At an initial glance, Dungarvan Sports Complex is a relatively nondescript building overlooking the water in this coastal town.
But don’t let that fool you. The athletes it houses are astounding.
As Donal O’Leary the photographer and I skirt around the complex, looking for the correct entrance, he informs me that he attended a Katie Taylor fight here a number of years ago.
“Katie Taylor,” I exclaim.
“Yeah,” he replies causally.
The undisputed world lightweight champion and pioneer in women’s boxing has since gone on to fight in Madison Square Garden in New York and Wembley Arena in London, so it’s pretty cool that Dungarvan, Co Waterford, had her first.
However, we’re here to meet a different boxer, Christina Desmond. A middleweight boxer, she’s currently ranked number one in Ireland and sixth in the world in the 69kg weight category.
From the off, we need to get something straight with regard to Christina – she’s from Cork, but lives in Dungarvan, as she’s stationed here with the guards. Although she’s a rebel through-and-through, she’s speaks warmly and fondly of Dungarvan.
The first thing you notice when you enter the gym is the ring, naturally. Then the walls around it grab your attention, covered in promos for past fights and motivational posters
Her club is Fr Horgan’s in Cork, as well as the Garda Boxing Club. For the past two years while she’s been based in the Déise, Dungarvan Boxing Club have been kind enough to let her use their facilities here in the Peter Crotty Gym (located at the back of the sports complex).
The first thing you notice when you enter the gym is the ring, naturally. Then the walls around it grab your attention, covered in promos for past fights and motivational posters. Muhammad Ali himself looks down on you. Many a training session of blood, sweat and tears has probably been put in here by many a boxer, Christina principally among them.
At the back of the gym Christina and I settle on opposite ends of a bench. We begin talking about her sporting career, her professional career, her upbringing on the farm in Cill na Martra and just about everything in between, including the Olympic situation.
When I meet Christina it’s just before the Olympic Games begin in Tokyo, Japan. Now they’re currently underway. Although she doesn’t overly indulge the subject and speaks quite matter-of-factly about it, it’s clearly hard for Christina to not be there.
“Obviously that was my goal,” says Christina.
“I didn’t really broadcast it either, but everyone knew ‘Tina wanted to go to the Olympics’ and that was it. It doesn’t really bother me, no. These things happen. I do believe everything happens for a reason.”
The pandemic seriously scuppered Christina’s 2020 Olympic hopes. Having lost to the world champion in the European qualifiers in 2020, she was aiming to qualify for the Olympics at the World Championships that were to take place this June. They were cancelled due to COVID-19.
And so, while isolating at home in Cill na Martra earlier this year, having been deemed a close contact through her work on the frontline, Christina found out she hadn’t qualified.
I have been tipping away, but nothing like I was
As ever, Christina is pragmatic about the situation. “I’m fortunate enough that I have a career and I have a good family behind me. It was OK. At that start I took no notice. I actually got the call and I went straight out for a run like,” she recalls.
“I was just going on as normal. Then about a week later I was like, ‘I need to step back and take a few weeks here.’ So I have been tipping away, but nothing like I was. It’s just a few days here and there to keep up the fitness.”
As well as balancing her full-time job, Christina trained six days a week, most days twice, travelling to Dublin weekly to work with the high-performance team.
When I was in training my car was full with three suitcases
Without the Olympics to focus on, she has taken a temporary step back from this intense training, something she is very much enjoying. She started back playing Gaelic football with a local team in Dungarvan and is generally appreciating the slower pace of life at the moment.
“When I was in training my car was full with three suitcases; one suitcase for home, one suitcase for work in Dungarvan and one suitcase for training. I’d just pull from any suitcase. Now I actually have a base here and I only need a suitcase for going home to Cork, because my training has actually been here with the last couple of weeks. I’ll get back into that, because I have to get back into that,” she says.
Interestingly enough, for Christina, boxing come about through her twin brother Michael. As young children they turned their hands to many sports. They were particularly interested in Gaelic football, both playing for Cork at different stages, and boxing entered the mix too.
“My dad’s first cousin, John Desmond, said it to him, ‘Oh will Michael come in and do a bit of training with the boxing club?’ So Michael went in one night and I was in the next night after him. That’s always the way with us. If he’s going somewhere I’ll have to go.
“I kept on asking, ‘Can I box? Can I box? Please let me box [competitively].’ They kept on saying, ‘No.’ Women’s boxing wasn’t that big at the time,” explains Christina. “Every tournament, there were only like 50 females in the whole tournament and you’d be just thrown in with anyone.
