Relief and joy as warrior Kellie Harrington basks in gold

‘I love giving, and if I can give someone a little bit of inspiration that means the world to me’

Fresh from smothering coach John Conlan with a long, teary hug, the rims of her eyes still pink from the medal ceremony, the National Anthem and the slow, stirring realisation of what she had just accomplished, Kellie Harrington, one hand on the Olympic gold medal, stepped to the microphone, stared across the barrier and listened as the questions rolled in about the boxers coming up behind her, the people of her community in inner city Dublin, the children who look up to her.

“I can’t believe that I inspire anyone,” she says. “That’s the hard thing to get my head around.”

Minutes before Harrington had stopped a speeding train called Beatriz Ferreira, a broad, squat young talent from Brazil and the 2019 world champion, who had bulldozed her way through the draw in Tokyo's Kokugikan Arena.

A fearless, go-forward boxer, Ferreira had destroyed Mira Potkonen, the bronze medallist from Rio, in the semi-final as a more nuanced and adaptable Harrington out-thought her Thai opponent Sudaporn Seesondee to win on a split decision.

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As she stood initially silent and confused about the train of thoughts running through her head and just the third Irish woman after Katie Taylor and Michelle Smith de Bruin, to feel the weight of an Olympic gold medal around their neck, the new lightweight Olympic champion remembered back five years ago to a spar session with a French boxer.

"In 2016 I was after sparring with Estelle Moseley and being very, very close," said Harrington. "Then she went out and won the [Rio 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 [Conlan] was there 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.

Solutions

“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.”

All week Harrington had been coaching herself to accept fate as it came her way. She had convinced herself and anyone who listened that there was more to Kellie than a pair of fists, that her life was multifaceted, and boxing was just an element among many.

She agreed her journey in Tokyo was important but its value no higher placed than the other things that made her a thoughtful and articulate athlete. She had aligned the winning of the gold medal with another simple objective, to be the best version of herself that she could be.

And if she concentrated on being the best version of herself everything would flow from that, the training, the mental strength that became stronger with each bout, the correct tactics, the decision of judges and the gold medal. The most truthful version, the best version of Kellie Harrington was the one that defused Ferreira.

“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 a good role model for kids,” she said.

“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 of get up and go, that means the world to me.”

Injuries

Harrington’s path to Olympic gold, even from the beginning of her believing in herself , was not a smooth ride. The 2018 World Championship fell her way and it was only then people realised she was a cut above being decent.

But the injuries rolled in, and looking back from the gold medal podium she sees the postponement of the Olympics for one year as serendipitous. Having broken her thumb twice, time was not with her for 2020, then became her friend for 2021.

While she was dealing with her injury, Ferreira stepped up and won the 2019 World Championship. When the Olympics were postponed, there was an extra year of healing.

“I broke my thumb twice in 2019. I broke it in the elites, fixed it, went to the European Games, broke it again. I thought that was it, like. But I was doing plenty of yoga, trying to keep me head together and it was all right. Then bang, Covid.

“It was probably the best thing that happened for me because it gave me time to get ready, to prepare. That’s all I needed was time, so it was probably a blessing for me. I know that’s not a good thing to say, but . . .”

Coach Zaur Antia calls Harrington a universal boxer, that she is two people at the same time. Against Ferreira the Brazilian pushed and pushed, hunched over, her arms pistons as she tried to cut down Harrington’s space.

But Harrington switched orthodox to southpaw, feinted and shimmied around the ring, landing scoring blows as she departed Ferreira’s hit zone to set up in another part of the ring.

Pressure

As hard as Ferreira squeezed and put on the pressure, Harrington flashed in shots and left. Her focus, her patience and belief in how Antia and Conlan had tactically set her up was unshakable.

She lost the first round 3-2, and won the second and third 5-0, 5-0. Afterwards she bowed to the Japanese because she knew it was respectful.

“It’s the two of us in the final, the 2018 world champion, the 2019 world champion. Like can you ask for a better Olympic final than that,” she says.

“I don’t think you can. 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 . . . ”

Impossible to say but with that she might have squeezed the gold medal in her hand a tiny bit harder.