'I know I can win a medal': Steven Donnelly on his long road to Rio

Steven Donnelly
Steven Donnelly

TEN years ago Irish boxing coach Zaur Antia told Steven Donnelly that one day he would be an Olympic champion.

He had just watched the-then 17-year-old beat the 2005 World cadet champion Olzhas Sattibayev from Kazakhstan in the semi-final of the 48kg weight division in a tournament in Russia.

“It could still come true,” suggests Donnelly who celebrated his selection for next month’s Olympics by having an image of Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue tattooed on his left arm.

But it is two other words – redemption and dedication – which are also tattooed on his arm that reveal the true nature of the journey he had been on to fulfil Antia’s prophesy.

Growing up in Ballymena, he was aware of the town’s two big name personalties, Ian Paisley and Liam Neeson. He didn’t know either but followed in the footsteps of the latter by joining the town’s local boxing club, All Saints at 13.

Donnelly took to boxing from the moment he stepped inside the ring.  Coincidentally, his  father, Brian, was working with club coach Gerry Hamill in the butchery business at the time. 

Within a week Brian was getting impressed reports from the coach about his son.

He won his first two fights and then lost his next two but had secured an Irish underage title within six weeks and remained unbeaten for the next three years.  

He moved through the weights and was rated as a medal contender prior to the Commonwealth Games in 2010 in New Delhi. 

But his world fell apart in India. “Even to this day I have a habit of over-training. I lost 10-0 to an Australian. There was nothing there, though I should have got a few scores.

It was embarrassing.”

But his nightmare was only starting. Later that night in the company of team-mate Tyrone McCullough he had a few beers in the athletes’ village and visited the canteen, where Donnelly got involved in a bit of high jinks with the chef. 

“I was a bit drunk but all I did was to take his hat and wave it around a bit.”

Next day McCullough and Donnelly were sent home on the first available flight. 

Donnelly couldn’t come to terms with how his dream turned sour. 

“I was young and stupid and I went off the rails. I started drinking and fighting and falling out with everybody who was close to me.”

He couldn’t bring himself to talk to his family. As he sank into a deeper personal malaise, his behaviour on the streets came to the attention of the police.

He ended up making several appearances before the local magistrate. His solicitor pleaded for leniency and he escaped with fines and a suspended sentence.

Coach Hamill eventually turned up one day at his house. 

“I heard his jeep stopping outside; I wanted to walk past him but he asked me to come into the room and told me to sit down. I couldn’t look him straight in the eye.”

Hamill convinced him to come return to the club, though he had to apologise to all the other boxers before he was allowed lace his gloves again. By late 2011 Donnelly’s career was back on track – helped by his decision to become a virtual teetotaller. 

But with London Olympian Adam Nolan in pole position to challenge for the welterweight spot on the Irish team for the Rio Games, Donnelly’s ambitions were hanging by a thread.  

However, the Polish-based Hussars team provided him with a lifeline in the World Boxing Series, having seen him secure a silver medal at the Feliks Stamm tournament in Warsaw.

For the first time in his career he was being paid: €500 for each appearance with a €1500 win bonus. Better still, he exceeded all expectations by winning four of his five fights, but still only finished fourth in the welterweight rankings – the top two qualified for Rio.

Frustratingly for Donnelly, he didn’t actually lose the other fight. 

Due to an administration oversight, his visa to Azerbaijan wasn’t renewed and when he arrived in Baku with coach Eddie Bolger for a scheduled WSB fight, the pair were sent home on the next available flight.

His performances were all the more noteworthy as due to a hand injury – since corrected by a surgery – he couldn’t throw a left hook.

But there was still one twist in the tale. Two Russian boxers, Andrey Zamkovoy and Radzhab Butaev, qualified for Rio in the 69kg category but countries are only allowed one boxer per weight division. The showdown between the pair took place in the final of the Russian  championships last November in Samara.

Watching the contest on a laptop, Donnelly was mooting for Zamkovoy as the Irishman would get an Olympic spot through his WBS rating if Butaev lost. 

“Zamkovoy looked comfortable all through but I had to wait until the referee raised his hand to be sure. I just stamped the ground and shouted ‘yes’ and then my father let a big roar out of him up in his bedroom. I know all the welterweights going to the Olympics. There’s won’t be one easy fight.

 “I’m not saying I’m going to win the gold but I know I can definitely win a medal,” said Donnelly, whose journey of redemption deserves a place on the podium.