He has five Irish titles and I have 18 of them. He gave up after that
“I was sparring with boys and I was fighting boys – not at a high level, but I was in with the boys, so it was just normal and I took no notice of that either. At 13 they said, ‘Alright, yeah.’ They were sick of me, so they just let me box. I won my first Irish title that year.”
Christina and Michael were the first set of mixed twins to both win boxing All-Irelands on the same day.
“He has five Irish titles and I have 18 of them. He gave up after that, he made the decision to go with the Gaelic football. He was at heavyweight. So when you’re at that level you’d have to train full time. You couldn’t be playing football with it. He decided that football was for him. We couldn’t be the same anyway,” laughs Christina.
When discussing her family, Christina speaks with a great sense of both pride and passion. As well as Michael, she has an older sister, Louise, and a younger sister, Rachel. From the Muskerry Gaeltacht, they all grew up speaking Gaeilge at home. Something Christina is very proud of.
She credits her parents for supporting their many interests as children, from sport to music and Irish dancing. “We tried everything when we were younger. My poor mother and father they had an awful job trying to draw us around the place.”
Christina’s father owns a bus company and is a part-time drystock farmer. He was previously in dairy, changing enterprise when Christina was around eight years old. Christina’s mother sadly passed away when she was 17.
There was one episode where I was drawing bales and I put a bale down through three fields and destroyed all the fences. So I was retired then for a while after that
Michael, Christina says, is the farmer in the house, but she doesn’t mind being called upon whenever she’s needed. At one stage, however, she was benched from the farm team for a short period.
“There was one episode where I was drawing bales and I put a bale down through three fields and destroyed all the fences. So I was retired then for a while after that. They were happy with me being away. If there was ever anything on, it was just like, ‘Actually Tina, we’re alright, we’ve enough drivers,’” she says with a natural sense of good humour.
Discussing merging both her sporting and professional careers, Christina is very happy to have both. In her Leaving Cert year, however, attending college wasn’t top of Christina’s agenda. Qualifying for the Youth Olympics was. Thankfully, she got to do both in the end.
Before spending a year training to be a garda in Templemore, Christina did a degree in sports strength and conditioning at the Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) Thurles campus.
“I found out I got Thurles at the Youth Olympics and I said, ‘What did I even put on the CAO in Thurles?’ I hadn’t a clue what was on my CAO, because all I was interested in was qualifying for the Youth Olympics,” Christina reflects.
In the October of my Leaving Cert year, my mother passed away. In April I qualified for the Youth Olympics that year and I went in the August
“During my Leaving Cert I was at the Youth World Championship in September, I won silver. Then the aim was that I was going to try and go for the Youth Olympic Games. No other female in Ireland had qualified as a boxer for them.
“In the October of my Leaving Cert year, my mother passed away. In April I qualified for the Youth Olympics that year and I went in the August. Someone anyway – I don’t even know who – did my CAO. Someone obviously put something down. Maybe Louise did, my older sister.”
With Tokyo 2020 not working in her favour, Christina says she has never been as confident in her decision to balance a career as a guard with being an elite athlete, as opposed to focusing on her sport full time. Although, at times, others have thought differently of her decision.
“I have been offered the opportunity to go training full time, but if what happened to me in the boxing had happened and I hadn’t gone for the guards, I actually would be jobless and sportless with the past four or five months. So I’m actually delighted in a way.
“I know it’s hard to see the Olympics going on now and me not being there. But that was out of my reach and that was out of my hands. I couldn’t do anything about it. So for anyone saying, ‘Oh, she should have just focused on the sport, focused on boxing,’ which some people are saying, I have heard it back, if I did do that I’d be jobless and I’d be sportless right now. It was out of my hands, even if I had trained full time. The boxing qualifiers were pulled from my reach,” says Christina.
If I’d have made the Olympics this year I might have gone again. I’m only 25 now. That’s the dream. I’ll wait around for the Olympics
With much chatting done, much ground covered and not an ounce of training done in this gym, really, there’s only one question left to ask: will Christina try for the next Olympics, Paris 2024?
“That’s the aim, that’s the goal. If I’d have made the Olympics this year I might have gone again. I’m only 25 now. That’s the dream. I’ll wait around for the Olympics. There was a lot of stuff going around there that I’d turn pro, maybe down the line I will, but I’m going to try and go to the Olympics first in 2024.”
In the meantime, just like world’s most-renowned female boxer, who once fought in these hallowed halls too, Christina’s plan is to stay grounded.
“Katie, she’s a lovely girl and she’s humble. That’s probably where I have seen that you can be good at your sport, but you have to be humble. That’s the way I’d like to come across anyway. I don’t really take much hack of being Christina Desmond the boxer. I kind of just want to be Tina.”
Well, we can’t wait to see what Tina does next.