Saturday, March 2, 2024

Georgian ‘mastermind’ behind Ireland’s Olympic boxing success – Irish Times

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August 2008 will forever be etched in Zauri Antia’s heart. The Georgian boxing coach has been coaching Irish boxers since 2003 and was fulfilling his dream of representing Ireland at the Beijing Olympics.

The boxers, who won three medals at the competition, had just arrived in China from a pre-Olympic training camp in the Russian city of Vladivostok.

Meanwhile, some 6,000 kilometers away, Antia’s wife and children flew from Dublin to Georgia to visit the family’s hometown of Poti on the Black Sea coast.

On August 8, the day of the Olympic opening ceremony, Antia woke up to the news that war had broken out between her home country and Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia from Georgia. The conflict, which became known as the Five-Day War, left hundreds dead and tens of thousands forced from their homes.

When Antia learned that Russian troops had occupied Poti, she panicked.

“For three or four days, I didn’t know where my family was. There was no phone signal. What should I do?” Antia says.

Determined not to distract her athletes from the competition, Antia kept quiet about her personal crisis and continued to lead training sessions in the days that followed. Behind the scenes, he stopped sleeping and called everyone he knew in Georgia every night, trying to track down his wife and children.

“Boxing training saved me. If I hadn’t been trained, I would have gone crazy,” Antia recalls.

“It gave me focus and allowed me to not feel what I was about to feel. No one knew what was going on in my personal life. It was a very difficult time. .”

Eventually, he discovered that his family was hiding at his wife’s sister’s house in the mountains of Georgia, and with the help of the Irish government brought them back to their home in Bray.

“They took me home so quickly. How can I forget this kindness? I often say, ‘The reason I love Ireland so much is because they have respect. ” he says.

Antia’s relationship with Ireland dates back to 2003, when a friend encouraged her to apply to the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA). He is already an experienced boxer and coach, having fought and trained in his home country for years.

“I was a six-time Georgian champion, a bronze medalist at the USSR level, and I was talented,” Antya says with pride.

During the 1980s and 1990s, boxing contests and training camps took Antia to various parts of the former Soviet Union.

“I went to Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, everywhere. And of course I went to Moscow,” he says.

“Russia was a very strong boxing country. I loved traveling to different countries with different people and seeing different cultures. When you love your sport, you become curious.”

Antia admits that working in Georgia was often difficult in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“There were times when there was no light, heat or water, but I kept working,” he says.

Antia was the head coach of the Georgia youth national team in the early 2000s when he was introduced to an Irish boxing coach named Daniel O’Connell.

“He met me at a club in Georgia and saw my work and that’s how it all started.” He said there was a job interview for a new good coach in Ireland. Even though I had great success, I wanted to keep challenging myself,” says Antia.

Although she did not speak English, Antia traveled to Dublin for an interview in February 2003. Antia was not offered the position, but the job went to Billy Walsh, who later became head coach of Irish boxing, but Antia was offered the role of technical and tactical head coach. A month later, he moved to Ireland, leaving his wife and three children in Georgia.

“My wife supported me and told me to go, but it wasn’t easy being away from my family. Going somewhere for a job you love is good for your career. But I used to go home a lot. I used to visit every six months,” he says.

Two years later, Walsh asked Antia to move in permanently. He wanted to accept, but he missed his family and needed them by his side. The boxing association acted quickly and within months secured visas for his wife and children to attend Bray.

“We have a great relationship with Katie Taylor’s family and they showed me Bray. It’s on the coast. Potty is on the coast as well. There’s the Irish Sea here. was the Black Sea. Bray is a wonderful place,” he says.

Antia continued to strive to improve her English. He taught boxing through action.

Following the success of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Antia and his colleagues began preparing athletes, including Taylor, for the 2012 London Olympics.

“We had great talent and everyone worked hard. We had the right competition, the right timing, the right lifestyle. Everything was in harmony,” recalls Antia. . Irish boxers won four medals, including Taylor’s gold medal.

“The success was amazing,” says Antia with a smile.

After that, things got even more difficult. In 2015, Walsh resigned from the IABA and moved to the United States, but just four months later, in February 2016, a mass shooting at a boxing weigh-in at the Regency Hotel cast a shadow over the Irish boxing world. The Kinahan Hutch gang escalated. Feud.

Six months later, Ireland failed to take home a single boxing medal at the controversial 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brazil. Antia was appointed head coach following Walsh’s departure and describes the year as “a tumultuous year.”

“You know how in the movies they say it’s not about how hard you get hit, it’s about how hard you keep moving forward no matter how hard you get hit? Well, we keep moving forward. “Even when things get tough, we need to simplify, strengthen, and work on it,” says Antia.

“If the system works well and everyone sticks together, Ireland can be the best boxing nation in the world.”

Antia, now an Irish citizen, was until recently one of the few Georgians living in the country. The number of asylum seekers in Ireland has increased significantly, from 338 asylum applications from Georgian citizens in 2021 to 2,710 last year. Antia realizes how lucky she was to be able to come here on a work visa instead of fleeing the country.

“I came here not because I didn’t have money, but as a coach to develop and improve boxing. I could also take my family with me to have more freedom. Ireland gave me It opened the door for me,” Anthea says.

“It’s very different when you have to quit and you don’t have a choice. It’s sad that people like doctors have to leave their countries and abandon their professions because of poverty. I hope that one day we can all go back. We hope, but we should also be grateful for what this country has done for us.”

Antia was recently awarded the Irish Olympic Federation President’s Award and was described at the ceremony as “the driving force behind Team Ireland’s success in boxing”.

Asked whether he thought Irish boxing could recover after years of association with organized crime activity, Antia said the sport was growing stronger and more respected.

“I promise you, in six years’ time Ireland will be number one in the world in boxing,” he says. “And I think that’s going to bring everyone together.”

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