Friday 24 May 2019

Vincent Hogan meets Kellie Harrington: 'I'm not just a boxer chasing the next medal. There's so much more to it.'

 

Kellie Harrington has her sights set on securing her place in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Photo: Karen Morgan
Kellie Harrington has her sights set on securing her place in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Photo: Karen Morgan
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The door shuts, but the gym sounds follow her here, into this narrow, cream-walled room; a whistling, clicking rope; a bag jolting to the fire of hard, unchallenged fists; young feet sinking into canvas; a bell.

Always a bell.

Kellie Harrington chatting to Vincent Hogan at the St Mary’s Gym in Tallaght. Photo: Karen Morgan
Kellie Harrington chatting to Vincent Hogan at the St Mary’s Gym in Tallaght. Photo: Karen Morgan

This journey that consumes Kellie Harrington's life has never had one, big static destination, never a solitary, clearly identifiable end-game. In time, everything just evolves and grows, bending to changed circumstance and understanding. She knows it better than anyone; how today's obsession can be tomorrow's cigarette smoke.

So only the sounds have permanency in this busy boxing workshop, just in behind the shops on St Dominic's Road in Tallaght.

She is a world champion, but here, in this place, there are no crowns, no badges. It's what drew her to St Mary's, she says, the sense of easy democracy, of champions waiting their turn for use of the pads behind children there only to learn discipline.

Noel Burke, her coach, sets that constitution. No Big Time Charlies here. No heads in the clouds.

He remembers first seeing her years back, up in St Saviours in Dorset Street, sparring a local boy. She was with the West Finglas club at the time, this tough inner-city girl with no dreams in her head beyond being physically self-sufficient.

"You could see she had a little bit about her, some strange moves," he says now.

"But I don't know if she had a huge amount of belief in herself. Something wasn't clicking."

The first time they spoke, she was a World Championship silver medallist, brought in at short notice to the High Performance Institute to spar two test matches against Katie Taylor's successor as world lightweight champion, Estelle Mossely.

Kellie Harrington proudly displays her World Championship gold medal with her club coach Noel Burke. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Kellie Harrington proudly displays her World Championship gold medal with her club coach Noel Burke. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The French girl would win Olympic gold in Rio two years later, but there, in that Abbotstown ring, Kellie Harrington dished out more pain than she received.

She wasn't even in training at the time, didn't really have her competition head on. But that ring intelligence, that ability to assimilate tactical detail, that breadth of skill range, specifically that precious gift of switching in a whim from orthodox to southpaw, all of these things caught the eye.

Kellie was still restless though, still inclined to bounce from club to club, from one faith to another.

Then Zaur Antia rang Burke, asking would he take her into St Mary's. He agreed, but only after speaking to her old coach, Jimmy Halpin, in Glasnevin. Burke wanted to know exactly who and what he'd have coming through the door.

And now?

"She's a very intelligent human-being," he says of Harrington.

"Wouldn't have had that great a formal education, but you wouldn't meet many people sharper in any walk of life. And what I like about her is she's demanding. She knows what she needs and if she's not getting it, she's not happy.

"Most boxers will just nod and agree with a coach, but with Kellie, it's very much a two-way thing. She always wants to learn and you can't beat honesty.

"If there's a problem with you, you'll be told. Nothing's hidden."

There was talk of a giant mural being planned for somewhere near her home place on Portland Row, but the very mention of it sets Harrington into an almost sub-conscious audit now of inner-city people she considers just as deserving.

The names come tumbling from the mouth of someone, it is clear, who will never get used to being the most important person in a room.

Wes Hoolahan.
Troy Parrott.
Olivia O'Toole.
Lynn Rafferty.
Barry Keoghan.
Laurence Kinlan.

"I could be here all day, naming people from the inner-city," she says with unambiguous pride.

"These are world-class people who've come out of the same place as me."

In time, you notice that Kellie keeps returning to Portland Row, pulled back by the simple romance and loyalties of its hard streets. The decency in its people.

Her life could have gone in a thousand different directions, most of them turbulent, but whatever drove her 16-year-old self to walk into Corinthians Boxing Club will forever come back to her as a blessing.

What is it she remembers of that girl?

"She was hungry, hungry for something different," she says simply.

"Not a world title or anything specific, just hungry for a different life. Me Ma put me into disco-dancing and Irish dancing and ... like... that wasn't me. I needed something more physical than that.

"And... I just love fighting. Looking back at me when I was 16, I still see parts of that me now."

