In uncertain times, Ceire holds on to her Olympic dream
PAUL FITZPATRICK spoke to boxer Ceire Smith, who is by her own admission entering the final stretch of her career but is as determined as ever.
Q: Did you get your injuries sorted? The last time I spoke to you, you were in a cast?
A: Yes, I did indeed. I had a different cast fitted a week after the Anglo-Celt Sports Awards and then I had that taken off - I was only in the cast for four weeks, so it wasn't too bad. It was a break - I broke my thumb. It was a good clean break and I displaced the bone but it was a good job because they were saying, 'right, we can wire it but then you're opening skin so we'll just try to put it back into place', which they did, but it paid off, in fairness, because I have had loads of time for it to heal.
Q: Do they have to give you a local anaesthetic for that?
A: No, I just told them to fire away - it was done in about ten minutes, there and then. It was broken for about a week. He put it back in, as best he could, but you can still see the break. I've got the cast off, the stents off and I'm doing all the hand-mould stuff with the putty but I haven't been punching with it because I haven't been back training and I haven't been able to do pads with Brian [McKeown, trainer] because of the whole social-distancing and isolating at home but I imagine now that it should be fine. It's getting stronger, 100pc.
Q: How exactly did it happen?
A: I was sparring the Italian number one at a training camp and there were probably about 12 girls there at my weight for the European qualifiers in London - the task was that I was only allowed to use my lead hand but she was free to use both hands.
I'm not kidding, I landed one of the best shots I've ever landed and almost took her head off with it. I knew straight away. I knew it cracked and I went, "ah, shit!"
I took the hand out and looked at it and went, "hmm" but I actually did another round after that and finished the session. I though if the swelling goes down it's grand, it's not broken, but it wasn't and I kind of knew myself because I was pushing it, poking at it, and I could feel it move - the bone.
I knew I had done it damage and rang Brian, arranged for an X-ray. I was absolutely heart-broken. I flew home on the Wednesday and the first case of the virus in the north of Italy was on the Friday. So, I was home before it ever really started over there but in the qualifying, in London, six people from the boxing got the virus - three from Croatia and, I think, three from Turkey.
Q: So, that qualifier went ahead and then they pulled it halfway through?
A: They pulled the qualifier halfway and the girl who took my place was the number two and I won't lie; obviously, I wasn't wishing her the best of luck but she qualified and that put me out of the next qualifier. I was sick watching it, she got a bye into the last 16, which meant that she had to win two fights and she was qualified, or if she won the first but lost the second she had a box-off to qualify - I was sick when I saw the draw!
Then, she got an English girl, who hadn't boxed internationally in seven years. She was a youth, junior medallist but she hadn't boxed in years and is a mother of two, or three, and was coming back at about 26, and I thought: 'Oh, my, god - she's gonna walk it, she couldn't not walk it!' But she got dismantled and took two counts.
Q: Was that division finished out then?
A: It wasn't finished out. She would've met Sandra Drabik of Poland in the next fight, which, if she had won, she wouldn't have beaten her. Definitely, wouldn't have beaten her. That competition now will be picked up where it left off.
Q: So, that leaves you with one more qualifier for the Olympics.
A: Yes, the world qualifier but we don't know when they're going to pick back up. I was watching in the news that with contact sports, it might be even further down the road to start up than other sports.
That qualifier, though, has to finish because the Pan-Ams also have to go on because the Asian qualifier finished. What happens then is that the top six finishers in that European qualifier [go through]. It would've been amazing to be there - I won't lie - but the top six can't enter the next qualifier.
The continental qualifiers have to finish before the world qualifiers can go ahead. So, the top six in Europe can't enter the next one. It's the same in the Asian and Pan Am and Africa. The African qualifiers are finished and the tournament I came back from in Bulgaria: the Moroccan girl I beat five-nil won gold in the African qualifiers - she's qualified for the Olympics.
Q: So, will it be a higher standard to qualify, next time, or will it be lower?
A: It'll be harder because all of a sudden, you have the mix: you have all the Asians that haven't qualified in there, same with Europe. You'll have them all coming together. It'll be harder but it's all on the luck of the draw - I can't stress that enough. You could meet the world champion in your first fight, or you could get a nice draw, or an average draw, or get someone who hasn't boxed, at all, at an international elite level in six, seven, years. I've never gotten that draw [laughs]! I really haven't!
Q: Are you able to do any training, running, or anything like that?
