outbreak. He was there helping out Michal Erpelding, the Luxembourgian heavyweight who has been part of Storey’s famed north Belfast stable in recent years, at the World Military Games.

A couple of months down the line, on December 1, the first case of the mysterious coronavirus was identified, and within weeks China was on high alert.

Phylogenetics experts have since estimated that the virus may first have surfaced in October or November, and the Huanan food market widely reported to have been the focal point at the beginning is just a half hour drive from the city’s sports university where Erpelding was lacing up gloves – with Storey in his corner.

In the months that followed, and well into 2020, several athletes who had competed at the World Military Games claimed they had been struck by the symptoms of Covid-19 while in Wuhan, including Erpelding’s Luxembourg team-mate, triathlete Oliver Gorge.

Gorge claimed that Wuhan was a "ghost town" when he went for a cycle in the city, while also saying that he had his temperature recorded on arrival at the airport while athletes were told to wash their hands when entering the canteen.

Storey recalls a similarly eerie atmosphere.

“We were staying quite near a motorway and I remember going out one night and there wasn’t a car on the road. This was probably only about eight or nine o’clock, yet you could see for miles down the road and there was just… nothing.

“I thought that really odd.”

For Storey, though, the European Olympic qualifier in London last March – where Erpelding had been due to fight before the event was postponed just three days in – was the real wake-up call.

“At that time in Wuhan, there was no sense of anything happening… it was only in the weeks and months after it became what it was.

“To me London was the worst of the lot because even though there was an awareness of what was going on, people weren’t wearing masks, they were just running about as if it was any ordinary day. I couldn’t get over that… I couldn’t get out quick enough.”

Since he arrived back on home soil in mid-March, no more chances have been taken.

For a man whose life has always been dedicated to boxing and family, 2020 was a strange one.

The Holy Family club is a home from home yet he has seldom been there, while his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have largely kept contact from a distance.

“That’s tough enough.

“I’ll watch where I’m going, if I go for a dander I’ll go late in the evening, things like that. I’m on my own in the house and nobody else is allowed in.”

His late wife Belle used to laugh when they were out in company and the conversation would turn towards the latest goings-on in TV soap operas. Rarely in the house, Storey would be blissfully unaware what they were talking about.

“We’d be in the National Club and they’d have all been dropping names from Coronation Street… what do you call the other one?”

Eastenders?

“I don’t even know the names of them. Belle would’ve nudged them and said ‘ask Gerry about that again’. I was never in the house at that time. As she always used to say, when I married him first I looked at the clock when he went out, now you’ve to look at the calendar, you don’t know when he’s coming back.

“That’s the truth. Even before all this, I’ve never been in the house like this - never. I’m used to being in the club every day, twice a day sometimes. I’d have thought nothing of travelling anywhere in Ireland and back on the same day, I’d be all over the place.

“Thankfully I still haven’t seen them [soap operas]… are they still on?”

More than ever Gerry, more than ever.

“Ha ha, well there you go. I didn’t even know that. But I can keep myself entertained alright. Some of the coaches will still ring me and we’ll talk boxing, talk training, different things where the fight game’s concerned.

“The boxers can do plenty with no boxing going on, on their own, working on different tactics, things that can be done over the phone or whatever. I can talk boxing morning, noon and night, that doesn’t annoy me. It keeps me going too.

“When I’m not doing that I’ll sit and watch old westerns, sit on late and lie on late. That’s the way I’m getting through the day.”

In his heyday, Storey was Irish Olympic coach, leading teams at Games in Munich (1972), Montreal (1976) and Moscow (1980). However, he fears that the class of 2020 – or 2021 as they will be remembered – could miss out on the experience of a lifetime.

“I can’t see it,” he says when asked about this summer’s rescheduled Tokyo Games.

“I wouldn’t build up anybody on anything like that the way things are. The number one priority is to get this virus done and dusted, if that’s it then everything can start again afresh.

“You don’t want to give athletes false hopes. It’s not fair.”

He hopes he is wrong of course but, for now, Storey is looking forward to the day when life for him and everybody else gets back to what it once was.

At no stage has he allowed himself to get downhearted, instead clinging to the belief that the pandemic can’t last forever.

“I always felt there was a light at the end of the tunnel. What’s the point in being downbeat? Where will that get me?

“From the very start I had it in my head this thing was going to take a year at least. Now it’s looking like more than that, but we’re getting there. The lockdowns, these things you have accept - and I do accept them.

“It’s too serious, and everybody has to play their part to help us get out the other side.”