Specifically?

"Hunger. Determination. I'm very determined, always have been. I don't think you ever lose that."

The only daughter of Yvonne and Christopher and sister of Christopher Jnr, Aaron and Joel, she thinks about those qualities and what they represent.

As an elite athlete today, Kellie has access to all the support structures of boxing's High Performance Unit, occasionally tapping into the sports psychology skills of Dublin footballer Kevin McManamon.

And she's just begun a certificate in sports psychology course in Dún Laoghaire, given her fascination with the power of the human mind.

Harrington was once an inveterate worrier, you see. Someone "riddled with nerves". But she worked a lot of stuff out on her own and now actually welcomes that tingle of anxiety.

"You almost learn to befriend something that's almost not befriendable if you know what I mean?" she says with a smile.

How exactly?

"I have a theory that it comes from living in the inner-city," is her reply.

"It comes from resilience. I think that anyway. I think we're all just resilient and, I don't know, street-wise really. I do think that we're tougher than people who are not from there. And we are... because it's mad... you've grown up and you've seen... God knows what you've seen... or what you've been through.

"And it just makes you resilient. Like, I kind of have my head screwed on. In some ways, I'm really smart and in some ways I'm really not smart. But I'd be street-smart.

"Because it's a great community. Like you've Sheriff Street, you've up along Portland Row, Ballybough, Liberty House, Summerhill, while they're all a good walking distance from one another, everyone knows each other. If something happens up in my neck of the woods, people from Sheriff Street will look out for you and vice versa. Everyone just clicks together.

"Because we all come from the same bloody spoon, you know what I mean?"

She'll do this until she feels the hunger in her dissolve. The willingness to hurt.

Life as an elite athlete precludes any identifiable social life, but that doesn't feel any kind of chore now. Her partner, Mandy, leads - if anything - an "even healthier" lifestyle, so clean living isn't any penance here. Kellie fights at 60 kilos, an Olympic weight. Nine years ago, she was boxing at 69.

The big casualties?

"Batter burgers and chips!" she replies, exploding with laughter.

"I don't know, like, I was only moved down from my Ma's house at that stage, only starting to learn how to cook my own meals. I don't know what kind of diet I had back then, but the chipper was only on the end of the road.

"And it was hard going by, smelling those lovely, fresh chips!

When she collected that World Championship light-welterweight silver in Astana, she returned home to life on the dole. It would be the guts of a year before funding kicked in, yet people assume that wealth, inevitably, follows celebrity. It didn't then. Still doesn't now.

Kellie actually works weekends on the household staff of St Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital in Fairview, describing the patients in St Mary's ward as her "other family".

There, she serves them meals and, between sittings, essentially puts on a kind of impromptu cabaret show. She loves it, loves them, loves the fun they share.

"Come 10.0 on Saturday or Sunday morning, I don't feel like I'm an athlete anymore," she explains.

"I genuinely don't. That whole part of me is mad. I go in for the weekend and it's literally like I'm going in to put on a show. They'll all chance their arms with me and, sure, I'm a sucker. I give in to absolutely everything.

"Then I come home, sit on the chair and I'm not joking you, I am dead. I'd be there, wondering 'Jesus, why am I so tired?'

"Then I remember 'Oh yeah, I was training hard all week too!' But if I didn't have that break with going to work, then I wouldn't really have anything. That's my breakaway from boxing. My non-athlete life."

The patients put up a bit of a shrine to her when she came home from New Delhi last year, that World Championship gold around her neck.

But if Harrington was a woman on fire at those championships, one small human tableau is maybe the most precious thing she took from that day she became champion of the world.

Just after a gulping, breathlessly emotional call home to her Ma and Da, she bumped into coach Dmitry Dmitruk on her way back into the arena.

Later, she'd see the video of her corner's reaction to the verdict, Dmitruk jumping into Antia's arms and being held there "like a baby, legs off the ground" by the great Georgian.

But now, it was just her and Dmitruk in a corridor, a spontaneous expression of gratitude tumbling forth.

"I remember just saying, 'Dima, thanks very much for everything that you've done for me, because it's led to this moment, the best time of my life...

"And he was like, fighting the tears back, 'No don't you be thanking me, THANK YOU!' I'll never forget that.

"Later I'm watching him and Zaur celebrating and I'm nearly crying. Not because I'm a world champion or anything, but because of the happiness that these two are getting out of it. Because it's like a team. Everyone's put so much in, putting everything together outside the ring, believing in me for years when I probably didn't believe in myself.

