‘I’m a woman, I’m Australian, I’m gay - I’ve been an absolute imposter’: Tricia Heberle on the challenges faced steadying the Irish boxing ship

In her last job, high performance director will lead 10-strong Irish team to Paris 2024

Tricia Heberle took over as Irish boxing's High Performance director last year. Picture by Sportsfile
Tricia Heberle took over as Irish boxing's High Performance director last year. Picture by Sportsfile (Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

THE images and the headlines are burned into our minds by now.

First, there was Billy Walsh being followed by photographers on his way towards the Dublin airport departures gate, bound for a new job and a new life in America after the stresses and strains became too much.

Less than a year out from the Rio 2016 Games, Walsh’s untimely exit would prove a portent of things to come as, from Michael O’Reilly’s failed drug test on the eve of competition to Michael Conlan being cheated out of a second Olympic medal, one disaster followed another.

Bernard Dunne was Walsh’s replacement as the Rio post-mortem clicked into gear but, within four years and not even one full Olympic cycle, he was gone. After all, who could forget the deeply damaging SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) analysis document?

Leaked three months before the delayed Tokyo Olympics, it was scathing in its criticism of the former world champion and the unit he oversaw, containing a series of personal attacks on Dunne’s leadership, interpersonal skills and personality.

Kellie Harrington won gold in Tokyo, Aidan Walsh brought home bronze, but Dunne’s involvement ceased the second the plane home was boarded.

If ever an Irish sport offered a poisoned chalice, it was through boxing; that constant contradiction of international achievement framed by a backdrop of internal turbulence and petty squabbles.

As Team Ireland chef de mission in Tokyo, Tricia Heberle got a better feel for what was going on, but following in Dunne’s footsteps, knowing the difficulties he and Walsh previously had faced, why would anybody put themselves in that position?

“I came into this job with my eyes open wide - that it was going to be a challenge,” she said.

“I follow media, I obviously worked really closely with Bernard from pretty much 2019 and the European Games through the Olympics, and I was aware of the pressures that he was under before we even went to Tokyo, so I wasn’t naive to what I was stepping into.

“But you either spend a lot of time thinking about it, talking about it and being distracted, or you actually look at what you have to do. And I had a very clear picture of what had to be done because that was part of my brief.

“I also knew some of the staff and the boxers from Minsk in 2019 and Tokyo and I’d always had conversations with [Irish head coach] Zauri [Antia] in particular, because I find him absolutely fascinating.

“But I’ve just not been distracted by it. I knew all the time, at any milestone event - particularly selection - we would have noise because we’ve got lots of talented boxers, and we’ve got really passionate people in the club world, and we also have a lot of fathers that coach their athletes. Sometimes that puts them in a difficult situation, but it’s part of the job.

“A performance director has to be able to be there for the good times, maybe deflect attention in the bad times and just try and present a front of professionalism.”

Former Irish head coach Billy Walsh, who is now in charge of Team USA, fears for the future of amateur boxing. Picture by Hugh Russell
Billy Walsh left the Irish high performance unit in 2015 to become head coach in America. Picture by Hugh Russell

A sharp light was shone upon the high performance unit in the weeks that followed the first World Olympic qualifier in Milan back in March – and particularly the decision not to assess 2022 world champions Amy Broadhurst and Lisa O’Rourke for the 66kg on the team heading to the final qualifier in Bangkok.

Broadhurst - through her English-born father - would eventually switch allegiance to Great Britain, dropping back down to lightweight to keep her Olympic dream alive.

Unfortunately for the Dundalk woman it wasn’t to be, while Irish welter pick Grainne Walsh – so controversially denied a Paris place in Milan – sealed the deal at the second time of asking.

Speaking to those inside the system, boxers and coaches, Heberle has provided a steadying hand since taking the job on last year - the final stop in a distinguished career that started on the hockey pitch with her native Australia, competing at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, before moving into the world of coaching, then administration.

But navigating that path has not been without its challenges.

“I’m a woman, I’m Australian, I’m gay - I’ve been an absolute imposter.

“I was probably an imposter when I was chef de mission as well, because everyone looks and thinks there should be someone else who wants to do the job and there probably are lots of people could do the job, but I just got given an opportunity and I’m a professional sportsperson with a company. I know what my strengths are, I also know what my limitations are.

“Like, there’s still people saying what’s an Australian doing as a performance director? That’s my whole point. You can have a whole list and list of reasons why not, I focus on the why. And the why is I understand performance sport, there is a particular recipe that you can apply to every single sport and then you’ve got to tweak it according to what the dynamics and requirements of the sport are.

“I have a confident leadership style, I look at what has to be done and that’s what I did with boxing. I build relationships, I try to provide clarity and then we work very hard.

“What is really beneficial, and I couldn’t have anticipated this, is that every time you get those little successes, you shut the noise down. You know, so there’s all the noise coming into Bangkok with the Amy Broadhurst thing… the Amy situation, for her personally, sorted itself out.”

The boxing team left for Saarbrücken, Germany on Wednesday for a two-week multi-nations training camp as final preparations are fine-tuned, before a few days at home, fond farewells, then off to Paris for the big one.

One aspect that Heberle has helped improve is performance analysis; to ensure potential opponents are scouted and assessed properly, an area where she felt there were “a few gaps”.

“We are doing the best scouting of opposition fighters that we’ve probably done, and I’m confident in saying that.

“We’re doing more work with the coaches than the athletes to get them interested in not just looking at their own performances, but looking at some of the opposition fighters and that work then helps us when we’re looking for sparring partners.

“So what we get in Saarbrücken, we’ve not fought against Australians, let alone spar. There’s 12 of them now. We can think maybe the Australians aren’t at the top level, but we don’t know and you don’t want to find out in the first round or the second bout.

“The Australians being there with the full team, that gives us an opportunity to work against them and there could be a different style of fighting that we’re not used to. We do a lot of fighting and sparring with the Europeans, USA are there and any time the US are anywhere, the Cubans are there, which is fantastic for us.

“We’ve got India coming in and then a whole lot of smaller countries, a couple from the Philippines, Norway, Sweden, Mongolia and all those sort of random countries allow us to pick three or four different spars for every for every athlete.”

And once that is over, the hard work will all have been accounted for.

These are the moments when those involved in elite sport become immersed in the job at hand. Four years of building, and it all comes down to this. That is why, despite the various controversies that have muddied the reputation of the Olympics down the decades, Heberle still finds the magic of the greatest show on earth intoxicating.

“I was a young kid in a small country town in west Australia called Albany, and my first memories of the Olympics were Montreal - the Australian men’s hockey team won a silver medal, we all slept in the lounge room on the floor, stayed up and watched.

“I was just a kid that had an Olympic dream. At that point, women’s hockey wasn’t even in the Olympic Games, so I’m not sure what I was aspiring to, but eventually it came in.

“There is just something about the Olympics and, as an adult and then someone that’s gone on to work in high performance sport, you can almost blank out all the controversy and everything that happens with the IOC [International Olympic Committee].

“There’s just something about the biggest sporting event in the world, bringing together some of the world’s best athletes in every single sport. I’m not even sure what it is, but it’s magic.

“And yeah, there are huge challenges for the IOC and we’re going to see more and more attempts to change what the Olympics is - if you look at some of the sports they’ve added to the programme and you look at the agenda with E-Sports, then they’re talking about Los Angeles flipping athletics to the first week and swimming to the end... they’re trying lots of different things because they want to stay very relevant.

“But yeah, I was like any other kid; I just wanted to be at the Olympics.”