Kellie Harrington: ‘I don’t need my life to change. That’s not why I went to the Olympics’

The boxer was ‘very happy’ before she won her gold medal. She wants to keep it that way

Boxer Kellie Harrington, European champion, world champion and Olympic gold winner, is gamely pulling pugilistic moves for the Irish Times photographer.

She has just come from a TV studio where she was promoting the National Dairy Council’s Everything Starts with Milk Campaign and is dressed in a stripy top, black dungarees and Minnie Mouse runners so she doesn’t look quite the way people will remember her from her Olympic bouts. At one point during the shoot she ties her hair back into a tight ponytail and the photographer jokes, “Now I recognise you!”

We’re in a big boxing gym at the Sports Ireland Institute in Abbotstown, Dublin. She shows us her favourite punching bag halfway down a long row of very similar looking punching bags. She likes it because it feels solid, she says. “Some of the bags move a lot when you hit them hard.”

She points to another bag. “That one down there, like a teardrop, that’s a waterbag … It feels like you’re hitting someone.”

Harrington cheerfully goes through all of the photographer’s shadow-boxing suggestions. “Bam! Bam! Bam!” she says, as she throws punches at an imaginary opponent. She laughs when he shows her some of the pictures because of the way her face looks in a couple of them. She imitates the facial expression.

After the photo shoot, we wander through the corridors to find the meeting room for our interview and she warmly greets everyone we meet. Everyone here knows her. Everyone everywhere in Ireland knows her nowadays. She seems reasonably comfortable with all the fuss.

Photo shoots are just an extension of what she does when she’s boxing, she says. “Other stuff is less obvious to me … Like if you go to an awards show dressed up and then I get my picture taken, I’m like ‘What way do I stand?’… Literally every boxer could be in the most feminine dress and someone will say, ‘Can I get a picture?’ and they’ll say, ‘Yeah no problem’ and go …” She puts up her fists in a combative stance. She laughs.

A little later I ask her how she finds interviews. “It doesn’t bother me in the slightest, to be very honest with you,” she says. “I’m a very honest person and that’s kind of what frightens me, because I can’t hold back from saying things that people might not want the hear. That’s what I’m worried about: my brutal honesty.”

Harrington has been boxing since she arrived in the door of Corinthians Boxing Club in Summerhill at the age of 15. “I wasn’t sporty at all,” she says. “I would have been into my clothes and putting the rags in my hair, crimping my hair, looking well, going out with my friends and all that kind of stuff. I never was really into sport.”

There’s a bit more to the story than this, but she prefers not to go into detail. As a young teenager she hated school and was, in her words, “heading down the wrong pathway”. She brings it up now only as a way to highlight how important kind coaches, teachers and youth workers are in the lives of young people in inner-city communities.

Two things seem to have turned things around for her. One was leaving mainstream education and joining Youthreach, an educational programme for early school leavers.

I was always trying to encourage girls to get down to the club ... It's not about winning titles, it's not about getting in there and fighting. It's about being there ... it's family

“School wasn’t for me,” she says. “For me Youthreach was a real way to be able to express myself, to grow, to try different things ... I grew so much as a person. I was young but I was old. I was quite mature … At least I thought I was.” She laughs. “Probably in hindsight they were like, ‘Who does she think she is?’ Youthreach was a bit more relaxed, and the syllabus was right down my alley. It was just very, very different to school. I got my Junior Cert done … I ended up going to Coláiste Íde in Finglas and doing sport and leisure management.”

The second factor was boxing. “There’s boxing clubs on every corner in the inner city,” she says. “No sailing clubs. Where are you going to sail your boat in the inner city? There’s no golf courses in town.” She laughs. “I’d love for people to really understand how boxing all over Ireland has taken in so many kids off the street. They probably all won’t be big champions, but they’ve made something of their life outside of sport and all because they were taught discipline through the boxing club.

“Coaches in the clubs don’t do college degrees to become life-skills coaches ... but they are life-skills coaches – unpaid, voluntary life-skills coaches who work a full-time job and have families at home and still choose to come to try and better the kids of their community.”

She was clearly yearning for something at that point in her life. “I’d see everyone going to boxing training with their gym bags on and think, ‘They look interesting and like they have something meaningful going on in their life’,” she says. “And I suppose that that’s what I wanted. You’d see three or four people in different groups going to training and the banter they’d have and I’d think: That’s what I want. Not the sporty side of it but just: I want to be a part of that. One of the coaches out of the local boxing club [Joey O’Brien] lived in the flats where I was hanging around, and I used to see him every day and I used to pester him with questions and asking him could I join.”

