Ireland’s boxing captain Darren O’Neill will debut in the Olympic games when he enters the ring in London’s ExCel Arena tomorrow Saturday July 28th.
A former Kilkenny U21 hurler, the 26-year old took a leave of absence from his career as a national schoolteacher in Donaghmede to prepare for the Games.
A one-time understudy of Beijing Olympic silver medallist Kenneth Egan and the late Darren Sunderland, who won bronze at the same Games, O’Neill has since developed into one of Ireland’s most consistent performers, domestically and internationally.
Durable, efficient and an excellent tactician, Darren has beaten some of the best in the world en-route to qualification and is rated inside the world’s top 10 in his division of middleweight (75kgs).
He talks to the Irish Post ahead of his opening bout with Nigeria’s Muideen Akanji.
Ireland qualified one boxer to the 2004 Olympics, then five to Beijing and now six to London. What’s happened?
The High Performance Unit… it was a bit of a shock to the system of Irish boxing when it was set-up because there was no real structure before that but Gary Keegan (Director), Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia (both coaches) developed one. Our performance improved and the culture changed. Instead of just wanting to be national champion, you wanted to win medals internationally. We have seen in recent years how that has come to fruition.
When was the first time you boxed for Ireland as a senior?
It was against Poland at the National Stadium in 2006. It was a special night and a unique occasion for me. I was 21, and I remember the Polish supporters outnumbered the Irish supporters. I only had a few mates from college over but I knocked out my opponent in the third round.
Was that the start?
Well, it was the first time I went down to middleweight. Darren Sutherland was injured and Billy Walsh rang me and said if I could make middleweight I could go to the European Championships in Bulgaria. From there it has been international tournament after international tournament. At this stage I have been to all of them bar the Olympics.
So what has been the highlight so far?
Winning a silver medal at the European Championships in Russia in 2010 and winning a European Union gold medal in 2009. I had been to European and World Championships before and finished short, so to get the medal, against one of the best in the World, was huge.
The Ukrainian, Sergey Derevyanchenko was favourite to win gold. We were at the same training camp before the tournament and people were racing to get out of the ring but I did my one or two rounds with him so I was ready for our quarterfinal. It was such a massive fight to breakthrough into the medals; it meant an awful lot to me.
How have you found the move from full-time teacher to full-time athlete?
I always took the positives out of doing both. I was getting a mental break from boxing when I was teaching and I was getting a break from teaching when I was boxing. I’m the type of boxer that can get frustrated when I’m stuck in a gym all day but this year it was just going to be too hectic. It would have been unfair on me and on my teammates.
How good are your teammates?
Back at the start of the High Performance Unit, there were two or three boxers who had potential internationally, but boxing has developed so much now that the hardest part is getting out of Ireland.
There’s European and world medallist’s sitting at home because they didn’t get the chance to go and didn’t win the National Championships. That speaks volumes.
You were in the shadow of Kenneth Egan at light-heavyweight, then Darren Sutherland at middleweight. How much did they shape your development?
I often joke with Kenny Egan that he can thank me for winning his first significant international medal in 2006 because he had won nothing until I pushed him. I think with Darren, God rest him, I think the fact that I was there to push him on probably helped. I hope it worked both ways.
You have faced a lot of your opponents before, does that help going into the Olympics?
I wouldn’t know all of them but it does take the guesswork away. Having said that, whatever is there is absolute quality.
What is your role as team captain?
I guess I’m a linkman between the team and the management. Saying that, John Joe Nevin and Paddy Barnes are World and Olympic medallists, they have been here before. Michael Conlon and Adam Nolan are fresh, but they are very sure in themselves and Katie Taylor is world class. Everyone is very experienced.
Can you win a medal?
In the last few weeks I have started to get my boxing back to the standard I want it to be at. If I can continue like that and get in a good performance, then anything is possible. That goes for the whole team: We can beat anyone on the day, but the same can also be said for our opponents.
Will you be able to enjoy it?
I dreamed of being an Olympian as a child so there is no point in deciding now that I don’t want to do it. I’m enjoying the journey and I’m going to enjoy what’s coming.
We will try and soak up as much as we can without being blown away by the whole thing. I think maybe when we look back after it’s over we will see how special it was.
-When he’s not preparing for the Olympics, Darren O’Neill is a full-time national school teacher in Holy Trinity Primary School in Donaghmede
-From Paulstown in Kilkenny, O’Neill was the first Irish boxer to qualify for the Olympics
-He is currently ranked as the world’s seventh best amateur middleweight by the Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA)
-O’Neill beat Zang Xiaoping, Kenneth Egan’s Olympic final conqueror, in a multi-nations competition before the 2008 games in Beijing
-O’Neill is a southpaw and leads with his left hand
-He is 16-1 with Paddy Power to win Olympic Gold
-Ireland have won 23 medals in the summer Olympics, with 12 coming from the sport of boxing
-The other members of the Irish boxing team are Katie Taylor, John Joe Nevin, Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlon and Adam Nolan.
-Men’s bouts take the form of three x three minute rounds and are scored on points by judges at ringside
-Darren O’Neill took up boxing after watching Michael Carruth win gold in Barcelona in 1992.
Follow Darren O’Neill on Twitter @DarrenONeil