‘I’m just glad Johnny Sexton didn’t come in a dress’
There was no upstaging Kellie Harrington on a day that put sportswomen centre stage
World champion boxer Kellie Harrington has been crowned the Irish Times Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year for 2018. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
And, just like that, boxer Kellie Harrington sprung into a different type of public consciousness. All it took was a world championship medal and an acceptance speech after winning the Irish Times Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year.
That was it. Harrington, an authentic force of nature on a day when women in sport had an uninterrupted say about how good this year has been.
The lightweight world champion’s unexpurgated account of an ordinary person living an ordinary live doing extraordinary things resonated around a room where the still upbeat Irish hockey team consumed a couple of tables, golfer Leona Maguire, jockeys Katie Walsh and Rachael Blackmore, pentathlete Natalya Coyle and Dublin football captain and Footballer of the Year Sinead Aherne all chimed in on what Harrington called a “chilled” afternoon in the Shelbourne Hotel.
“Where I come from you only hear about the bad things that happen,” said Harrington, who comes from Dublin’s north inner city.
“Some of the kids in my area, they’ll run along with you when you are out training, maybe not the whole run but you know they’ll run around the block with you. It is not all doom and gloom. There’s great people in my area.”
Sometimes on these days of awards and achievement athletes find it difficult to step outside themselves and realise their true worth to Irish life. Harrington was most articulate on that point. A sporting world that is often dominated by men’s sports and men’s achievements and men’s victories was momentarily halted.
“I’m just glad Johnny Sexton didn’t come in a dress. That’s all I’m saying,” said the boxer, breathlessly encapsulating how even for a world champion, her position on the podium does not always seem like a safe and permanent place.
“I might be the overall winner today, but we are all women here,” added Harrington. “We are all participating. We are all taking part. We are all getting out there.”
In that, too, was a theme for the day, where being part of it was not more important than winning but crucial to a collective understanding of celebration.
Harrington won the award. It could have been Sanita Puspure, who took the gold medal at the World Rowing Championships in Bulgaria in September.
The decision falling to Harrington begat the question of what makes a boxer a better world champion than a rower. There is no answer. There really is no difference and everyone knew that.
But somehow Harrington, with her open-book personality and a natural patter that didn’t fail to pull a smile across every face, walked out a winner with nobody in dispute.
The hockey team. A dozen or so of them filled the stage, with Minister for Sports Shane Ross and compere Des Cahill muscled off to the side. This time the women took centre stage.
Again overpowering, thrilled to have thrilled and uptempo, just as they have been every week since their mad run to a silver medal in the London World Cup last summer, they won the Outstanding Contribution to Sport award.
“It’s nice for our sport. We’ve kind of gone under the radar for a long time so it also helps putting us on the map,” said Irish forward Anna O’Flanaghan.
“Tokyo, getting there was always our goal, and the World Cup was a stepping-stone along the way. Tokyo is still the goal.
“When you start playing hockey as a young girl in Ireland you say you want to play for Ireland and you want to go to the Olympics. So, yeah, I still believe it is the holy grail.”
Most of the 14 monthly winners (September was won by two athletes, Puspure and Aherne, and October was won by jockey Blackmore and two-belt lightweight world professional champion Katie Taylor) arrived to take a deserved bow.
Katie-George Dunleavy, who won the August award with Eve McCrystal by successfully defending their Time Trial and Road race titles over two days at the UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships in Italy, was stuck in Gatwick. A drone had closed the airport outside London, and Dunleavy was stranded. In that there was a twist of grim irony as the first eGames showcase event took place during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
Blackmore was soon to jump into a car and drive north. Where will you be at 6pm, asked Cahill.
“I’m on my way to Dundalk [TO RACE]. Probably stuck in traffic,” said Blackmore. Ordinary lives.
But Harrington flicked on a switch and coloured the room, brought a truthful, direct kind of charm. An untutored, unrehearsed free spirit.
“Do you know what, right. I’ll be honest with you, right,” she said. “There’s been loads of awards that have been on and like I haven’t got one of them, right.
“So I come here today and I’m saying to all my coaches I’m up for all these awards and I haven’t got one, right.
“They’re telling me you are a world champion. And I’m saying to everyone, yeah, you’re dead right, you’re dead right.
“But getting it, it does mean something because it means you are getting recognised. You know, like, people are actually taking an interest.
“I can brush it off and say no, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter I didn’t get it. But it does matter. It does matter, right, Everyone wants it. There is not one person there doesn’t want it. No, right. It’s like brilliant. It’s like amazing.”
And she is.