Carly McNaul determined to come back for another crack after latest setback

Carly McNaul (right) and Niamh Early were both in the mix for the 51kg spot on the Irish team bound for the proposed World Olympic qualifier - until the qualification process was changed. Picture by Mark Marlow
Neil Loughran

THE comeback is always better stronger than the setback, they say. Nobody has heard these words, or had more experience of what they mean, than Carly McNaul.

She should be fed up. God knows there have been times when she was, especially in the past few year between injuries and disappointments outside the ring.

But McNaul is made of tougher stuff than the average sportsperson, an incredible inner drive to be the best she can be always leading her back to the well.

Her boxing career started in unusual circumstances, initially lacing up gloves in Belfast at 14 before her parents moved to Australia. Living in the outback, the nearest boxing gym was three hours away but still McNaul continued to fight when she could – once even picking up a $200 cheque after an exhibition bout.

The odyssey continued upon her return home, boxing at every weight below 70 kilos and picking up tips and tricks at various different clubs across the city. Quite where her nomadic journey was going, though, she wasn’t sure.

A broken hand sustained the week before the 2018 Ulster Elite final against Ceire Smith – a virtual qualifier for the following April’s Commonwealth Games – looked to put paid to that dream. She fought, but Smith’s hand was raised.

When John Conlan called offering her the chance to come up and train with the Ulster elite squad, though, McNaul jumped at the chance. She would go on to become one of Team NI’s surprise packets on the Gold Coast, steamrolling her way to a silver medal.

The Olympics was the next goal. When illness forced her out of the 2019 Irish elites, which Smith won, the Cavan woman was in pole position for a crack at reaching Tokyo – until bad luck struck her down too, a broken thumb ruling Smith out of the European Olympic qualifier in March 2020.

This was McNaul’s opportunity, but the window was too short. Parachuted into the middle of a training camp in Italy, one which was cut short due to the looming threat of some mystery virus, she needed more time to prepare for such a career-defining moment.

After the devastation of defeat to England’s Charley-Sian Davison, McNaul considered packing it all in. What was the point? Typically, though, she came back. Then the one remaining avenue of qualification was shut off back in February, leaving the three fighters vying for the 51kg spot – McNaul, Smith and Niamh Early – short-changed.

That just compounded a difficult start to 2021, one beset by injuries and operations. Since March, McNaul has been on crutches as a result of a fractured femur, while an eye operation earlier in the year following surgery to repair torn tendons in her hand.

“I was told that if the crack gets any bigger I’d need a hip replacement,” she said of the fracture.

“I’m not to put any pressure on my leg so we can see if it starts knitting back together. It was one of those things where I’d been sore for ages, I was just ignoring it because there was me and two others at my weight all going for the one place. I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way.

“Then one day I was just doing a warm-up and the pain actually made me drop to the floor, that was a wake-up call. That was my body saying ‘right, that’s enough’.”

And the eye? The weak of stomach are advised to stop reading now.

“I had four scars on my cornea from boxing and it was just getting worse. It wasn’t to do with my vision, my vision was good, it was just the damage on the cornea… if I got a dig on the eye it could have been all blurry and not able to see. I was sparring one day and the next morning I couldn’t open my eye with the pain I was in.

“I ended up going to the hospital, the eye clinic scraped layers off my eye then they lasered it… it was the most horrible surgery. I would never wish it on my worst enemy.

“I was awake through it, they put an eye drop in which is meant to freeze the eye, but I could actually smell my flesh burning. For three days after I was in a serious amount of pain, the whole thing was awful.”

Throw in the news of a qualifying rejig that ruled her out of the Olympics once and for all, and the year so far would be best consigned to history. But Carly McNaul doesn’t work that way.

After some dark days early on, she was posting videos on Facebook of herself doing upper body training and shadow boxing, the crutches on the floor. Now 31, thoughts have already turned towards life after boxing – coaching and counselling just some of the options in her head, both of which would suit her skills and experience.

Those considerations are for another day though, the boxing bug still biting despite all that has been thrown her way. And with the World Championships at the end of this year, and the Commonwealths in Birmingham in the summer of 2022, McNaul is not short of targets.

“I’m just doing strength and conditioning now, which is okay because I’m working on stuff I would never have worked on before, so when I do go back I’ll probably be in better shape and stronger than I have been.

“The Olympics was a disappointment but then God love Ceire Smith too – at least I got my chance. I got to go a qualifier. She had no luck.

“I’m not sure what the future holds at the minute - there’s a lot of people want me to go pro. My style would suit it, but I don’t know.... do you know what my plan is right now? Getting off these crutches, hopefully win the Irish then go to the World Championships.

“If I can’t go to the Olympics I wouldn’t mind being a world champion. I’ve been in the wars the last few years but what can you do? I’m not planning on giving up just yet, all I can do is take it one step at a time… or one hop at a time the way I am at the minute.”

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