"So for them to see that and me to see them seeing that... ah, that's something you can't buy."

Back in Dublin, Burke watched the fight on his phone in his son's bedroom and admits he "melted" when her hand was raised. Minutes later, Antia's voice was on the end of the phone from India. "We did it!"

Always 'we'.

But here's the thing about Kellie Harrington. This wasn't ever a childhood dream of hers, never a picture in her head.

Most people could probably tell you in cinematic detail where they were when Katie Taylor won gold at the London Olympics. Kellie's not even entirely sure where she watched the fight, just knows she studied it repeatedly in the weeks that followed.

She'd been on teams with Taylor and understood the work that took her to the mountain-top.

"But I was never looking at her, thinking 'I'm gonna go to the Olympics!' I was still on my little journey of just becoming better every day."

In truth, it was only about three years ago that Harrington took a long, hard look in the mirror and decided to get serious.

That decision coincided with joining St Mary's and linking up with Burke, though - in many ways - he was pushing an open door. That silver won at 64kg in Astana - "I was probably as surprised as anybody else" - and then those two test bouts with Mossely told her something she just couldn't ignore.

"I started to think 'I'm holding my own against these girls...'"

People assume many things about a world amateur boxing champion, one of which is that you will be seen at the next Olympics.

But it isn't that simple. Even world champs must earn their ticket to Olympia and Kellie's first opportunity to secure a place in Tokyo will come as she attempts to defend her crown in the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude next October. Before that, in June, she goes to the European Games in Minsk.

Burke believes that, at 29, the possibilities for her now are endless.

"I've never seen an athlete improve so much," he states categorically. "Age is left outside and there's so much more to come. I've only seen two other athletes in High Performance over the years who had Kellie's work ethic. Katie Taylor was one, young Jason Quigley the other.

"First in the gym, warm-up done to perfection, last to leave. Everybody else is gone, but she's still stretching.

"Kellie's a lot fitter now than before she went into those World Championships and she has a talent that's God-given. She has these really strange movements that you couldn't teach and sees things earlier than most people.

"She's fast, not electrically fast, but her timing is fantastic. In a strange way, she doesn't move the way a boxer should move.

"But she's a great human-being, a diamond. The boxing is a bonus with Kellie."

She says their union works because Burke sees the person before the boxer. He reads the human map. She's been through her share of clubs, but never had a coach like him before. He just gets her. And he knows that this game isn't the thing that will ultimately define Kellie Harrington.

"There's so much more to coaching than just coaching," she says. "Like, I can't have someone who's just a robot towards me. I need someone who is real and honest, who is paying attention to me as a human-being as well as a boxer. Who sees me as Kellie. Like, you know, a 29-year-old female who bloody goes through a cycle once a month, you know what I mean?

"Not just a boxer or a world champion chasing the next medal. There's so much more to it."

Beyond Tokyo, she fancies the idea of turning pro "with the right contract and the right people", but not for some vague, long-lens ambition. It'll be a cold business decision if she makes it. One that allows her "get in and get out" without becoming some sad ghost of her past. In the meantime, she loves this life and what it gives her. But she recognises that it's fleeting too.

"All I want is to be better tomorrow than I am today," she says flatly. "Even if that's just through some tiny thing, I'll be happy. I just want to be the best version of me. And when I'm in peak fitness, I'm hard to beat. When I'm switched on and focused, I'm just a different person. If you see me in the warm-up area, you'd be like, 'she's losing her mind...'

"I don't know, I just turn into a different species altogether.

"Sport has changed my life for the better but that doesn't mean, if I don't have boxing, something bad is going to happen. My life won't fall apart. My family, my friends, my patients up in St Vincent's, they'll all still be there for me if the s**t hits the fan. They'll be there to pick up the pieces with me.

"The man on the moon or the man walking his dog down in the park, he's going to judge me. He'll either say, 'Ah, don't worry about it love...' or it'll be 'I knew she wouldn't'. And that opinion of me is irrelevant to me. It means absolutely nothing.

"I know who is real. I think I'm old enough and wise enough now to be able to see that.

"And I love being able to give. This is not a physical thing like a present, like a bottle of perfume or chocolates or flowers. This is like an emotional thing that I can give. Like, does that even make sense? Like a spirit. To be able to share moments like this with everyone... that's better than anything you can give someone.

"These are memories. Pictures fade, memories don't."

Irish Independent

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