Golden girl relishes taste of big time
Funding her boxing with part-time work at a deli counter, Aoife O’Rourke is targeting Tokyo after becoming just the second Irish woman to be crowned a senior European champion
Four days after becoming the second Irish woman to be crowned European senior boxing champion, Aoife O'Rourke was in the local Daybreak shop in Ballinlough, Co Roscommon.
She wanted to get her life back to normal after a whirlwind few days.
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Last Saturday she won a gold medal in the middleweight final in the European Boxing Championships in Madrid when she beat Poland's Elzbieta Wojcik on a unanimous decision.
On Sunday evening, a few thousand people turned up to welcome her home to Castlerea and on Wednesday she was back behind the deli counter for her part-time job in the local food store.
O'Rourke (22) currently gets no funding from Sport Ireland. Her club, Castlerea Boxing Club, helped her as much as they could for her trip to Spain.
This weekend, for example, the boxing club will sell turf to raise general funds. O'Rourke works part-time to fund herself. And the people she's been serving from behind the deli counter this week are the same people who welcomed her home last Sunday evening. It's a special circle of life for a new champion.
Katie Taylor is the only other Irish woman to achieve what O'Rourke did last weekend, but their jumping-off points into the sport are different.
Taylor started boxing at the age of 11; O'Rourke only took it up five years ago when she was 17 because the girls in her school were doing it and convinced her to try it out.
Boxing was in Taylor's family before Katie made it her life. There was no boxing history in the O'Rourke family of five daughters and Aoife had to draw her parents in to convince them that this was the sport for her.
"The boxing club (in Castlerea) opened in 2011 and it wasn't until 2014 that I actually went in because my parents weren't really on for the whole boxing thing. It wasn't a big thing especially around here as well. I suppose they thought it was more of a man's sport," O'Rourke says.
"They did find it hard to watch at the start. My nose used to always bleed so that was a bit squeamish for them. But they're very proud of me, they love it now."
It was the fitness side that initially pulled O'Rourke to boxing: the circuit training, the running, the skipping. O'Rourke was a Gaelic footballer. Her late great grandfather, Dan O'Rourke, was president of the GAA from 1946-1949.
Once O'Rourke started boxing she got hooked, but it took time for her to get used to sparring and to people watching her.
"You know everyone's kind of looking at you when you're in the ring. So when I started boxing and sparring I think I was more conscious of people looking at me. I had no technique or anything at the start so I felt it was like everyone was looking at how bad you were," O'Rourke says.
"It's probably taken me this length of time to realise that everything you do you do for yourself and people are going to have their opinions no matter what you do. As long as you're happy with what you do. It's only now I realise that you don't have to please everyone."
A girl doing boxing didn't please everyone's sense of orthodoxy.
"You meet people and they ask you, 'why do you have a black eye?' You tell them you're a boxer and they kind of don't agree with it because you're a girl. I think it's definitely getting a bit better now. Not as many people are against it."
O'Rourke says her coach, Paddy Sharkey, gave her the confidence and belief that she could do this. She's won five national titles - two U-22, two elite and one intermediate.
She would be too modest to tell you but O'Rourke was also a very high achiever in school with an ambition to become a vet like her grandfather, Donal.
She plans to go to college as a mature student, although she doesn't know when or what she will study.
For now, boxing is consuming her. She'll have her first chance to qualify for the 2020 Olympics at a European qualifying event next March in London.
If she makes the semi-finals, she will qualify for Tokyo. Next year she will receive Sport Ireland funding, although the amount depends on what plan the IABA put in place.
It is bewildering that her stunning rise in the sport isn't being matched by immediate government funding.
For O'Rourke the Olympics is the inescapable dream.
"I know I'm at that level. But I just want to take it as it comes and not get too ahead of myself now. To qualify, it would be incredible."
Another easy assumption to make was that when O'Rourke was a 15-year-old kid watching Taylor win gold in the 2012 Olympics that it directly led to her taking up boxing two years later. But things are rarely as linear as we expect them to be.
"I do remember watching her in 2012. I don't think it even fully registered with me that this girl was representing Ireland at boxing. I was just watching it because it was on the telly," O'Rourke admits.
"Definitely, looking at her now she's done massive things for women's boxing. I'd only love to achieve a fraction of what she has."
She's already doing that. And boxing in the family has become a new normal. Her youngest sister, Lisa, was sceptical when Aoife took up boxing. But she soon followed her into the sport and yesterday Lisa qualified for the quarter-finals of the European Youths in Sofia.
O'Rourke will return to full training next week in Dublin but has been overwhelmed by the support she's been given by the local people in Castlerea at the homecoming.
"It was totally unexpected, they've been supporting me the whole week and sending me best wishes from my very first fight to my last fight," says O'Rourke, with no hiding from the success in the Daybreak store either with flags and pictures of her around the shop.
What Taylor and O'Rourke also have in common is a striking humility. She says her European gold medal isn't in a special place at home, just in with other medals.
Watch out for O'Rourke. She's already shown she is a fighter who can go the distance.