Mary Hannigan: A long, hard climb reaches its golden peak for Kellie Harrington

From difficult boxing beginnings the 31-year-old is now Olympic champion

Kellie Harrington’s family neighbourhood erupted in joy at her gold medal win in Tokyo. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Kellie Harrington’s first ever fight, against a girl from Cavan, looked like it might be her last. “People were laughing at me, saying ‘that one is never going to box again’,” she said a few years back. “I wasn’t used to hitting a person. And I was afraid she’d hit me back. I was stopping to say ‘sorry, sorry’. I felt bad, but she didn’t – she absolutely annihilated me.”

She was in floods of tears after the defeat. If you’d told her then that one day the tears would flow again as she stood on a podium in Tokyo listening to Amhrán na bhFiann, watching the tricolour being raised, with an Olympic gold medal around her neck… well, she’d have laughed at you.

Some journey.

While her victory over Brazil’s Beatriz Ferreira has earned Harrington her very own chapter in Ireland’s Olympic history, the 31-year-old from Portland Row in inner city Dublin might well reflect on her rematch with the Cavan fighter as the bout that changed her life.

So distraught was she by losing on her debut, she trained like a demon in the months after, and next time there were no apologies whenever her punches landed. And enough did to give her a victory on points, the moment her hand was raised by the referee the happiest in her young life.

Kellie Harrington (blue) has her hand raised after beatying Jessica Lyons in the Irish elite championships in 2010. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Kellie Harrington (blue) has her hand raised after beatying Jessica Lyons in the Irish elite championships in 2010. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

She had been aimless until then. A few months after she won gold at the 2018 World Championships, she told Johnny Watterson of this parish that her life could have taken the darkest of turns. “I couldn’t sit still in school. I was in trouble all the time. 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.”

“I was hanging around in the flats and drinking. I’ve been in dark places. 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. 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 [be] me now. The changes.”

Not that her boxing career has been without its low points, some low enough to make her doubt that she had what it took to become a champion. “As my brother says, the last mile is never crowded, that’s the way it does feel sometimes,” she said after she won her semi-final in Tokyo. “It does feel very lonely, but that’s the difference, to be able to hold on in there and keep it going.”

(From left) Harrington’s father Christy, brother Joel, partner Mandy, brother Christopher and mother Yvonne at their house on Portland Row. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
(From left) Harrington’s father Christy, brother Joel, partner Mandy, brother Christopher and mother Yvonne at their house on Portland Row. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

It was only when she won silver at the 2016 World Championships, her first major international medal, that she truly began to believe in herself. Up until then, she said, she was “a nobody” in boxing terms.

That success ultimately led to her receiving her first grant from the Irish Sports Council, in 2017, easing the financial strain that had forced her to combine her boxing with two jobs, one as a fitness instructor in a gym, the other as a caterer and later a cleaner at St Vincent’s Psychiatric Hospital in Fairview.

Her big breakthrough came when she won that world title in 2018, but a broken thumb prevented her from defending her title the following year. She was back in action in time for the European Olympic qualification tournament in London in March of last year, only for it to be abandoned due to the outbreak of Covid-19. And as the months wore on with ever increasing talk of the Tokyo Olympics being cancelled all together, she began to wonder if her Olympic dream would ever be.

But she kept on training, while working through it all in St Vincent’s, one of her tasks cleaning their Covid isolation ward. Her long-term partner Mandy Loughlin played an invaluable role during that period, as she has done in Harrington’s life since they first met over 10 years ago. A former boxer herself, Loughlin trained at home with Harrington in that spell, keeping her motivated at a time when she was unable to go to her gym or work with her coaches.

Harrington with her parents at Dublin Airport after winning the world title in 2018. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Harrington with her parents at Dublin Airport after winning the world title in 2018. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

The work stood to her, Harrington winning the rescheduled Olympic qualifiers in June, her gold there making her the top seed in her division in Tokyo. That, of course, brought its own pressure, the weight of expectation on her enormous, but she’d faced tougher battles throughout her life, and came through them all.

From being told that girls don’t box, sending her in to a neighbour’s shed to spar with shadows, to becoming just the ninth Irish person to win an Olympic gold medal since Ireland was first allowed compete as an independent nation in 1924 – after Pat O’Callaghan, Bob Tisdall, Ronnie Delany, Michael Carruth, Michelle Smith, Katie Taylor, Fintan McCarthy and Paul O'Donovan – yeah, it’s been some journey.

“That one is never going to box again,” they said. ‘Look at me now,’ she can smile.

Tokyo 2020

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