Like the best kept secret in the building, Lisa O’Rourke sits tucked in the corner seat, her back to the room.
She turns and looks up, her expression one of mild bewilderment at what the interest in her might be. After three life-altering months, Ireland’s newest world champion seems sceptical about what affections or curiosity she could hold. Today, her superpower is humility.
This year was O’Rourke’s transition year. She could not win an Irish Championship but she beat the world. In May, the 19-year-old rolled into the Turkey World Championships from Italy, where she had earned her ticket just days before.
At senior level, her locker was bare. She had never competed at a World Championship before and had never been to a European Championships. She had never traded leather in a senior international competition and had never won an Irish senior championship.
Before the tournament began hopes were not high. Her energy centred on winning one just bout. That spare thought she confided in her sister Aoife, an Olympian and the middleweight gold medallist from the 2019 European Championships.
“My goal was, and I remember saying this to my older sister, that I wanted to win my first fight,” she says. “That’s all. Just going was such an achievement for me. I was in assessment two weeks before the championships began. I wasn’t picked.
“We were still in Italy, in Assisi at a training camp and it was between me and another girl, Christina Desmond, who had plenty of experience. We had our assessment and then they told us on one of the evenings. It was a horrible way to find out that she wasn’t picked. Yeah, that is all part of it. It was a big achievement for me.”
As she tells it, the tackling of the world event was about taking one bite-sized piece at a time and not choking on the consumption of too much at once. Following the portion by portion strategy triggered the most revealing journey of her life. O’Rourke won the first bout and then she didn’t stop.
“I forget it half the time myself that I even won the world title,” she says wistfully. “Some days I’d wake up and realise ‘God I won it.’ It’s mad to think.”
When the gold medal arrived, it did so in the twilight of her teenage years. A day turned and without fuss or whirl outside a tidy few at her Istanbul hotel, the 19-year-old celebrated becoming 20-years-old. With that her boxing life accelerated.
She won the first bout, beating Brigitte Mbabi of Congo. Job complete. Then she knocked over the Dominican Republic’s Maria Moronta and she remembers Armenian, Ani Hovsapyana, was the third-round opponent. “That was a world quarter-final,” she says. She was still lacing up her gloves.
“I went into the quarter-finals against Armenia. Then I was guaranteed a medal. But then I wanted to change the colour of the medal. I knew I had achieved my goal. But I didn’t want to stop.
“The semi-final, I was against the Turk [Sema Caliscan]. She had home advantage. That’s probably when I was most nervous. Then, going into the final Amy [Broadhurst] was on before me and I got a sneak peek. I saw her hand been raised. That really made me hungry.
“We knew she [Helena Alcinda of Mozambique] was a good inside worker. Just keep out and keep her long was the instruction. Yeah, it was a tough nine minutes.”
O’Rourke’s breakout along with Broadhurst’s gold put Ireland second only to Turkey on the medals table. Billy Walsh and his USA team were in joint fifth place with one gold medal, and while Britain shepherded three boxers into quarter-finals, they were all beaten and the team left empty-handed.
She now finds herself in a welcome new space with Broadhurst, Kellie Harrington and Katie Taylor as one of Ireland’s four female world champions. Both Harrington and Taylor went on to win Olympic gold medals and now O’Rourke and Broadhurst must shift their focus on to that qualification campaign.
All that is simple. But it is not straightforward. She has to physically alter her weight by moving up or down. In Paris 2024, there are six boxing weight divisions in the women’s event. The ones affecting O’Rourke are the 66kg and 75kg categories.
Her world championship gold medal was won at light middleweight – 70kg – leaving her between two of the Olympic weights and a choice to shed weight to 66kg or gain weight to 75kg.
Complicating that is sister Aoife, who competes at 75kg and hopes to also compete for Ireland in Paris 2024.
Tall at 5′10′' Lisa will initially try to cut, not gain weight. She is the youngest of five sisters raised on their father’s farm in Roscommon and her thinking is clear. She will not move up into a weight division where she might have to fight against one of her siblings for a place on the Olympic team.
“I’ve always said the two of us will never be getting into the ring against each other and that’s a fact,” she says. “Mammy wouldn’t allow it anyway. We don’t think it would be right going that far – to fight each other.
“There is plenty of time. So, I’ll probably cut weight little by little and keep on top of it, see how the body is feeling. She’s 25 now and I’m 20. Yeah, it’s easier, when you are younger. She’d also have extra kilos to lose, if she was to drop. It makes sense for me to drop. I’m closer to the lower weight than she is.”
“I’ll definitely give her the go-ahead at 75kg for Paris. I won’t be going up there. There is a bit of talking. I talked to my coach [Mike Mongan of Olympic BC in Galway] because obviously he knows Aoife is up there, so we have talked about it.
“I have said it to High Performance and they think it’s an option. If the option is there for 66kg why not try to take it? I’d have about four or five kilos to drop at the moment. I’ll do a few kilos and have tests, skin folds and that and take it from there. We’ll see.”
Broadhurst is also part of the equation. She too must move and could revert to 60kg for Paris. But that would mean challenging Kellie Harrington. Alternatively, she could also contest the 66kg division.
Tough decisions for a mass of ability and not just around ambitions for the Olympic Games. As O’Rourke blossomed in Turkey, Roscommon GAA looked on in joyous, bittersweet observance.
The more rounds she won in the Başakşehir Youth and Sports Facility, the greater the distance grew between her boxing and Gaelic football. Taylor left an international soccer career behind for boxing. Football, like O’Rourke’s desire to become a vet, will likely move further from reach.
She played in April when Roscommon won Division Three in the National Football league, Rosie Lennon scoring the winning free three minutes from time against Wexford.
“I would have always put boxing first,” she says. “Gaelic has been a big part of our family growing up so I don’t think I’d ever close the door on it.”
It was against the GAA background with her club Castlerea that boxing arrived serendipitously. It was never in the family until Aoife barrelled into the local club with friends for football fitness.
“Mam and dad were no go,” says O’Rourke. “They were saying ‘no, no.’ But Aoife kept going down. For a few months she’d go after school and she’d say ‘mammy pick me up at this time, I’m going.’
“She’d say to me ‘come on I know you’re going to like it’ and I’d say ‘no, no, no I’m not going to be able to stick this.’
“Then she brought me along a few months later and the two of us stuck at it. Yeah, it was because we were girls at the beginning. Mammy was being like a mother.”
She says that it is her personality to keep pushing. She is a gold medallist with wary confidence, the vigilance keeping her alive to what is possible now and what can prevent her next year of achieving an Olympic dream. Success and ambition will not be leaning on the gold medal, overbearance or vanity.
“Imagine being in an Olympic final,” she says daring to consider the idea. She has never met Taylor but remembers her at London 2012. Watching television with her mam and dad, an eight-year-old sensing the magic. But too young, she didn’t fully grasp the history of the win and the Bray lightweight altering perceptions.
“I never expected to get this high up,” she says never wanting to be the baddest ass in the room or the most quotable boxer in the draw. She doesn’t aspire to be a TikTok star, an internet sensation or to book a shift on Love Island.
“I know I’m a world champion,” she says. “But I’m not going out there big headed thinking I am going to beat them all again.”
A world champion. Speaking like a farmer’s daughters from Castlerea.