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'Heartbreaking' Boxer Katelynn Phelan opens up about impact of being bullied at school

"Tell people what is going on because if you keep everything in it will make things worse and hurt you more"

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Boxer Katelynn Phelan

Boxer Katelynn Phelan

Boxer Katelynn Phelan

Being defiant has characterised the life of Ireland's newest world boxing champion Katelynn Phelan.

She went behind her dad's back to start boxing at the age of six.

She defied bullies who made her life intolerable in secondary school.

She celebrated her 18th birthday by going against her parent's wishes and obtaining a professional boxing licence.

Last October she rolled the dice and defied the odds yet again.

She went to Germany where she outclassed the previously unbeaten local favourite Jessica Schadko in her home gym to secure three world title belts in only her fourth professional fight.

"I'm a very stubborn person and if someone tells me not to do something, I will do it," says the 20-year-old.

The Phelans are the archetypical boxing family. Katelynn's father Paddy - who is now her joint-trainer along with Ultimate Hell TV star Niall Barrett - has had a lifelong involvement in the sport. Her older brother Allan is a pro fighter.

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Katelynn Phelan

Katelynn Phelan

Katelynn Phelan

"When I grew up boxing was all around me and from about the age of five I used to go to Royston Boxing Club in Newbridge with my two brothers and my dad for training.

"My dad didn't want me boxing. It was kind of forbidden in those days. But I went over his head and persuaded the head coach Tom McDermott to allow me." Later her dad founded St Brigid's Boxing club in Kildare town and became her coach.

Katelynn was 12 when Katie Taylor changed the face of women's boxing in Ireland when she won the gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012. "Katie was my hero. Every girl who boxes looks up to her."

By her mid-teens Phelan was unbeatable in Ireland and had won a bronze medal at European level. But her school life was miserable.

"When I went to secondary school I started to be bullied by other girls. At first, I didn't realise when it was happening.

"I just thought they were having a laugh. But then it got pretty serious and started impacting on my mental health.

"I think they turned against me because I was succeeding in boxing. They didn't like the fact that I was friendly with guys in the boxing club that they wanted to go out with.

"It was heartbreaking because we all grew up together and had been close friends.

"I ended up having severe anxiety and depression. I'm not afraid to talk about these things. I was really in a bad place mentally.

"I'd wake up in the morning and fake being sick and pretend there was something wrong with me because I didn't want to go to school."

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Boxer Katelynn Phelan and her trainer Niall Barrett

Boxer Katelynn Phelan and her trainer Niall Barrett

Boxer Katelynn Phelan and her trainer Niall Barrett

Eventually, Katelynn told her parents. After the school authorities were alerted the situation improved, though the bullying didn't entirely stop until she left school. The whole experience contributed to the fact that she didn't stay around to sit her Leaving Certificate.

Never once did she think that she could have solved the problem by using her fists in the school yard.

"Honestly, I never thought 'why don't I hit them and that would solve everything'. I was a shy kid who knew I had talent and was good at boxing.

"Obviously, it is against the rules to use your talent outside the ring. I let them do what they wanted to do because deep down I knew it would fizzle out. To be honest I didn't want to stoop down to their level."

Occasionally when she walks through Kildare, she sees the girls who bullied her. "They cross the street if they spot me," she says.

Her advice to anybody suffering bullying at school is to seek help immediately. "Tell people what is going on because if you keep everything in it will make things worse and hurt you more.

"Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself. It doesn't have to come to violence. Stand tall, keep your head high and it will work out."

Even though Katelynn won a bronze medal at the World Youth Championships in 2017, she never dreamt of Olympic glory.

"I didn't want to go the Olympic route. My style suited professional boxing. As soon as I turned 18, I sent away for my form to turn professional without telling my parents. They weren't in favour of the move as they had seen how difficult it was for my brother Allan," says the welterweight.

"I wouldn't listen to them. So, I printed out the form, did my medical and sent them off. When my pro licence came back, I told them. There wasn't anything they could do about it then. They say it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission."

Katelynn made her professional debut in March 2019 in Dublin's National Stadium. Even before she stepped through the ropes, she knew she had made the right decision.

"When I was growing up, I didn't feel I belong in too many places but when I heard 'Óró, sé do bheatha 'bhaile' being played as I walked out it felt like I was fulfilling something that I always wanted to do."

Being a professional boxer doesn't mean she makes any money from the sport.

"It's really tough because we are depending on sponsors. If my parents weren't around, I don't know what I would do," she confesses.

She is now training for her next fight in March in Luxembourg while her promoter Leonard Gunning has a long-term ambition of staging a show headlined by Katelynn in Goff's in her native county. But this project is dependent on support from the business community in Kildare.

Even though she hasn't banked any money from her career, her ambitions remained undimmed. "I want to win all the world belts," she declares.

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