They came because Katie Taylor – Ireland's Katie Taylor – was boxing for the gold medal.
They came because this might be the most perfect Irish story ever, and the Irish love stories. A little kid, mesmerized by her father shadow boxing in their kitchen along the Irish coast, winds up trained by dad in a sport few believed should even be allowed – a girl fight? She turns into the four-time world champion, humble, hard-working, and wrapped, literally, in religion: "The Lord is my Savior and my shield," her robe reads.
"She's an everybody," said 17-year-old Aifric Norton, who flew here with her older brother Aonghus.
They came because, back home, the recession drags on and drags down. And when Katie Taylor hits someone in the mouth it feels, even for a brief moment, like Ireland, too, can hit back.
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"Everybody forgets about the recession when she fights," said Con McDonnell, who flew in with three buddies all wearing "Katie Taylor Made for Gold" T-shirts.
They came because they were the lucky ones who got tickets. "Half of Ireland is here," marveled Barry McGuigan, the old Irish champion. Others just came over to hang around outside the ExCeL Center, stuffing the bars and restaurants in what was once a slum of East London. "There's 1,500 paddies down the road in the pubs," said Graham Regan, noting he knows because that's where he watched Taylor's semifinal victory on Wednesday.
They came because they know back in Taylor's hometown of Bray, in County Wicklow, there were 10,000 people gathered outside to watch on a giant screen. They had to move the viewing to a bigger spot because 6,000 showed up for the semifinal and the town square couldn't hold them all. Across the nation, everyone else just crowded into pubs and living rooms. Many bosses in the city centers of Dublin and Galway just let workers go early rather than pretend they wouldn't sneak off anyway. "The country will stop today," said fan Tony Barrett.
They came because coming had developed into a movement. Each Taylor fight during these Olympics saw the 10,000-seat venue filled with green shirts and homemade signs and Tricolour flags. For the finale, the venue manager estimated 8,000 Irish were in attendance, even with a Brit fighting for gold in a different weight class.
Oh, and the building filled with noise. Lots and lots of noise. Unbelievable amounts of noise. The fans, often these burly men, would sing soccer songs and chant "I-er-LAND, I-er-LAND" and "KAY-t, KAY-t." Louder and louder. This was the wildest scene of the Games, electric and exciting. The International Olympic Committee measured the noise at every session of the Olympics, and nothing matched the decibels of the introduction for a Katie Taylor fight. The second-loudest event was the final seconds of a thrilling Great Britain cycling victory at the Velodrome.
Here, in London, as sure as Katie's fists would be felt, Ireland would be heard.
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They came because of Katie. In a nation of writers, they couldn't dream her up. Every possible positive attribute the Irish want to see in themselves, she delivered. "Talented, modest, unaffected, lovely," the Irish Times wrote. Throw in tough, quick, smart and loyal. "Warrior Hero," the Irish Independent dubbed her.
The most popular athlete in Ireland is female. Where else is that true? Where else could that be true? And it's real, with men, grown men, old and young, coming because of what she can do in the field of competition. There was no stigma. This was boxing. Not women's boxing. Twenty years ago to the day, Michael Carruth – also coached by his father – won gold in Barcelona, making him a forever legend. His gold wasn't any bigger than Taylor's.
The nation's male boxers were contending for medals also. Ireland should win three overall, a great haul for them. None of them are as popular. No one comes close. The men say they aren't even bitter. They love Katie, too. "It's great, I know how hard she trains," said fighter Paddy Barnes, still in the men's semifinals. "It goes to show you, equal rights."
"We are here together as a team," Katie Taylor said. "I watched Paddy fight [Wednesday]. Really unbelievable."
They came with young girls at their side and on their laps. Daughters and granddaughters, nieces and cousins, some just three and four years old.
All these little girls, faces painted, in awe of Katie, in awe of the reaction Katie has produced, in awe of a woman fighter who carries herself with unrelenting pride at competing in a nonfeminine pursuit. I am, she seems to be saying, who I am. From a nation with a difficult history on equality, here was something special.
"That she is female and not male," said 12-year-old Millie Regan, Graham's daughter, "means that we are equal."
They came because so many of them understand equality isn't an obligation but a strength. These aren't the old days. If Ireland is going to get out of its economic plight, out of the banking crisis and real estate collapse, it will need the energy, the talent and, indeed, the fight of all its citizens.
They came because in a nation that has so often intertwined its self-worth with sporting success, Katie Taylor represented something a bit new. Ireland is always the underdog, this rural island home to so much heartbreak. Its success stories are so often about pluck and luck and digging deep. Katie has that, too, of course. All champions do. She also has a killer cross that will flatten you, and she's had it for years. She's claimed four consecutive world championships and five European titles.
Katie Taylor gave Ireland a new feeling, a confidence bordering on cocky. Watch her dominate. Watch her overwhelm. She always wins. The old familiar hope of an upstart was replaced by the powerful sense of strength that comes from cheering on the favorite. This here was proof of Irish might, of Irish fight. No apologies, she's the best.
They came for the gold, which often isn't so likely for Ireland.
"Where our country is at right now," Regan said, "to hear the national anthem at the Olympics, that is what it is all about. There won't be a dry eye in the house, I tell you."
Regan noted the only gold the Irish won at the 2004 Olympics in Athens came in equestrian. "And then the horse failed the doping test," he said before breaking into a big laugh.
"That's pretty Irish in itself."
Not as Irish as this.
Peter Taylor was marveling about all of it the other day. The crowds. The noise. The momentum. The stories from home. The everything.
He's an electrician, 50 years old now. A simple guy who just happened to be a pretty good amateur boxer back in the day. His daughter was an athlete – a star in soccer, rugby, just about anything. She even has professional offers in soccer.
