“How am I doing?”
On Saturday night, during the National Elite Boxing Championships, Judy Bobbett needed reassurance. The bout was to decide the national title in the 81kg+ category, but so new to the sport was Bobbett that boxing’s scoring system still caused confusion.
Her coach, Trevor McMahon, reassured her. “He said I was okay.”
He was right. Bobbett went on to defeat Shauna Kearney in a unanimous 5-0 decision to win the Irish title. It was just her second-ever bout.
That night in the National Stadium, Bobbett was more than all right, and not for the first time in her sporting career. She’s played football for Meath and rugby for Leinster and Ireland. Yet off the pitch and outside the ring, that question hasn’t always had such a positive answer.
The Ashbourne native has been vocal in the past about her mental health. She has twice spent time at the St John of God psychiatric hospital, such was her struggle with depression and anxiety. As much as rugby was the dream, Bobbett’s experience in Ireland camp exacerbated issues that had been prominent since she was a child.
“Growing up, I was a happy person but I had these deep, deep drops in mood and I don’t think they were ever dealt with,” explains Bobbett. “[There was] a lot of social anxiety. I used to go into Ireland training and I’d be there for an hour. They would be weekend-long camps and I wouldn’t even make it past the Friday, I’d have to go home.
“It’s so disappointing, you’re sitting around at weekends going, ‘I should be at camp’; you’re caught up in your own mind.”
Bobbett, a secondrow, earned her three Ireland caps during the pandemic-curtailed Six Nations campaign of 2020. When Ireland’s match with Italy was called off and the country subsequently went into lockdown, that was the end of her playing career.
An identity crisis followed. Such was her affinity to the oval ball game, Bobbett gave up an intercounty career with Meath just as Vikki Wall et al were starting their journey to All-Ireland success.
“When I stepped away I felt like my identity had gone. I was in Ashbourne and before anyone knew me, people there knew rugby was my thing. I didn’t want to step away, I felt like I let people down and didn’t get as far as I thought I would.
“Part of me felt embarrassed, I was so obsessed with rugby. For my sixth-year holiday in 2019, I was over in Santa Ponsa. I got a call halfway through telling me I’d made the Leinster team and I’m not even joking but I flew home two days early just so I wouldn’t miss the first training session. That’s how obsessed I was.”
By contrast, after stepping out of a team environment that caused social anxiety, Bobbett has developed a much healthier relationship with boxing, an individual sport.
“Rugby clashed with it [mental health struggles] quite a lot ... I cared so much about what other people think. I had to be friends with this person, I felt like I had to go out, coffee dates, swimming after training.
“My long-term girlfriend, Rebecca, when I took up boxing she was very scared, she had seen what rugby had done to me. She was very worried about that happening again. So was I – I have an obsessive thing about sport. I think she had to trust me and I had to trust myself.
“Before, when I flew home from my sixth-year holiday, in hindsight that probably was not healthy. There is a line and I probably crossed it a few times. There would be times if I had training that evening at seven or eight o’clock, with Leinster or Ireland or whoever, I wouldn’t do anything that day, I’d be so focused on that training session.
“My auntie got married in 2018 and I missed the after-party for training. Now, I realise if I want to to book a holiday, I don’t mind missing a week of training, I’ll train while I’m there. I’ve developed a healthy devotion to it which has been tough. I’m lucky I’ve done that.”
During the pandemic, many struggled with social isolation. Given her anxiety, sometimes the reverse was true for Bobbett. “We got called in and were told the country was going into lockdown. It sounds so bad looking back, but I was delighted.
“The World Cup qualifiers were coming up, everyone thought we would qualify for the World Cup in New Zealand, we were nearly jumping the gun. The IRFU were talking about it, ‘Make sure you’ve two months off, people in work or college.’ What I was fixated on was, ‘Jesus, I’m gonna have two months stuck in this group.’ I’ve great friends but I didn’t want to be in the group.
“Covid, there were two parts to that story. Rugby was gone, that was great for me but it was a shitty time for everyone. Covid kicked off in March, I went into John of Gods in October . It was building up for years, I don’t think I ever dealt with it. One day it builds up and that’s it. I wouldn’t blame Covid but it definitely accelerated things.
“Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. I got the help. It wasn’t a straight road, I had to go back in 12 months later. That’s how much I progressed that I noticed myself dipping, my girlfriend noticed. Before I would have waited until I got very bad. I hope I never have to go back but it’s comforting knowing it’s there, it’s not that bad when you go in.”
Just weeks after she left hospital for a second time, Bobbett turned to boxing. The sport didn’t run in her family, but still she decided to commute from Ashbourne in Meath to Liberty Boxing Club in Bray.
That particular Wicklow town and boxing? Despite an apparent strange choice of sport, Bobbett’s inspiration is relatively easy to guess: “Any boxer of this era, the reason you join is Katie Taylor.”
Bobbett’s coach, McMahon, is Taylor’s brother-in-law. Even with the connection, the two have yet to meet.
“When she won the gold, I remember exactly where I was watching it. I was in my house. I remember that day so vividly. It’s mad how much it affected me. In 2012 I was 12 – a full 10 years later, her winning gold drove me there.”
Fourteen months on from Bobbett’s second stint in hospital, she hasn’t looked back. Mental health journeys have no end point, but she is now looking forward to trips to watch her beloved Arsenal, a summer in Canada and emigrating abroad with her girlfriend. That is, if her national title doesn’t bring with it higher boxing honours.
“This is where I’ll get in trouble with Rebecca,” jokes Bobbett. “If Team Ireland happens that puts this [emigrating] on hold. She’ll stick by me no matter what happens but I’m conscious it’s her life too.”
The 81kg+ division is not an Olympic category and Bobbett has no plans to drop down to 75kg any time soon, so any hopes for Paris 2024 have been put to one side. Still, the fact that Bobbett is able to have such a conversation offers perspective on where the journey has taken her.
“November just gone there would have been two years since hospital, the first time, and that can be triggering, like ‘Jesus, am I going to go in a third time?’ The coping skills I learned in there worked.
“To get through this November was my goal – I am happy with that.”
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