23 May 2022
A national treasure whose story of bruising glory has inspired women and girls everywhere, Kellie Harrington is at a career high since taking home Olympic gold - but it’s been a long journey to here, and it’s not over yet for the Dublin-born boxer.
There’s very little left to be written about Kellie Harrington. Since grabbing the nation’s attention in the 2016 Women’s World Boxing Championships, the 32-year-old has secured national hero status and generated enough column inches to stretch from Dublin to Galway and back (using the back roads, too).
In the weeks after this interview, Kellie is feted as the Grand Marshal of Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, and her wedding to longtime partner Mandy Loughlin briefly breaks the Irish internet. Next, she’s due to be given the Freedom of Dublin - an honour only ever given to a handful of women since the 19th century. Her story is increasingly the story of Dublin itself. She’s living in the public gaze, whether she likes it or not.
And with ramrod posture, bright-eyed composure and arms that speak volumes about her punishing training regimen, Harrington is a woman you don’t meet every day.
People have analysed her time and again. The best thing to do is just to let Kellie tell her own story.
“I was born in the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin,” she says, drawing a map of some of Dublin’s oldest Northside streets in her head. “We were living in Richmond Cottages at the time, before we moved to Portland Row, just 500 metres up the road. The family have been there for 31 years now - we’re still there.
“It’s real Dublin,” she says. “You’re lying in your bed and all you hear is the seagulls.”
Harrington came to boxing around the time of the economic crash, and in Corinthians Boxing Club she found a refuge from the inner city.
“In the inner city, back then, there weren't really a whole lot of sporting clubs around in the community,” she recalls. “There was football, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. Boxing was cheap and cheerful - my Ma and Da didn’t have to take loans out of the credit union to get me any training equipment.
“If people showed up [to the club] and couldn’t afford to pay subs that week, it was fine,” she recalls. “They’d never turn you away. Everyone was coming from the same kind of background.”
Her natural talent for the fight was apparent to others right away, even if it wasn’t apparent to Kellie herself.
“From a very early age, everyone always said ‘Oh you’re gonna be good, you’re gonna be good’,” says Harrington, “but I never really believed it until a couple of years ago. I had a natural style. Obviously I wasn’t the way I am now, but from a very early age, people did see that. My Ma and Da never forced me into anything, they left me to do what I wanted to do.
“I am the creator of my own destiny. It’s always been that way.”
That natural style continued to evolve until the 2016 tournament in Kazakhstan where she made her name - though it wasn’t a victory but defeat which made it memorable, when she was narrowly beaten by China’s Wenlu Yang in the light-welterweight final.
“I kinda thought I won the fight,” she explains with a blush. “When you get out of the ring your emotions are high and you say stuff, and it’s just like boom: it’s out of your mouth and you can’t take it back.
“And of course once I came out I says: ‘I’ll be back next year and I’m gonna take the gold’. It wasn’t until I went back and sat down in the hotel I thought, ‘Oh God I’m so embarrassed I actually said that’.
“It’s nice to have self-belief but it does add pressure because you have to back your words up. Thankfully when 2018 came around I won a gold medal in the Worlds and I was like ‘I told yis I’d do it!” she says with a roar of laughter.
That gold began what looked like a sure-fire run to Tokyo 2020 and major Olympic hopes, though things seldom go to plan: in 2019 Kellie broke her thumb twice, first in the National League Championships and then in the European Games.
You can tell Kellie is a veteran of countless TV and radio interviews, videos and podcasts. She pauses before answering questions, looking to the heavens as she composes the right answers - but she never softens her accent, never pares back on her Dublin phrasing, or flinches from telling her truth. She admits the dual injury threw her into chaos.
“I was absolutely devastated,” she reveals. “When that happened I thought this is it, my thumb’s done - 2020 is the Olympics, the qualifiers will literally be just around the corner and I will not be ready by the time this recovers. I thought it was game over, but then Covid hit. Everything was on pause and it gave me a lot of time to rebuild my hand.”
When the world emerged from lockdown, Harrington’s recuperated hand was put to the test in the qualifiers for a rescheduled Tokyo Olympics in Paris. It passed the test, as she took home a gold medal. “It was a great confidence boost heading into Tokyo,” she beams.
“It sent out a message to everybody else in my weight that I was back, that I meant business and I was good to rock.”
And after a wide-eyed arrival at her first Olympic Village, where she would sit and people-watch the throng of athletes as they ate lunch, rock is just what the boxer did with a now-legendary final showdown against Brazilian Beatriz Ferreira.
“I couldn’t believe it to be honest with you,” she says. “I still can’t believe I boxed in the final - that I’m an Olympic champion! It’s kinda so surreal. People ask all the time what were you thinking going in there? How did you feel? What pressure were you under, all kinds of questions like that.
“There’s no crazy, magical answer to it,” explains Kellie. “The only answer I have is, I just went in knowing I was at the top of my game, and she was at the top of her game. I was genuinely so happy to be where I was.”
That match will be discussed in the bars of Ireland for decades to come: how Ferreira dominated the first round; how Kellie unloaded a right in the second that turned the tide; how a clean left in the third delivered a dramatic finish.
“The respect I have and had for my opponent from Brazil was amazing. She’s 2019 world champion, I’m 2018 world champion. Two females at the top of their game fighting it out for Olympic gold,” she marvels; “what more could you ask for?
“I felt no matter what the outcome was, as long as I performed and did myself justice, regardless of whether it was a gold or a silver, I felt like I was making myself proud, making my family proud, and I knew that everyone back home would have been proud regardless. There was no pressure.”
There was no pressure, but there was pride. Back on Portland Row, the sky was filled with tricolour confetti. Kellie’s Ma and Da cheered along with the fans and the assembled media. On screens all over the world, Kellie wept as she stood for the anthem, gold glittering on her chest. It was a storybook ending. Run the credits. Bring up the lights.
Though there’s always the next Olympics.
“The road to 2024 is looking short,” she laughs. “We’ve two years left now. I’m taking my time, I’m not panicking - though I know sometimes it might look like I am. I’m just going with the flow. Hopefully I can qualify in 2023, and get to my second Olympic games.”
To ask an obvious question, is that the goal? To make Irish Olympic history by bringing back gold again?
Kellie, the woman who long ago learned not to talk big outside the ring, smiles diplomatically.
“That would just be some achievement, like,” she sighs. “I’ll be 34 then. It’d just be fantastic just to get there.”
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