Ben Whittaker: A life turned around in a quest for gold
Looking back now, Ben Whittaker is happy to admit it took time for him to find his calling.
Yet once he had, it set him on a path which could now lead to Olympic glory and perhaps much further beyond.
Kicked out of school and then sacked from two jobs, Whittaker is the former class clown transformed into the dedicated sportsman with his sights fixed on one prize and one prize only: Tokyo 2020.
The next 10 months promise to the biggest so far in the life of the 22-year-old boxing ace, a member of the Team GB podium programme who last month returned from the World Championships with a bronze medal.
“It is funny,” he says. “People will say ‘You know that Ben Whittaker? You should see him now. He has changed his life around’. I am 100 per cent dedicated.
“Considering I was told I would never amount to anything, I am doing pretty well.”
Whittaker claims he was ‘never a bad kid, more a nuisance’ during his time at Thomas More Catholic School, in Willenhall. “If the classroom went quiet, then I had to say something,” he recalls. “It didn’t end well.”
Placed on a restricted timetable, he left school with just one GCSE (in religious studies), before a less than auspicious start to working life.
The watershed moment came when, having already been sacked from his first job in a sports shop, Whittaker was given his marching orders from a matchday role at Wolves.
“It was too cold and the matches were boring. I used to just hide in the toilet and eat Pukka pies!” he laughs.
“I got sacked from there and it was like OK, now it is time to work hard.
“I clearly can’t work a proper job. I am a physical person. Something just clicked. There comes a point where the question is ‘what do you do?’”
Boxing was the answer. Whittaker was already a promising amateur, having been introduced to the sport at the age of seven by his father Tony.
“Dad said I needed some discipline,” he says. “At first he just trained me on his own at Wodensborough Boxing Club. I was 12 when I had my first fight.”
Whittaker won his first national title at the age of 18 in 2016 while under the tutelage of Steve O’Rourke at Wodensborough, before following up that success a year later, having moved to Wolverhampton’s Firewalker Boxing Club, where he was trained by his godfather, Joby Clayton.
By then he had already been upgraded to the podium squad with Team GB and when we meet his thoughts are firmly on an imminent return to Sheffield and the English Institute of Sport, his training base for four days every week.
It is there, away from the public eye, Whittaker and his team-mates put in the hard yards in preparation for the challenges to come, living a lifestyle no less than military in its precision.
“You are up every morning at 7am to be weighed,” he explains. “Then at 7.30 we are out on the track.
“At midday it is pad work, then on to strength and conditioning. At night, we spar.
“We do that each day, Monday to Thursday, every week. In nearly three years, I have only missed the 7am call once and on that occasion the door nearly got kicked down!
“It is military and to the outside person, I guess maybe a little weird.
“People will ring up and ask if I want to go out but the answer is always no. This is the life I have chosen.”
In the past, the bronze medal Whittaker claimed at the World Championships would have been enough to secure an Olympic spot.
But a restructured qualification programme means he must repeat the feat at another tournament, scheduled to be held in London next March.
“So long as I get to the medal stages, then I am on the plane,” he says. “I’m not going to say the Olympics has always been a dream because when I first started boxing, I didn’t know you could make it.
“But it would be great. Coming from a small town like Darlaston. I want to put the place on the map.”
Whittaker’s ambitions spread some way beyond Tokyo and he has made no secret of his intention to turn professional.
Dad Tony and mom Karen have both worked two jobs in the past and Whittaker sees boxing as his chance to give something back.
“The only thing which excites me, truthfully, is the chance to make a better life for my family. That is why I do it,” he says. “My parents have both been amazing and I don’t like seeing them work so hard.
“It is not like we are struggling for money but it is not like we are rich either! As a young kid you have no idea what adult life is like. I was asking for everything. Then when you get older you realise how hard it is with the bills.
“If I’m in a position where I can help a little bit now, imagine what it would be like when I am world champion?
“They have got me to where I am and now it is my turn to help them. Of course, they don’t see it like that. They don’t expect anything back. But I think it is right. I have been given an opportunity.”
Whittaker is ready, in his words, to “eat, sleep and breathe” boxing until he achieves his goals.
His one escape is music and in particular singing, a passion since childhood.
Together with friends he has helped produce several tracks, while Whittaker is set to release his first music video under the pseudonym Benzo, a childhood nickname.
“People don’t think I would do this, considering the sport I am in. But it is the perfect escape,” he says.
“Have I performed in public yet? No. But who knows? If I keep doing well with the boxing, maybe I can sing myself to the ring when I am a pro.
“Wouldn’t that would be good!”