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girl power Kellie Harrington: The Dublin girl who gave up everything in pursuit of Olympic Gold

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Kellie Harrington are her Gold medal win

Kellie Harrington are her Gold medal win

Kellie Harrington are her Gold medal win

Kellie Harrington was 26 before it dawned on her that she could make it in boxing.

By then she had been around the sport for more than a decade; won Irish titles and fought at international level. In only her third adult fight she had taken on future British Olympian Natasha Jonas who recently tussled with Kate Taylor for her five World professional belts.

By her admission she lacked confidence. Nonetheless, she decided to give boxing one last throw of the dice. She quit her job and became a full-time boxer targeting the 2016 women’s World championships which were scheduled for Kazakhstan in May of that year.

Harrington linked up with the rest of the Irish squad in Abbottstown. Financially it was a struggle though. With no record of international achievement ,Harrington was not eligible for funding. Essentially, she became a full-time unpaid boxer.

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Kellie Harrington celebrates with her Olympics gold medal after defeating Beatriz Ferreira of Brazil in their women's lightweight final bout at the Kokugikan Arena, Tokyo. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Kellie Harrington celebrates with her Olympics gold medal after defeating Beatriz Ferreira of Brazil in their women's lightweight final bout at the Kokugikan Arena, Tokyo. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Kellie Harrington celebrates with her Olympics gold medal after defeating Beatriz Ferreira of Brazil in their women's lightweight final bout at the Kokugikan Arena, Tokyo. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

“I decided to give it everything ahead of those championships and if I didn’t make it then I would start thinking about what else I was going to do with my life,” she said at the time.

All the focus in Irish boxing at the time was on the Rio Olympics. Ireland had high hopes of bringing home a haul of medals having assembled arguably the most talented team ever including World and Olympic champion Katie Taylor and recently crowned male champion Michael Conlan.

Behind the scenes cracks were beginning to show though; Billy Walsh had left to join USA boxing in late 2015; there were disciplinary and weight management issues within the elite squad and following a split with her father Pete, the previously invincible Katie Taylor was showing signs of vulnerability.

It all started to unravel at the women’s World championships where Taylor’s ten-year reign as the undefeated World lightweight amateur champion came to a shock end in the semi-final in Astana. But for Harrington these championships were her coming of age moment.

She reached the final of the light welterweight division and although she lost her gold medal fight to Yang Wenlu she brought home a silver medal. Crucially she was now entitled to funding from Sport Ireland.

Lack of confidence still haunted her though. Watching the Rio Olympics, she wondered whether she was good enough to make it at that level. Anyway, the issue didn’t arise as Harrington’s weigh division wasn’t on the Olympic programme.

But all the certainties about Irish boxing vanished at the Rio Games when the team imploded. Katie Taylor surrendering her Olympic title in her first fight. Within four months she had made her professional debut in London.

Her departure heralded a once in a lifetime opportunity for Harrington. She dropped nine pounds in weight to become eligible to fight as a lightweight.

Taylor was her role model even though she is only four years older than her, “she was the only strong female star I knew.”

But she didn’t hero worship the Bray fighter – they once sparred each other - and has no memory of watching her fight for the gold medal at the London Olympics. “I’m not going to lie. I have a terrible memory and I don’t remember as far back as 2012,” she said.

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Even though Kellie won a silver medal in her new weight at the 2017 European Union championships and a bronze at the European championships in Sofia in 2018 she was still largely unknown outside the boxing community. Everything changed later that year when she was crowned World lightweight champion in New Delhi.

Ireland had a new sporting heroine, but it didn’t change her life. She continued to work weekends in St Vincent’s Hospital in Fairview.

“It’s my work home away from home. I don’t really socialise anymore so it’s my way of getting away from boxing. I enjoy it because the staff and patients tell you exactly how it is. There is no molly coddling and I love that.”

An only daughter in a family of four, she admits she was a Daddy’s girl but definitely not a spoiled Daddy’s girl.

Boxing has been an integral part of her life since her teenage years. It gave her life a purpose when it needed it most.

“When I was younger there wasn’t much else to do around my area and I needed to change things. It was boxing that changed me. It was cheap and cheerful and in the inner city nearly every family has somebody who boxes,” she said.

Even though her family home in Portland Row is within sight of Croke Park she isn’t a big GAA fan though she had a lot of contact with Dublin GAA personalities.

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Yvonne Harrington celebrates with family and neighbours at Portland Row in Dublin after her daughter Kellie won the Tokyo 2020 Olympics lightweight final. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Yvonne Harrington celebrates with family and neighbours at Portland Row in Dublin after her daughter Kellie won the Tokyo 2020 Olympics lightweight final. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Yvonne Harrington celebrates with family and neighbours at Portland Row in Dublin after her daughter Kellie won the Tokyo 2020 Olympics lightweight final. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Bernard Dunne, the head of the IABA’s High Performance programme, used to be involved with Dublin as a performance coach while current player Kevin McManamon is the boxing team’s psychologist and she is friendly with Michael Darragh Macauley who now works as in the inner city. “We do yoga together.”

Her mischievous sense of humour bubbles constantly beneath the surface. She tells the story of once being asked in an interview about her cooking skills.

Off the cuff, she spun a yarn about attending cooking classes with Jamie Oliver in the UK. “The discussion just kept going until I suddenly realised, I would have to come clean and tell the truth.”

Being treated as a celebratory doesn’t sit comfortably with her. She once told me about driving through Ballsbridge when somebody beeped at her before rolling down his car window and shouting ‘champ’. “I could feel my face turning red.”

She’s at pains to stress that in the vicinity of where she grew up in Portland Row is home to soccer stars Wes Hoolihan, Tony Parrott and Olivia O’Toole as well as actor Barry Keoghan.

Her path to Olympic glory has not been straight-forward. She broke her right thumb in the semi-final of the European Games in Minsk in the summer of 2019 and had to withdraw from her gold medal bout.

It was the second time she had broken it and this time the surgery was more complicated. It put her out of action for the rest of the year which meant she was unable to defend her World title in 2019.

There was even speculation that boxing would be dropped from the Olympic programme as a result of a dispute between the sport’s world governing body AIBA and the International Olympic Committee. “I couldn’t countenance that happening,” she said at the time.

Then Covid-19 wiped out the 2020 season. The European Olympic qualification tournament had started in London in March of last year. Harrington was counting down the days to her first fight when it had to be abandoned.

Then the Olympic Games themselves were rescheduled and like the rest of the squad Harrington had to train at home with the help of her partner Mandy.

A former boxer, Mandy now teaches boxing exercises and has become a valuable member of her team. “She understands boxing and knows what food I need to eat.”

But it all became together for Harrington in the last couple of months. She stamped her class on the lightweight division at the rescheduled European Olympic qualifiers in June winning the gold medal And has done likewise in in the Olympic tournament.

She has never forgotten her roots though or those who have helped her on her journey and makes a point of name checking her club coach Noel Burke in St Mary’s BC in Tallaght in all her post fight interviews.

After securing the silver medal in Tokyo she remembered IABA official Anna Moore who travelled abroad as Irish team manager with various women’s team over the years.

She is a treasure to coach because she is willing to trust the instincts of the Irish coaching team led by Zaur Antia.

She once said her dream job would be working in the Institute of Sports in Abbottstown as a boxing coach. She confessed though if she won the Lotto her life might take a different turn.

“I love dogs. I have a French bulldog and a Staffordshire terrier at home. I’d love nothing better than to move out to the country and live in a huge house with loads off dogs out the back.”

Her dream might yet come true after her success in Tokyo where she swooped a different sort of lottery jackpot.

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