She loved boxing, though. She was 10 and loved it at a time when girls didn't box. The sport wasn't even sanctioned in Ireland, and fathers weren't supposed to teach their daughters to throw a punch, let alone take one. Peter trained her anyway, noting the fitness benefits of the sport.She was a natural. She could hit like a ton of bricks. She seemed to draw strength from the lonely roadwork and endless time mauling a heavy bag. She had the mentality and courage.
Peter began petitioning for women's boxing to gain recognition. "If it wasn't for my dad pushing, women's boxing wouldn't be in Ireland," Katie said. Peter fought for his daughter to fight, even if he, at times, wished she'd just play soccer.
"It's a little safer," Peter said with a laugh. "You play [soccer], you don't play boxing."
Katie kept winning and winning. They went all over the globe for fights. Asia. The Middle East. Anywhere. Peter's daughter won tournament after tournament, title after title. She kept returning with humility, though, putting in her long runs along that misty coast. Slowly, she went from a novelty to a national treasure, the momentum building for the girl-next-door with a jab for the ages.
Then the IOC decided to let women's boxing into the Olympics, the Olympics right over here in England, too, just an hour's flight. Katie and Peter Taylor knew this would be the pinnacle.
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She dreamed of winning gold at age 10, when it wasn't possible. Now, at 26, she wanted this gold, the first gold in the sport, perhaps the only gold for Ireland.
And a nation came along with her.
"I feel like I'm boxing back home in Dublin," Katie said this week, her ability to focus amid the frenzy perhaps the key to this run. "To have the whole nation behind me. Incredible."
"We can't believe this," Peter Taylor said, marveling at the scene here and the stories filtering in of a nation stopping for each four-round fight. "Ireland is in a recession, and people are coming over here …"
He paused for a second.
"Hopefully she is providing a bit of a lift for the country."
Then his eyes began showing some emotion.
"It's a great country," he said. "It's a great country."
They brought Katie out to Rihanna's "Only Girl [in the world]," and the damn roof nearly came off. Katie was dressed in red, hair in a tight braid, Peter on her left shoulder. It was bedlam to the point you could hardly hear her introduced. Russia's Sofya Ochigava was dealing with arguably the most intimidating environment of the Olympics.
The cheers and chants were as strong as ever, but this was a different level of a fight for Katie Taylor. Ochigava had beaten Katie in the past; her skill was respected. "She's a really nice person," Katie also noted later. Once the bell rang, Katie couldn't just fire off straight rights like in her early fights of this tournament. She had to respect Ochigava's speed.
They flash the score after every two-minute round in women's boxing, and after the first it was level, 2-2. The fans began to try to scream off nervous energy, trying to pretend Katie still had this in the bag. She didn't. The second round went 2-1 for Ochigava, giving the Russian a 3-2 lead. Katie was behind. The crowd groaned, but couldn't mount much of an argument.
Then came the third round, and Katie began to find her timing. "I just had to stay relaxed and stick to the game plan," she said. She landed a vicious combo. Then another. She controlled the ring a bit. Ochigava had her moments, but this was the Katie Taylor everyone was waiting for.
The scoreboard flashed 4-1 for the round in favor of Katie. She now led 7-5 overall. The ExCeL Center erupted. The Irish could taste the gold.
Ochigava was unfazed by the crowd's opinion. There was still one last round. She came out and tagged Katie. She walked her down into a corner. There was one exchange in which Katie almost hit the canvas, and the crowd gasped and then exhaled when it was ruled a stumble.
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They chanted louder and louder. "KAY-t, KAY-t." Oh, she couldn't lose. She couldn't. That would be pretty Irish. She fired off a jab and connected. Then she hit again. She was rallying. The crowd surged. The bell rang. The fight was over.
Peter jumped on the ring apron and raised his hands. As Katie came over, he hugged her and kissed her headgear. The score wouldn't matter. Win or lose, gold or silver, this was a father proud of his little girl.
"An unbelievable journey, right?" he said later.
The announcement took forever. The crowd rocked back and forth in anticipation, all nerves and fear. Katie paced the ring. Ochigava did the same. "I didn't know which way the fight went," Katie said. The ref finally gathered them, and the public-address system came to life.
"The winner, by a score of 10-8, the winner and Olympic champion, from the country of Ire … "
You couldn't hear the rest. You didn't need to.
Katie hit her knees. The fans headed toward the sky. Soon, there was a flag in the ring, and a victory lap. The noise just built and built, and if you listened closely enough, you could probably hear it washing in from Bray and Dublin, from perhaps every Irish lung in the four corners of the earth.
"We all cried when they lifted her arm, everyone around us," said Emma Lally, a Bray resident watching with her neighbors outside back home in Ireland. "There were just tears everywhere, screams and jumping up and down."
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A half-hour later, back in the ExCeL Center, they brought out Katie Taylor, sent her up a podium to the highest step, and hung a gold medal around her neck. Soon Amhrán na bhFiann, the Irish national anthem, was playing. Katie stood and smiled. The crowd sang along. As the green, white, and orange were lifted up, Graham Regan's prediction didn't turn out completely true. There might have been one or two dry eyes in the house. Perhaps.
This is why they had come. To celebrate a present-day hero who speaks to a bright future that draws its power from values rooted in the past. "These whole Olympics were made for her," Peter said.
They came for Ireland, resting their joy on the strong shoulders of a single woman, the girl boxer from County Wicklow.
She, in turn, delivered gold and the best kind of Irish sing-along imaginable.
"We came because it's history," Regan said.
They came for the legend of Katie Taylor.
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