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irish hope Why Kellie Harrington is more than just a boxer as she chases an Olympic dream

Having a fulfilling life outside the ring is as important to medal-hope Harrington

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Kellie Harrington

Kellie Harrington

Kellie Harrington

KELLIE Harrington has waited a lifetime for the opportunity to perform on the biggest stage of all in amateur boxing.

There are Irish elite championships, EU championships, European championships, European Games and world championships. She has medalled in most of them. But only the Olympic Games really count in boxing as far as the outside world is concerned.

Once every four years, the nation tunes into boxing and, for a couple of weeks, what happens inside the ring matters.

But no sooner has the Olympic flame being extinguished than the boxers go back to being mostly anonymous citizens once again.

Even though 16 Irish boxers had won Olympic medals before these Games, none of them were able to earn their living on the basis of what they achieved in the Olympics.

No wonder then that Harrington refuses to be defined by what happens in the majestic Kokugikan Arena during the next seven days.

If everything goes to plan, the 31-year-old will be boxing for a gold medal at breakfast time in Ireland next Sunday morning, hours before the closing ceremony begins.

But, just as rowing gold medallist Paul O'Donovan wondered aloud what all the fuss was about after his triumph on Thursday, Harrington, too, realises the significance of life outside the Olympic bubble.

She works every second weekend in St Vincent's Hospital in Fairview and made a point of referencing this in her post-fight interview after qualifying for the quarter-final.

"Look, this is a great achievement for me to be competing in the Olympic Games, but if it happened, it happened, because I'm more than just a boxer.

"I'm Kellie Harrington, I'm a giving person, I have a fantastic family and a great job at home. I just want to say hello to everyone in St Vincent's Hospital. That's who I am. This is just a part of me, and a part of the journey I'm on in life. It's not the destination. What I'll do after this, I don't know.

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Kellie Harrington with her club coach Noel Burke after winning world gold in 2018.

Kellie Harrington with her club coach Noel Burke after winning world gold in 2018.

Kellie Harrington with her club coach Noel Burke after winning world gold in 2018.

"I only work every second weekend, so it's grand to split my time. I feel like when you work in a job you love, then you never work. That's the way I look at it. To me, it's very social going into work."

For Kellie, having a fulfilling life outside the ring is as important as pursing silverware inside it. This sport-life balance is central to her well-being.

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"Well, it works for me. At the end of the day, nobody knows what boxing is going to do for them. So you always need to have something outside of boxing.

"I've been saying this to a lot of people lately - you need to have a life outside of boxing because there is more to life than sport.

"Anything can happen in sport, and you need something to fall back on. My job is what I fall back on when I get home from the Olympic Games

"I'll be doing my restricted movements or whatever I have to do, then I'll be straight back into work, because that's who I am as a person, that's the way I roll."

Harrington's modesty and unassuming nature shines through in all her interviews. She never misses an opportunity to namecheck her club coach Noel Burke or her home club St Mary's.

For the moment, though, her focus is on the quarter-finals of the lightweight division where she meets Imane Khelif from Algeria on Tuesday.

One suspects the 22-year-old has had to overcome numerous obstacles to reach this level. Algerian is a predominantly Muslim country and the idea of women competing in boxing is alien to their culture. Still, Khelif has made it as an elite lightweight.

Her last-16 fight was being shown on a TV monitor in the mixed zone on Friday as Kellie spoke to reporters. She declined to look at the screen, however. She didn't even check the draw when it was made the previous day.

Instead, she trusts the coaching staff under the direction of Zaur Anita to do all the research and come up with a plan for the fight. Her job is to follow the plan.

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Kellie Harrington. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Kellie Harrington. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Kellie Harrington. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Her last-16 contest against the formidable Italian Rebecca Nicoli was a case in point. It was like an elaborate chess contest as the pair, who are both counter punchers, stalked each other.

Basically, it was a question of who cracked first and engaged. It requires enormous discipline and self-belief to implement this approach, but Harrington did it to perfection. Every time the Italian went forward, Harrington caught her.

So far there hasn't been a significant upset in the women's lightweight division. The quarter-final line-up is as expected.

Twenty-year-old British prospect Caroline Dubois meets Sudaporn Seesondee from Thailand. Both are in the top half of the draw, along with Harrington and Khelif.

Harrington gave Dubois a boxing education in the gold-medal fight at the European Olympic qualifiers in Paris last month, even if one of the judges scored the fight in favour of her English opponent.

But Seesondee is a capable operator who fought Harrington in the 2018 world championship final. The Dubliner won on a split decision, and the prospect of a repeat clash in the semi-final on Thursday should not be discounted.

The other side of the draw is, arguably, even more intriguing.

Not only does it feature the reigning world champion and gold-medal favourite Beatriz Ferreira (inset) from Brazil, it includes Mira Potkonen.

The 40-year-old Finnish veteran is familiar to all Irish boxing fans as she ended Katie Taylor's reign as Olympic champion in 2016. It was a controversial decision, but she went home with a bronze medal.

Physically, she may be past her peak, but she has continued to defy the laws of nature by competing at the highest level.

So far at these Games, she has defeated French professional Maiva Hamadouche and the No 2 seed Yeonji Oh from Korea.

She meets Turkey's Esra Yildiz in the quarter-final. From an Irish prospective, she poses a real threat to Harrington's gold-medal ambitions if she reached the final, as she has beaten her in their four clashes to date.

But, for Harrington, it is all about living in the moment. One suspects she hasn't even contemplated the prospect of another clash with Potkonen. Her priority is her quarter-final fight in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

She experienced most of the most challenging years of her career after her victory at the 2018 world championships. Two hand injuries wiped out 2019, while Covid-19 did the same to 2020.

She arrived in Japan for a pre-tournament training camp on June 30 and didn't make her Olympic debut until July 30.

Taylor won lightweight gold in London in 2012.Could Harrington now follow in her footsteps and medal, too?

Sporting wise, this is the most important seven days in her life. But, in Kellie's own mind, it is just another part of her journey through life. Tokyo is not the ultimate destination.

Whether she comes home with a gold medal or no medal, it won't change the proud daughter of Portland Row in Dublin's north-inner city.

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