‘I’m Kellie Harrington. I train. I box. And I’m proud of that’
The world lightweight champion from inner city Dublin has taken a rocky road to success
Kellie Harrington holds her award for The Irish Times Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year 2018. ‘Medals mean nothing to me. I’m just happy about the place I’m in right now, of how happy my family are, the person I’ve become.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Kellie Harrington remembers how it broke in Astana in 2016. Canadian Sara Kali was between her and a world light-welterweight final. After the first-round bell she turned to go back to her corner. Waiting there was the big Georgian from Bray, Irish coach Zaur Antia.
“‘I f**king love you,’ he is saying to me. ‘You are f**king great.’ I’m like ‘huh?’” says Harrington. “Yeah. Yeah. He’s saying ‘excellent, excellent, excellent. I f**king love you.’”
A corner man’s bag of tricks. Zaur was pleased. She won the bout but lost in the final. It was a silver medal year. After Rio, Katie Taylor would turn professional and Harrington would drop to lightweight. World gold wasn’t far off.
Last year, the 2018 world final in India against Thai boxer Sudaporn Seesondee and there is no first-round love coming from the corner. Harrington had lost it on all the judge’s cards. Again she turns after the bell. Again the Georgian is there. More serious, his hands are making a calming gesture.
Harrington says to him, “What do you think?” Zaur waves. “Very close, very close,” he says. That means maybe they gave it to Thailand, or, maybe they gave it to Ireland. What she understands is over the next two rounds something has got to change.
Split decisions, she says, have always hurt her. Of the five judges, she never gets three. She’s always unlucky. They never fall her way. The World Championship final came down to the five judges.
“So I was ready for it. I’m standing there in the ring. Split decision. Blue Corner. That’s me. Then I’m a million miles away. Everyone is pulling at me. I’m off my feet. Zaur has me in a bear hug. I just want to ring my da. I’m bawling, like I’m proper bawling,” she says. Then hesitates.
“I’ll tell you why I am proud of myself,” she adds. “To come back from that. To come back from . . . everything.”
Portland Row, inner-city Dublin runs from North Strand Road to Summerhill. On one side of the road is Aldborough House. Once the second-biggest private residence in Dublin to Leinster House, it’s a sneering wreck of a Georgian pile facing north towards the flats that fold in to the back of the street.
Harrington understands people’s perceptions. Portland Row sits in the embrace of a swathe of city beset by social issues, a champion stretch of turf for gangland recruitment and disadvantage. Portland Row is also home. It’s in her DNA.
Detached, alienated, mistrustful. Trouble is available in the community. But beside the scar tissue there is pride and hope and, as she tells it, a capacity to forgive and understand. And at its centre is a neighbourhood with a booming heart, big enough to love it all and live with it all and make good things happen. Harrington has been a good thing.
Hers wasn’t normal teenage trouble, but uncontained and self-destructive. She loved primary school but secondary school became a place twisted with irony. She didn’t have any discipline. School had enough of Kellie in second year. She was 14 years old.
“I couldn’t sit still. I was in trouble all the time,” she says. “I never did homework. I was in detention every day. It wasn’t for me. I’d no discipline. I was gone in second year. Academically not the greatest. Streetwise I was very, very clued in.”
Unguarded but wary, charitable but singleminded and tough, thankful but ambitious. Now momentarily evasive. Some things are best untouched.
“I feel like I am still making it up to my ma and da. Even at this stage in my life,” says the 29-year-old. “I’d rather not say the details. I was hanging around in the flats and drinking. I’ve been in dark places and sometimes I have had to pinch myself like ‘am I here now?’
“People back then who looked at me would have said she’s destined for a life behind bars. She’s destined to be dead before she’s 25. Here I am now. Those people I would hope are not eating their words. I would hope that now they are happy for me.
“I mean, I often sit and think what kind of person am I . . . to be where I am now after being thrown out of school. I was the worst possible child anyone could be. I often sit and think of me growing up to me now. The changes.”
