Matt Maher: Ben Whittaker hoping to prove virtue of patience by winning Olympic gold

Good things come to those who wait. In little more than 100 days time, Ben Whittaker intends to prove the saying true by winning Olympic gold.

Great Britain's Ben Whittaker
Great Britain's Ben Whittaker

Having spent the last year and a half with his career on hold, things are about to speed up significantly for the Darlaston light-heavyweight.

Later this month he will make a long-awaited return to the ring, before June’s European qualifiers offer the chance to stamp his ticket to Tokyo.

“It’s all going to happen pretty quickly,” he says. “But I feel ready.”

Like tens of thousands of other Olympic hopefuls across the world, Whittaker has remained patient, through last year’s postponement of the Games and the uncertainty which has surrounded its staging in 2021.

The former Wodensborough ABC and Firewalker has not fought in a competitive bout since the World Championships in September 2019, where he claimed a bronze medal.

Last March his first tilt at the Olympic qualifiers in London was cancelled at virtually the last minute as the pandemic outbreak consumed all sport. Since then it has been a waiting game.

“We were all ready to go. I’d already watched a couple of my GB team-mates qualify,” he recalls. “Then the night before I was due to have my first fight, it was all off. At first you think the delay is just going to be a few weeks, a few months at most. Then they postponed the Games and reality started to hit home.”

The 13 months since have brought their challenges yet throughout Whittaker, who speaks with a maturity which belies his 23 years, has remained positive.

He describes the temporary suspension of his career as “a nuisance” before pointing out the regimented lifestyle to which he has long been accustomed as part of the GB squad based at the Sheffield Institute of Sport was in many ways the perfect preparation for living through lockdown.

“I’m a bit of a loner anyway!” Whittaker laughs. “Lockdown is my life. At least, that is how I see it!

“For a lot of people it has been a drastic change but with me there hasn’t been a huge difference. If I am not training, I am in the house.

“At the start of the pandemic I spent a bit more time at home in Wolverhampton and saw more of my family than I normally do and that was nice.

“When I went back to camp in Sheffield, things were pretty much the same.

“Of course, there are differences. We’ve gone from living in a big group to just yourself and whoever you are sparring in the same house.

“But we have to be grateful for the chance to keep training. A lot of gyms have only reopened this week. I’ve been in a fortunate position.”

Still, there have been decisions to make. Whittaker’s ambitions in boxing stretch well beyond the Olympics and he is honest enough to admit there were occasions when thoughts of moving to the next stage of his career and turning professional did cross his mind.

“There was a stage when I was thinking, are the Games even going to happen anymore?” he says. “There was talk of them being postponed completely and if that was the case then I can’t wait around till 2024.

“But the coaches reassured us, told us the Games would take place and how the extra year would help us develop.

“Having come this far and worked for so long toward this goal, I decided to stay patient. Had I turned pro I’d probably still have been waiting for my first fight anyway and then with the Olympics happening I would have been kicking myself.”

Whittaker has used his time out of the ring to work on weaknesses in his game and the European qualifiers, now scheduled to take place in Paris, will offer the first glimpse as to whether those efforts have paid off.

Changes to the qualification process forced by the pandemic have worked in Whittaker’s favour. Currently ranked No.3 in the world in his division, he is all but assured a place at the Games even if he does not emerge victorious from the European event. Yet the two-time national champion is taking nothing for granted.

“I’m not taking any notice of that,” he says. “Crazy things can happen and I am just going to approach it as if I need to win to qualify.

“I’ve spent the past few months working on my strength. I want to go there, get my hand raised and just maybe it will begin to feel real then.”

So long has Whittaker been out of the ring he jokes he might have “forgotten” how to put his shorts on but while the road has been trickier than he would have ever expected or wanted, the destination has always remained the same.

Reaching it and achieving his goal will feel just as sweet, even if the restrictions on overseas spectators in Tokyo means his parents, Karen and Tony, will have to make do with watching the action from home.

“It would have been nice for them to go. It is a shame,” says Whittaker. “But they will still be able to watch on TV and hopefully I get the job done.

“From my perspective, nothing has changed. I am quite used to competing at tournaments where the only other person there is your coach.

“It’s been a weird time, a crazy time. But all you can ever do is focus on yourself and prepare as best as you can. It is down to me now.”

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