A: I am and I'm back training but I'm at home and I can't train with Brian. I have been running and doing my strength-work at home, shadow-boxing and anything I can do. I'm kept very much in the link with the high-performance people in Dublin and everything has to be videoed, if you're doing sessions at home.
It'll probably have to be another All-Ireland, too, for selection, so I have to keep everything ticking over.
Q: So there’s a lot of uncertainty for you at the minute.
A: Yes and with the university, UCC, too because I've been on to them and I don't know what's happening in that I'm starting my Masters in September. It's all up in the air. I deferred that since last September but they mightn't be able to go ahead. It might be online. It's hard to know.
In one way, it's an absolute godsend, in that I have time for my hand to heal, get the cast off, be back training, but it's different when you go to land a punch. That's probably the best test: when you get back in punching with it - and it's my lead hand, my right hand. That's a positive, I suppose!
Q: Have you ever had a hand injury before?
A: Would you believe it that when I was wrapping my hand that day, for the sparring, that I had my left pro-wrapped because I was sure that my knuckle was going to break soon. I was kind of waiting on it and I hadn't wrapped my right hand to the same extent because I had no injuries to it but I ended up breaking my right thumb that day. But on hand injuries; I broke my wrist in the training camp for the 2012 in Germany. French girl. I had the cast taken off two weeks before the qualifier for the Olympics in China.
Q: How common are hand injuries for boxers?
A: I'll be honest, not really in my division. Usually it's in the heavyweight division. Anyone who hits really hard, they get a lot of hand injuries but I hit hard for my weight, so that's probably part of it. Shoulder injuries would be big - which I've had - I could write the book on it, at this stage. It's one of the worst injuries I've had: detached labrum on my left shoulder and that took the guts of 12 months to heal.
Q: How did the pain of getting your thumb put back in, compared to other pain you've experienced in the ring?
A: When you're in the ring, the adrenaline is going, and you take a punch but you only think about it for a split-second because you have to keep going - you have that mentality to just carry on. So, you don't really feel it, with the adrenaline, until afterwards when you're going, "hold on a minute, this is sore".
But with the thumb it was bearable, I knew it would heal. Heartbroken is an understatement for when it happened. I cried the way home and on the plane where people were, maybe, thinking that someone had died. It couldn't have been at a worse time but I'm over the worst of it. I can't complain and I'm back running.
Q: If you're doing a 10km run, what time do you have in your mind?
A: We usually aim for about 6km and anything after that you're not really worried about. I know with 5km it'd be about 20 minutes. When I'm on the track, I'm doing 800s in 2:40 with a minute's rest. It's more about speed and recovery, with your one minute in between. At the minute, the slow runs and jogs are fine but the difference, when I go back on the track, in trying to do an 800-metres in 2:40 and hold that consistency is really hard.
But Brian's been with me from day one and any injuries that I've come back from, he's always been there - he's one of the biggest motivators to keep going. It makes it possible, in that someone else believes in you that you can do it.
Brian is by far my main influencer. He has stood by my side throughout every injury and pushes me every day to be the best. So my determination is always reinforced by his belief in me. That’s what makes my training both enjoyable and worthwhile. At the end of the day, our club doesn’t look like much but we get results from our hard work and belief.
The HP has done an incredible amount for me but in all honesty I wouldn’t be there only for the hard work of Brian.
Q: Looking at it, from the outside in, you've been so unlucky...
A: All I can do about bad luck is laugh about it. For the first Olympic qualifier I broke my wrist. In 2014, I missed it for surgery. In 2016, I came back and… I won't even... that kills me.
Q: What's your gut feeling about what you're going to do with your Masters?
A: If it's deferred for a year I'll give the boxing a lash and if they don't I'm going to take my studies because I'll lose my place in the programme. because when I did the interview for that, there were 147 applicants but only 30 places. It's an MSC in Physiotherapy. If I lose that, I'm stuck over in England or Scotland for two years and I don't want that.
Q: Could you still attempt the Olympic qualification while doing the Masters?
A: I've spoken with Bernard Dunne about this and he said that if I was going to lose my place then to complete the course and they would work around it but in my heart I know what it's like - I did my undergrad in Dublin, training twice a day. I got the honours degree and a 2:1 but I could've gotten a 1:1 if I hadn't been trying to balance both.
