Sonia O’Sullivan: Watching Katie with other excelling Irish athletes a moment to treasure

The Irish House in Flagstaff, Arizona, was a hotbed of boxing supporters on Saturday

Another Saturday morning waking up at high altitude and it starts out a day like any other. Wordle, then a quick check through The Irish Times online to catch up on any news from home.

I've been based at Flagstaff in Arizona in recent weeks – just over 2,000m above sea level, and exactly eight hours behind Ireland. Across time zones like that you often feel like you're playing catch up on something, including any emails than landed overnight from the evening before.

Over the weekend I was staying at what was dubbed The Irish House, the base for a group of Irish athletes training here too, including Michelle Finn from Cork, and other Dublin Track Club (DTC) athletes who were also racing at the famed Penn Relays on the Friday night.

They were part of another world record attempt on the 4x1-mile relay, Paul Robinson, Andrew Corcoran, Sean Tobin and Hiko Tonoso Haso, plus DTC coach Feidhlim Kelly, chasing the 15:49.08 set by Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O'Sullivan, Frank O'Mara and Ray Flynn during their heroic effort at the Goal fund-raiser in Belfield back in 1985.


That time already survived a record attempt the previous week, the Duck track club in Oregon running 15:52.05. At Penn Relays, the On Athletics club clocked 16:04.69, DTC second in 16:10.04, still exciting racing.

From the front page of The Irish Times I was quickly reminded of the Katie Taylor versus Amanda Serrano fight coming up later in the day. I'd forgotten it was all happening already, and worked out the fight would take place at around 7pm Pacific time.


[/CROSSHEAD]I messaged a friend from Cobh who lives in New York to get some sense of the build-up and excitement, surprised to hear she was unaware of the fight too. That promptly changed as she went checking for tickets, and within minutes we had a group chat set up called Boxing Friends.

That morning I was driving with Michelle to Cottonwood track, a few hundred metres lower in altitude, for the morning track session, and the messages were flying in, a bit of hype building too.

I’ve found over the years away there’s no greater link for Irish people than to have a common interest to connect and engage with, especially a sporting event.

On the track it was all about the running, Madison Square Garden would have to wait until later in the day. On the way back up to Flagstaff we decided on a quick diversion to visit a local tourist spot named Devils Bridge, across the red dirt paths and rocky steps in Sedona, which we reckoned might take an hour or so and ended up taking two, still well worth it. It's an equally stunning and frightening spot, especially watching people run across, Michelle and I happy to take our time, still feeling the thrill.

From there it was straight back to The Irish House and the imminent return of the DTC from Philadelphia. The chicken and potatoes were in the oven, vegetables all ready to go, and the talk soon turned to the Taylor fight.

Michelle admitted she's not so keen on boxing, and everyone has their own opinion on it, as is their right. Still there was no denying the significance of this professional women's fight attracting so much attention in New York City, Ireland and around the globe.

It felt like Katie’s chance to once more break through the glass ceiling, just like she did way back in 2012 at the London Olympics.

So began a mad scramble to find some coverage. The best I could find was the RTÉ newsfeed with play-by-play updates, and as the DTC athletes arrived in mid-fight dinner would have to wait.

Reading aloud the updates, along with messages from the Boxing Friends, all tuned into New York, the updates weren’t looking good in the fifth round.

Then Paul stumbled across a livestream, which went straight up onto the iPad. It’s amazing how quickly two-minute boxing rounds can go by, or maybe not so quickly if you’re in the ring waiting on the bell to ring.

It was absorbing, especially when things started to look a lot more positive in the sixth round, the live stream now up and running on the big TV. The DTC were all giving the expert comments, cheering and throwing air punches, I was thinking I was better with the RTÉ updates giving a clear picture of what was going on.

The US commentary wasn’t helping as we all seemed to move and sway and duck with every punch.

My brain has always worked much better with objective competition, like say who is actually winning the race here. With the subjective it’s never clear or maybe I am watching with my eyes half closed.

What was clear was Katie standing tall, holding her ground and fighting back, and we were all back in the game.

There is an energy to watching a fight, as if you are moving with the flow of the fight, trying to keep track, without being distracted by the bruising and cuts and blood. It takes your breath away as the clock slowly ticks down on every passing round. Then just like that it’s all over.

We all took a breath, stood back and waited for the final scores to be read out, amazed and exhilarated the buzz and energy reverberated across the time zones.

To have been in New York at Madison Square Garden would have been a very special memory to treasure. Even to have witnessed the fight from afar, with Irish athletes all chasing their own dreams and inspired by Katie, certainly stands as one of those moments where you remember forever. Where you were, who you were with.

We all had an extra spring in our step the next morning, the athletes getting back into their own mode of training, and own goals to chase. It’s a different level and a very different sport, but it felt like they might a bit braver and stronger than the day before, given what was witnessed.

Katie proved again that no dream can be too big, and for the Irish athletes the work is done and time now to line up and run some objective races on the track, fly the Irish flag in Los Angeles this weekend, all chasing World and European times for the summer championships that lie ahead.