When she eventually joined there were no other girls in the club. They didn’t even have a girls’ changing room back then. “I was the only girl for a while and then one or two girls would come [to train] but they never really wanted to box. And that was fine.

“I was always trying to encourage girls to get down to the club ... It’s not about winning titles, it’s not about getting in there and fighting. It’s about being there and becoming part of something different, and it’s family. It really does become a family.”

When did she realise she was actually good at boxing? “For years people have said, ‘You’re very good. You have a special talent’, and I’ve been like, ‘These are thin roofers, I’m average’.”

What’s a thin roofer? “A spoofer,” she says. “I only really started to think I was actually good in 2016 when I won a [silver] medal in the World Championships. That’s when I thought, Jesus Christ, maybe I’m not too bad at this. I was 26 or 27.”

The Olympics were on in Rio the same year and she decided: “I’m going to give it a bash. I’m going to drop down a weight and see if I can do this.”

What does it feel like when she fights? “It’s just a great feeling and a feeling that you don’t get very often and it’s a love-hate relationship because you’re always nervous,” she says. “I love that feeling of being nervous, of being in that situation and [facing] the unknown and I embrace it. It gives me so much energy.”

What’s the nervousness about? “Knowing that you’re stepping into battle and, it sounds crazy, but that you could possibly get hurt. There’s nerves there and I love that feeling.”

Does she feel fear? “It’s there all the time,” she says. “That’s what makes you move. That’s what keeps you alive and gives you energy. If you weren’t afraid of getting hit, you wouldn’t move out of the way of the punches. Fear is good if you use it the right way. If you had no fear you’d be coming out black and blue, because you’d be getting battered from pillar to post ... I don’t really like getting battered from pillar to post. So yeah, the fear keeps you alive.”

She loves how many young girls are now boxing. She recently ran a shadow-boxing event for local clubs in advance of the annual Kellie Harrington Fun Day, which she runs in the north inner city with the help of Dublin City Council. She was thrilled to see that the girls almost outnumbered the boys. “I was so proud ... They were fantastic.”

She also usually runs a female-only training weekend once a year. “I try and give back as much as I can,” she says. “I do realise that there are younger girls coming up and they do want to pick your brain and they do want to be in your presence. And I think greatness breeds greatness.”

I live with my partner, and we do our washing and look after our dogs but there's a lot of athletes who barely scratch themselves. It's my way of keeping it real and I love it

She lives on the southside of the city now with her partner of 12 years, Mandy Loughlin, and their two dogs, a Staffy and a French bulldog, but she’s a “northsider for ever” and will always be involved in her old community. “It’s hilarious because since 2016 I’m always talking about the community and the inner city and how good the people are in there and it’s absolutely hilarious that it takes you going out and winning a gold medal before people say, ‘Jesus you’ve a great community.’ I’ve been saying this for the last five or six years! Have you not listened to me when I’ve been doing my interviews?”

She’s still over there all the time. She works part time in St Vincent’s psychiatric hospital in Fairview. “I work as a cleaner.” She pauses. “They don’t like to call it a cleaner – a domestic ... A lot of people were saying, ‘Ah, you’ll be able to leave your job now’, and I don’t understand why people would say stuff like that. Did they think I’d won the bloody Lotto? And even if I’d won the Lotto, I wouldn’t leave. I love the ward that I work on. It’s very normal.

“I’m just another person. I’m not an Olympic champion. Like, obviously they know I’m an Olympic champion, but someone has to do the cleaning, so I go in and do that. And a lot of the time, as athletes, you don’t really have to do a whole lot. Just rock up to training.

“I live with my partner, and we do our washing and look after our dogs but there’s a lot of athletes who barely scratch themselves. It’s my way of keeping it real and I genuinely love it. It’s a psychiatric hospital.

“You’re working with vulnerable people ... I have a bit of craic with them. They throw a bit of stick at me and I throw some stick back at them. Sometimes they’d be saying to me, ‘You don’t need to do that.’ And I’ll be like, ‘If I don’t do it who’s going to do it?’ They just want you to sit down and drink tea and have the craic with them.”

It can be very moving to work there, she says, because some of the patients are in such vulnerable situations but she still loves it. “After work ... I’m absolutely wiped out. It’s an emotional roller coaster. I’m just a different person when I’m in there. I’m trying to make people happy, while trying to clean the floors and empty the bins and do the toilets and all the rest.”