I feel that I want to come out with a good Masters and not just an average one. So, it'll be one or the other because I'm not going to go down that line again with the stress and heartbreak but I want to give the studies a fair chance, 100%. And it's the same with the boxing, when you're sitting up doing a 5,000-word assignment after training it doesn't help. So, it'll be one or the other.
Q: Would you consider going professional?
A: No, definitely not. I'm boxing since I was 14 years old so it might be time to draw the line and finish my studies but I would like to stay involved in the sport, absolutely - I really enjoy coaching and travelled with so many teams and did so many people's corners.
It's really nice and I'd like to keep that element. I was speaking to some of the people down in UCC who were saying I might come down and coach and get involved. I thought, 'if you'll have me, yeah'.
So, I think that's going to be on the to-do list when I get down there. I will stay involved, definitely, whether I'm at home or down in Cork in the university. It's just routine for me at this stage because I've been doing it twice a day for the last 10 years.
Q: If UCC say they can't defer, potentially, could you have boxed your last fight then?
A: I won't say that. I spoke with Bernard who said I had the option of the All-Ireland so that if I was still number one and won the All-Irelands that they would back me because they know how hard I train. I think UCC will, too, because they've a lot of athletes, they've all the rowers and sailing and so on based there, so I'm not the only athlete whose putting stuff off for the Olympics and I hope they understand.
Q: Are their any other fighters in Cavan in line for a big breakthrough this year?
A: Thomas Maughan and Eamon Maughan, the two brothers. Eamon, the younger lad, is boxing really well. He would've had a championship coming up. He had the Ulsters and the All-Irelands coming up, and Thomas, as well.
I know that in the last seniors, he lost to Kevin Sheehy, who died, a lovely lad, gentleman. That was who beat Thomas in his last all-Ireland and he went on to win it outright. So, I think Thomas would've been next in line.
We actually have, which is really nice, girls coming up in the club - three, or four, of them are from Lacken direction. I don't know why but once one started they all seemed to come and told their friends. There's two, or three, from Mullahoran coming in to train. They've got potential, definitely. I think with the girls, they're more hungry than the boys. The boys might come in and have a chat and train but with the girls they almost feel like they have to prove something just because they're a girl and they're boxing.
There's a girl from Offaly who comes down to train with us, Alex Kinahan, and she's going to be a cracker. She's going to do very, very well. It'd have been interesting to see how the girls did because they would've had their first fights this summer and I know they're still training hard because I get messages from them about videos and training plans. They're between 14 and 17.
Q: Why were you so adamant about not going pro?
A: It's not that it wouldn't appeal to me. I think I just feel that the likes of John Joe Nevin or Katie Taylor, they've a huge name and Katie had an incredible record behind her before she went professional.
So, when she did turn pro she got great promotion behind her, great match-making behind her and there's a very good support team behind her. She's getting good matches, getting good money and on good bills and I know with Andy [Murray] and John Joe, too, it's all about selling tickets, where you're boxing and having the right management team behind you.
For my weight, in Ireland, there's one or two girls. I mean, you could go pro in the morning. Anyone could go pro but to have that record behind you means you're coming in right at the top level. If you look at Michael Conlan, you've got a good record, you're coming in at a high level and getting good matches but if you're starting at the bottom, with an average record and maybe poor management, or you haven't got a good signing, you're basically trying to sell tickets to get on the show, to try to earn money.
You'd be fighting for nothing for the first few years - I'm not getting any younger and I haven't much free time and I want to get my Masters and I'd be a little bit competitive in that way. At the end of it all, I don't want to have nothing and I know that one injury can end everything, or put things on hold and you're left sitting with nothing.
Katie has an incredible following behind her but her determination and her lifestyle, everything, is about boxing. She dedicated her whole life to it. I'm at it since I was 14 and it will be time for a new chapter in my life, to go on and do something else.
Even sitting down with Brian, he's happy for me to go back and do my studies. It would be lovely to walk out there and go, "alright, okay, I had my ups and downs. I didn't get a world medal, or a European medal" but imagine walking away as an Olympian.
Q: So, this is your last 12 months as a boxer, do you think?
A: Yes. Until the qualifier is over - that'll be it. It's a make-or-break situation. Even if I wanted to take a step back, if I ever wanted to fight competitively again, I can't just get an easy fight because I'm at elite-level. My record already stands, I'm at elite level and I'll never turn around and look for an easy fight.
