Kellie Harrington’s focus on giving back now she’s reached the gold standard

‘I am in the limelight and I know I have to be a role model,’ says Olympic champion

Kellie Harrington celebrates winning gold in the women’s lightweight final with coaches Zaur Antia and John Conlan at the Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Kellie Harrington celebrates winning gold in the women’s lightweight final with coaches Zaur Antia and John Conlan at the Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

The first and the last thing Kellie Harrington wants to see herself now is a role model to anyone else except herself. This is her story of becoming the Olympic champion and how exactly that rubs off on others means nothing and everything to her.

Only two Irish women have shared this Olympic winning feeling before: Michelle Smith in the swimming pool at the Atlanta Games in 1996, and Katie Taylor in this same women’s lightweight boxing contest in London 2012, and we know they rubbed off on people in their own different ways.

For Harrington joining this exclusive gold medal club marks the end of her own Olympic journey, which in truth is like no other. For most of her 31 years she doubted her own ability and capacity to even walk on to the Olympic arena and to come away from Tokyo with a gold medal around her neck ranks among the very finest of immortal Irish sporting moments and gives her a rare and lasting place in the long reels of Irish Olympic history.

It came 16 days after Harrington along with Irish boxing team-mate Brendan Irvine carried the Irish flag into the opening ceremony with the most respectful of bows. Katie Taylor, remember, also carried the Irish flag at the opening ceremony in London 2012, that being a pioneering walk like no other.

One of the first things Harrington said afterwards was how much she is looking forward to on her return to Dublin is walking back into St Vincent’s Hospital in Fairview where she has worked part-time for the past few years, all the while Tokyo being her full-time commitment and focus. That alone sets her apart as a modern Irish Olympic champion like no other.

She had just nine minutes to decide her fate, and at Sunday lunchtime here in Tokyo, she became only the ninth Irish person ever to win a gold medal in all. Two of those came earlier in these Games thanks to Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy.

It ended with her unanimous win over Beatriz Ferreira from Brazil: Harrington decided on that in the second and last round, after the judges awarded the first round to the reigning world champion, who took that crown from Harrington. That mattered a little at the time. What matters now is that Olympic gold medal is coming to Dublin’s north inner city.

The first question I asked Harrington in the mixed zone afterwards is where exactly did this all begin, could she possibly remember any moment in her life when this Olympic dream first struck her as being a potential reality.

Ireland’s Kellie Harrington in action against Beatriz Ferreira of Brazil during the gold medal bout. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Ireland’s Kellie Harrington in action against Beatriz Ferreira of Brazil during the gold medal bout. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

“In 2016, I was after sparring with Estelle Mosely, ” she says, recalling a first meeting with the French boxer, who by coincidence or not had beaten Taylor in their 2016 World Championship bout.

“I remember it being very, very close in sparring. Then she went out and won the gold medal and that made me think, ‘oh, hold on a minute, she’s world champion at the moment and she’s gone and won the Olympic Games’.

“John [Conlon, the Irish coach] was there when I was sparring her and I was like, ‘right sure, I’ll give it a bash and see what happens’. That’s when it happened. That’s when the penny dropped. Before that it was just going through the motions, because apart from club coaches and stuff some people didn’t have confidence in me.

“Once I got confidence in myself and got a bit of backing behind me this is what happens. When club coaches and high-performance coaches come together and come up with solutions and not problems this is what happens.”

Asked then about being this role model and inspiration on some many levels of Irish sport she said: “I can’t believe that I inspire anybody. That’s the hard thing to get my head around. But I know I am in the limelight and I know I have to be a role model and I just want to be the best version of me that I can be so that I can inspire kids and be good role model for kids.

“I want them to bring out the best version of themselves and they don’t have to be Irish champion, world champion, Olympic champion. They don’t have to be anything only a better version of themselves and if I can do that I’ll be happy. For me I love giving and if I can give someone a little bit of inspiration a little bit get up and go that’s means the world to me.”

Of the final fight she said: “Two of us giving absolutely everything we have to try and take that gold medal back to our country. It was a close fight. It was a great fight and we are both warriors. But I have green blood running through my veins and that’s what got me . . .

“I’m an Olympic champion but it doesn’t define me as a person. I’ll be home, I’d say it will be a bit mental, but I will be going back to work, either in two weeks or three weeks.”

Kellie Harrington during the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann at the Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo following her gold medal win. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Kellie Harrington during the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann at the Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo following her gold medal win. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Irish boxing high-performance manager Bernard Dunne was later asked how an Olympic gold medal ranks in boxing, Dunne, of course, being a world champion in his time.

“It is priceless,” he says. “From the moment anybody takes up boxing the dream is to become an Olympian firstly; then to become an Olympic medallist is amazing, but to become an Olympic gold medallist. My hairs are tingling on the back of my neck now just thinking about what she has achieved and done out there. But you know it has been a long road to get here. People see the nine minutes of work but the last 15 months has just been torture for us. It really has been.

“The uncertainly when we left London [after the Tokyo qualifiers were cancelled in March 2020]; the uncertainty of not being able to train, were the Games going to happen? And even up until the week we are in here you are hearing about the potential that they are going to cancel them.

“To maintain that focus and to maintain that ability to drive yourself in training and then to achieve an Olympic gold medal. I’m delighted for Kellie, delighted for the team. I’m not surprised. We came out here with seven athletes who were capable of performing on the world stage and you have all seen that. It is a credit to this team and this coaching and support team that they have achieved.”

Tokyo 2020

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