At 14 she was told girls don’t box. No club would have her. At 16 she joined Corinthians Boxing Club, across the road from her house. In her head she wanted her life to change and in her head the years, as they do, kind of run into one another. She signed up with the educational program Youthreach. She loved it. Drama, art, reading, writing, day trips. No uniform.
At 18 she went into the army. Always dreamed of being a soldier. Back in uniform. Hated it. Left after four months. She says if it’s not working you change. You don’t stick it out for the rest of your life. You don’t go out to hurt people but sometimes you need to move away, move on.
Two years in Sports Leisure management, a trail of four or five boxing clubs and 10 years ago the first Irish elite title fell on her lap. She was boxing at 69 kilos, nine kilos (20 pounds) heavier than the weight she was when she won at the World Championships. Shortly after that she met her partner Mandy, who boxed at intermediate level. Mandy went to school at Loreto Foxrock. Sweet.
“When I met her I didn’t actually like her. She was so cocky like,” says Harrington with a bit of mischief in her voice. “It was like I’m from town and she’s from there. I was like ‘she’s full of herself’. Didn’t like her at all. I’ve been with her nine years.”
She’s not married. They’re not married. Not yet. She will be. They will be. She, they don’t know when. They’re waiting to see how the next two years pan out over the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo – first get there, then perform and see. Marriage, it’s something she’d like to do.
“Yeah, it’s in the plans,” she says. “No never, ever. Never. I’ve never felt any pushback. I’ve a great family. They are very supportive. I don’t even know if I ever told them, if you know what I mean. There was never a big announcement or anything. It was ‘this is Mandy, she’s my partner’. That was it. Get on with it like.
“I just go through my life. Like I said, I don’t care what people think of me. I don’t have to go out and prove things or explain. You know what I mean. How I live my life, it’s none of their business. How you live your life . . . What you do with your life . . . Are you a good person? I think I’m a good person. I treat people with respect . . . if they deserve it.”
She is the number one lightweight in the world. She’s a target. People are studying her. People used to always study Katie. But they never studied Kellie. That’s changed. She recently won the European Union best female boxer for 2018 and was in Rotterdam receiving the award. She met a reporter who told her he was in Thailand and the federation were talking about her, how they were training specifically for her.
There is a World Championships later this year, which also acts as a qualifier for the Olympic Games in 2020. It will be her first leap into competition as the World Champion. China will also study her, and Russia, and Billy Walsh in the USA. Walsh will study her very closely. It is open season on Harrington.
In that there is a standing challenge that she will confront with typical defiance and an idiosyncratic strain of lone banditry. She knows what she wants, she says. If she doesn’t get it she’ll move on or work around how to get it. She’s not afraid to try things and then say “it’s not for me, I’m outta here”.
Some people do things and, because they’ve thrown all their eggs into one basket, they then continue to do it forever. It’s not her.
“I don’t care what other people think of me,” she says. “Medals mean nothing to me. I’m just happy about the place I’m in right now, of how happy my family are, the person I’ve become. Medals are bonuses. When I started it wasn’t to win medals. It was to be a different person.
“I might be the World Champion but there is somebody out there better than me. For sure. I know that. Inside the ring and outside the ring. In life.”
At weekends she serves meals to the old folks in Fairview because she likes doing it. “Love it. Keeps it real,” she says. She might sit them down for yoga too. Tells them to close their eyes and think of moments in their lives when they were most happy. They have their hands in the air and they are all smiling, she says. Tells them then to take all the bad thoughts and breathe them out. Watch them sail away. Sometimes she brings the Karaoke machine. Who’s first up? Kellie is.
She also sits alongside Katie and Michael Conlan as a peerless athlete, Ireland’s only amateur boxing world champions. Her crown fits snugly or it slips easily. She’s happy either way playing the dinner lady or the champion. The imperative is to remain faithful to a life with boxing that has found her and that she understands.
“Who am I? I’m Kellie Harrington,” she says. “The same as I was three years ago. I train. I box. I work on the weekends. I am a northeast inner city ambassador. And I’m proud of that.”
Her success might not be what she accomplished in New Delhi last year and what that stunning achievement has allowed her to become. It might be exactly the opposite. Her overriding success might be what Kellie Harrington did not become.