Once you go from novice, to intermediate, to elite, no matter if I took a step back and then came back, it's not going to be an easy fight; it's going to take a huge effort. I will still train and stay involved because, to be honest, it's routine and I love it. I love the training and I've made so many friends, I've travelled so much... just even the atmosphere in our own gym when walking in, I've always enjoyed walking into Cavan Boxing Club, with Brian and people you've grown up with, moreso than when you go away and compete up in Abbottstown with the High Performance Unit, it's a totally different vibe.
Q: What's Abbottstown like?
A; Abbotstown is an incredible set-up with the strength and conditioning gym, you've five Olympic-sized rings there, I don't know how many bags, just a fantastic set-up. Even just being able to finish training and go to a changing room to shower and change and your meal plan is already set out for the week, so everything you need is there and there's a nice vibe because you've athletes from other sports coming in.
When I'm down in the strength and conditioning area the swimmers and divers are in, there's badminton and a winter sports guy comes in for the skeleton. So, there's a good atmosphere and everything you need is there. It makes training so much easier, there's no point putting it in any other way.
But everything is changing and getting more hi-tech and getting more sports-science-based. There are more management teams in now, too. I've a huge support team around me. I couldn't say that it's just one person because every single thing has been set out for me, for years. I've the same strength and conditioning coach since I was 16, the same nutritionist, I have a psychologist - it's Kevin McMenamin [Dublin footballer], whose very nice, very helpful.
He's dead on but I won't lie, I didn't know who he was for probably a few weeks until I put two and two together, but he's 100%. Even the performance and analysis section, no-one mentions Alan Swanton and he's been there since boxing first took off and long before I was there. He has a very tough job.
Even when you walk in you see the monitors set up and he'd be sitting down ready to go through hours and hours of our footage, ready to slow it down to each frame to take apart the movement, so it's second-to-none. I can go in and look at any one of my opponents from around the world and take their fight and break it down, frame by frame for every single movement of theirs.
So, with any of these international fights, you already have your battle-plan in that you've gone through every motion or punch they've had and what you're going to do against that. So, I can't say it's down to myself, there's just a huge team behind me, it's just that a lot of the time they don't get mentioned, which is kinda unfair.
Q: Were you tip-top, in terms of form, before you got your injury?
A: I was in the best form I had been in in years. I actually rang Brian, the morning of the sparring session - this sounds terrible - and I was looking at these girls and I was wiping away six, or seven, of them on the first day. There was probably another four or five; three of them I hadn't sparred and there was two of them I thought were good competition.
I was sparring with [former world champion] Mary Kom, who's really good to move around with, really good, snappy punches, and a lot of experience. I have having a great spar with her and that was the one person, we were punch-for-punch, had it been a fight it would have been really interesting judging it because it was punch-for-punch.
But in terms of the European girls, I was smiling and looking forward to London so much because that was over half of the draw that was there training with me - there were 22 entries for London - and 10 of them there with me in Italy and I was beating them. I was smiling every day coming home from training thinking, 'this is grand, I wonder what the other 10 are like'. If I got even two of them in London, that would've pushed me into qualifying position but it just wasn't meant to be.
Q: I suppose it gives you belief because when you come back and get another crack at it there's no reason you can't get there?
A: That's it and we've time now for my hand to heal and keep up the fitness. I know people say, "it's only four, or five, weeks", but for an elite athlete, four, or five, weeks, you're cracking up and I was, kinda going, 'right, there goes the qualifier' and I was rushing to be ready for a qualifier in Paris in May but that's now gone and I don't know when the next one is going to be.
So, I've time to get the hand right and, in a way, I was lucky that I didn't get the surgery because there's no need now after all this happened. I'd love to be able to say that I've qualified, I've done it and walk away happy and if I don't, if I even just get there, if I just get the chance to actually compete, injury-free and everything going well... if I lose, I lose but I can throw my hat at it and say I did everything I could, that I was in my best shape, health was good and injury-free then, if it is not meant to be, I can walk away happy.
I said to Brian: "I'm not even going to wish for good luck... but if I just didn't have bad luck! Just no luck; not good and not bad [laughs] I would be so happy!" Brian laughed and said: "If you didn't have bad luck you'd have no luck but you're used to that!" and when I go away internationally, he says "just expect the worst draw because you've never had anything else".
When you expect the worst, you just get on with it because you can't do anything to change it. It was the same with the thumb. I thought, 'if this is the worst injury I've to get I'll get over it'.