8 December 2014

Kenneth Egan: Advice to young athletes from the boxer’s corner

Kenneth Egan is a 32-year-old former competitive boxer from Clondalkin, Ireland, elected in May 2014 to a five-year term on the South Dublin County Council, and currently pursuing a diploma and degree in psychotherapy and counseling. Known as one of the country’s most successful athletes, Kenneth won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in the light-heavyweight division and was Irish boxing team captain. He is a 10-time Elite National champion – twice in the middleweight division and eight times in the light-heavyweight division – and a two-time European bronze medalist. Kenneth joined WADA’s Athlete Committee in 2012, and coaches juniors and cadets on the Irish boxing team, and youngsters at his local boxing club in Neilstown.

There’s a wall in the gym of Dublin’s National Stadium on which boxers in the High Performance Program have written inspirational passages and phrases. I’ve spent so many hours training in that gym, that I know them all by heart.

My contribution? “Accept your mistakes, but learn from them.”

That’s me all over. I’ve made many mistakes. I’m not perfect. I don’t think anyone in this world is. But I try to learn from every mistake I make.

My journey from the local school hall in Neilstown to the boxing club in Dublin to the Olympic Podium in Beijing took 18 years, and with it came many ups and downs. But I put the work in and believed in myself.

The big turning point for me came in the 2008 Olympic qualifying year. Two boxers in my weight category tested positive for doping and were eliminated. One doper had qualified for the Games. The other tested positive, and couldn’t compete in the third and last qualifier in Athens.

I secured my place in Athens. Best day of my life! I was on my way to the Beijing Olympic Games to fulfill my childhood dream.

I went on to win a silver medal in Beijing, but the boxing draw and the outcome could have been very different if those two boxers hadn’t been caught. If both had avoided disqualification and represented their respective countries in the 2008 Games, I might not have gotten to a final. But justice was done. Clean athletes fought the good, honest fight, and we deserve our medals.

Every honest, hard-working athlete from all sports deserves a fair shot at success – and not to have any doubt in their mind if an opponent is cheating. I am a very proud Olympic medalist who won through sheer hard work and dedication. I achieved my medal clean. I don’t have to live a lie.

I am also proud to be a member of WADA’s Athlete Committee.

The presence of WADA and anti-doping, spoken about by the Committee and beyond, is very important, and needs to be echoed by as many individuals and organizations as possible. There are so many things wrong with cheating. But sadly, doping still exists. We need to keep the message in the public domain that if you cheat, you will be caught and shamed.

To listen to Frankie Fredericks and see how passionate he is about clean sport, is a wonderful spectacle, and rightly so. For him to achieve what he did – given the many cheats uncovered in track and field these past years – is quite amazing. I was so proud to tell my Dad that Frankie and I are on the same Committee.

I am strongly in favor of the lengthy four-year ban introduced in the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code, and feel athlete entourage accountability and punishment is a godsend.

I sat at the table during the 2015 Code Review and gave my view on anti-doping education and how we can further educate young athletes on making the right decision when confronted with an option to cheat or not.

Having only recently retired, I think I know what athletes want to know and already know about anti-doping, and the best possible way to get the message across to young athletes, such as how important it is to include whereabouts in your training schedule.

Just as it’s important for senior-level athletes to encourage young athletes to stay clean throughout their careers, I also believe it’s important for us to share what we’ve learned from our slip-ups to help them avoid making the same mistakes.

I was in top form at Beijing. At those Games, I went around with a smile on my face. I’d done all the work, so I wasn’t afraid or worried about any outcomes. Whatever happens, happens, I told myself. So straight away, I didn’t feel the pressure of winning fights or medals.

I was totally prepared mentally and physically. The Olympics were my Mt. Everest, and I’d made it to the top.

What I wasn’t prepared for was life after the Olympics.

When the final bell rang in that boxing ring in 2008 and the fight was over, the first thought that came into my head was, “What’s next? What am I going to do now?”

That was a scary place to be. But it was my own fault. I should’ve had a plan in place, studying while I was training. But I felt I couldn’t. I wanted to train all the time. I was a perfectionist.

Athletes who want to pursue their dream to qualify and represent their country at the Olympic Games can easily build in time to study. You can only train 4 to 5 hours a day. Plus, there are online courses now.

It’s about steering young athletes in the right direction. Even if they’re only 15 or 16 years of age, ask them what they want to do after they retire. They need to be thinking that far ahead. Trust me, you don’t want to wait until you’re in the ring and the final bell rings. Having something to fall back on is better than starting from scratch in your early to mid-30s.

There’s a rule in boxing. If the coaches start shouting multiple instructions at you when you’re in the corner, you’re going to forget the lot. So they give you one or two instructions at most – that’s all you need to take in.

These coaches can see more than the boxer can, because they have a wider vision of what’s happening in the ring. With my experiences as an elite athlete, I have a wider vision as well – one that extends beyond the ring.

As a coach and mentor, my first instruction to young athletes – outside of not to dope – is to have a plan in place for when they retire from competition. My second instruction is that they stay focused and enjoy themselves.

For me, when I’m really, really boxing to the best of my ability, I box with a smile on my face. My coaches know that. When I’m happy and relaxed, I box the best.

I find the emphasis on getting kids to perform at a young age a bit too much. Let them enjoy themselves. They don’t have to go out and win medals at the junior level. Let them make mistakes and learn from them. Senior level is the time to shine and flourish.

Embrace it, push yourself at the right time and give it everything you have – that’s what sport is about. Push yourself to the limit, but enjoy yourself.

When I returned home from Beijing, it felt like the media asked me every question under the sun. One question they didn’t ask me: “Was it worth it? All the sacrifice. All the training. All the headaches. The blood, the sweat and tears. Was the Olympic medal worth it?”

What would I say now? Yes it was worth it. Definitely. All of that made me the person I am.