Wednesday 22 November 2017

'I'm famous but I'm poor' - rising star Kellie

World Championship silver medallist is forced to 'sign on' so she can train to be a champion, writes Claire Mc Cormack

FIGHTING FIT: The boxing hero struggles with money as there is little help from the State. Photo: David Conachy
FIGHTING FIT: The boxing hero struggles with money as there is little help from the State. Photo: David Conachy
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

The moment the silver medal was placed over Kellie Harrington's head at the World Boxing Championships she thought 'yes, all the struggles and sacrifices for the last 10 years have been worth it'.

Yet just days later she was at the dole office, queuing up for her social welfare payment.

At 14, Kellie started out training in a shed at the back of a neighbour's house because boxing clubs wouldn't accept girls at the time.

Every day she used to look out the window at lads from her neighbourhood in Dublin's north inner city running around the streets as part of their training.

She desperately wanted to be part of that world.

At 16 she finally gained entry - mostly sparring against male counterparts because so few girls were involved. She found it "disrespectful" if lads went easier on her because of her gender.

Kellie vividly remembers her first fight against a girl from Cavan.

"I was hitting her but I'd be stopping to say 'sorry, sorry'. People were laughing at me saying 'that one is never going to box again'. I just wasn't used to hitting a person, I felt bad but she didn't care, she absolutely annihilated me," she said.

That loss ignited a drive so strong in Kellie that she has spent the last decade becoming the best athlete she could be - but it hasn't been an easy road. She gave up on her young social life and lost friends who couldn't understand or accept her desire to achieve her dreams.

Although her name is now in lights after becoming the second Irish boxer in history to reach a Women's World Championship final, her personal and professional fight for success continues.

Sitting along the sunny promenade at Dollymount Strand, every second person looks intently at Kellie thinking 'is that her?' "Great fighting Kellie, I was watching you all week. You've got it all coming to you love," said a passer-by with a smile.

After her matches, Kellie's phone flooded with messages from family, friends and neighbours thanking her for bringing joy to the inner city community - little did they know that days after arriving home with her bronze and silver medals, the 26-year-old was back signing on to supplement her part-time income.

"People keep saying to me 'oh you're famous now, you're famous now' and I'm like 'yeah I'm famous, but I'm poor'," she said.

The dearth of funding for women's boxing meant Kellie has had to work two jobs on top of training every day for much of the last decade. The qualified fitness instructor and personal trainer worked in a gym while also working as a member of household staff at St Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital in Fairview, Dublin - where patients have built a shrine to the young star with a wall of newspaper clippings and photographs.

"You're meant to get a grant when you [win a] medal away, but I found out that I won't actually get a grant until 2017, if I even get it at all," she said.

"I left the gym because it was very demanding but I kept the job in the hospital so I could focus more on training.

"I could work nearly 12 days in a row. I don't mind doing that, I love the job and the patients are great, but when you're training for World Championships you should be able to solely focus on that. Money is a constant worry," she said.

"For the last few months I had to cut back on work so I could train, I need to train everyday. I'd no choice but to sign on. It's not good enough, I should be getting paid for doing what I'm doing," said Kellie, who first sparred with her friend and team mate Katie Taylor when she was 17.

But €188 a week makes it almost impossible to prepare and condition her body to fight the world's most elite light-welterweight boxers. She will soon fight Estelle Mossely, the French lightweight boxer who shockingly ended Katie's 10-year reign at the World Championships last month.

"You want to be eating all the right foods and lean, high-quality meat, but a good diet doesn't come cheap. I try the best I can," she said.

Before her trip to Kazakhstan, Kellie, a member of Glasnevin Boxing Club, saved money in case the food was unsuitable.

"Our boxing association paid for the trip and the hotel and the food, but sure the food over there was just unacceptable. I couldn't eat it and perform, my body wouldn't adapt that quickly. I spent all the money I'd saved up on food, I ate out everyday. There was a fitness cafe across the road and a steak house nearby," she said.

Although Kellie, coached by Jimmy Halpin, is now on a break before starting back into an intense training regime ahead of the European Championships in Bulgaria this November, her main concern is securing sponsorship.

"I'm open for sponsorship, I'm looking for someone, or a company, to get on board and sponsor me, to help me towards the Europeans and next year. My ultimate goal is qualifying for the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020," she said.

"I don't care about being famous, I just want to be able to train properly and take care of myself so I can reach my potential and do my country proud. I know I'm a champion but I need someone in my corner to help me get there," she said.

Sunday Independent

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