What was it like working there when Covid kicked in? “For the first three or four months I was full time in the hospital, and do you know what? It was great craic,” she says. “The household staff and the catering staff, we were doing TikToks.

“It was a really shitty time because you’re working in the hospital and everyone’s absolutely petrified ... I was trying to lighten the load for everyone, having a laugh, bringing in my speaker, and if we got a 15-minute break we’d go around back and I’d stick it on and we’d do a little 10 minutes of exercise. When I say exercises, I mean walking around a tree listening to Tina Turner while we’re dancing and clapping, cheering ourselves up ... All I love in this world is to see people happy and smiling and enjoying themselves.”

What was it like when she was driven through the old neighbourhood in that open-top bus after her Olympic win? “That was unbelievable,” she says. “The staff from the hospital were standing out. Myself and Emmet Brennan, two people who come from 700m away from each other, are in the Olympic Games together in the same sport ... We were both exhausted, and as soon as we turned into Ballybough the two of us were just looking at each other.

“People were chanting your name and running after the bus and throwing teddies. Honestly, it was such an amazing feeling ... after the 18 months that they had had, that we had had, that the world had had, to see so many people happy. The gold medal’s great but that means so much more to me.”

I don't need my life to change. If my bank balance goes a little bit higher, fair enough, I'll take it, but I don't need a life-changing moment. That's not what I went to the Olympics for

That Olympic final must have been very pressurised. “I didn’t feel pressure,” she says. “Obviously, there is pressure but I’m not afraid of losing. I don’t like losing. It’s gut-wrenching. It tears your soul from your body ... But I’m not afraid of it. I’ve had more losses than hot dinners ... I’m not invincible, I’m not untouchable. Everybody has good days and bad days. I’m not going to have good days every day for the rest of my career. I’m prepared to take that, and when it happens, I will understand it. I’ll be upset but I’ll understand. That’s sport.”

What does she remember about the Olympic final? She laughs. “I don’t remember a thing about the fight,” she says. “I never remember anything. The coaches always laugh. They’ll say, ‘You did this and you did that’, and I’ll be like ‘No way, did I?’ and they’ll say ‘I told you to do this and you did it’ and I’ll be like, ‘Did I?’ ”

She calls her coach, Noel Burke, from St Mary’s club in Tallaght, “a great mentor and a great friend. A leader in every aspect. A lot of the time when you’re at the top, people tell you things that they think you want to hear. They don’t tell you ‘You’re wrong’ or ‘You were absolutely crap today. You need to improve on this.’ Noel Burke will always tell you the truth ... He’s such a good person, such a good coach.”

Has she watched the footage of her winning Olympic bout? “I haven’t,” she says. “I will, probably around Christmas time when I’m feeling ready. Not that it’s a big deal or anything. I just don’t feel like watching it back ... The Olympics feel like a lifetime ago now to me.”

Her mother, Yvonne, said in a radio interview that she couldn’t watch her fights. “She has come to the stadium,” she says. “I don’t know whether she goes outside [when the fight is on]. I’m not too sure what she does.”

She thinks that she’s very like her parents. Her mother was a professional carer for years. Her father, Christy, was a “Jack of all trades” who did a bit of tiling, window fitting and painting before working in hospitals like her. “He loves it,” she says. “They’re very caring people and they love to be able to do things for people ... I get that from them.”

When she’s not boxing, training or working, what does she do? “Just normal things,” she says. “I love to sit in on the chair in pyjamas, not getting dressed for the whole day.”

That said, she’s getting up very early the day after we talk for a morning walk along Sandymount strand with her family. She loves Sandymount, she says, loves driving along it on the way to work in the early morning as the sun comes up, “when there’s a real feeling of capturing the darkness into the brightness”.

After a little time in her company, I have a sense of why Harrington has chosen to stay a busy amateur rather than going professional, even before I ask about it. She doesn’t need it.

Some athletes, she says, “don’t build a life outside of sport. I’ve built a life with my job and my family and my friends … If you go professional, you lose your job and you move away to another country. It’s not my cup of tea... Does my job pay great money? Absolutely not, but is life all about money? Will I make a fortune if I go pro? I’ve been told that, yes, I would. But can all the money in the world buy happiness?

“I was very happy and content before I went to the Olympics. People say, ‘Jesus, it’s great, your life is going to change now.’ And I’m like ‘Hold on a minute, do you know what my life was like before the Olympics?’

“I don’t need my life to change. If my bank balance goes a little bit higher, fair enough, I’ll take it, but I don’t need a life-changing moment. That’s not what I went to the Olympics for.”

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times