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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 6 December, 2019
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'I didn't start boxing to win an Olympic medal... Every day I'm here is a day I'm winning at life'

Kellie Harrington discusses her injury-plagued year and the addresses criticism from a rival corner ahead of Tokyo 2020 qualification.

Kellie Harrington was speaking on behalf of SAS, the leader in analytics software and services, and the Sport Ireland Institute. SAS is the Official Analytics Partner of the Sport Ireland Institute.
Kellie Harrington was speaking on behalf of SAS, the leader in analytics software and services, and the Sport Ireland Institute. SAS is the Official Analytics Partner of the Sport Ireland Institute.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“IT DOESN’T LOOK real,” sighs Kellie Harrington, nodding towards her bruised and scarred right hand, her palm upturned and flexed. “Look, watch.”

She clenches the same paw into a fist and then repeats the process with her undamaged left, the latter altogether more seamlessly. “See how quickly that goes compared to the other one,” she says, glancing from left to right. “I have to think about it when I do it with the right hand, like.”

Harrington points toward a barely perceptible keyhole mark on the ridge between her right thumb and index finger. “When I broke it in February, they did the surgery through here,” she explains. “But this time they had to open the…I don’t know,” she pauses, caressing the smiley face of scar tissue which now extends across the fleshy part of her palm, beneath the thumb — whatever you call it.

“There’s screws in it now. They’re in there, now, for life. So hopefully that keeps it all together, like.

“Feel it there, like!” she says, extending her hand. “You’ll feel it. It doesn’t feel real, like. It feels weird.”

It does feel weird. Kind of bumpy. Oddly hardened.

It’s been a weird few months for the former lightweight world champion, a bumpy road which began with surgery on her right thumb in July, a full fortnight after Harrington unknowingly broke it for the second time in 2019 during her victorious European Games semi-final in Minsk.

kellie-harrington Harrington on punditry duty for TG4 during last Friday's Irish Elite finals. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

There was to be no Euro Games gold-medal showdown with rival-slash-hero Mira Potkonen. There was to be no European Championships in Spain in August. There was to be no trip to Russia to defend her World Championship gold medal in October. There was to be no defence of her Irish Elite title last week, and the shorter trip to the National Stadium on Dublin’s South Circular Road for punditry work with TG4 wasn’t much of a palliative, either.

“It’s actually heartbreaking because — and I’ve had loads of time, so I’ve been thinking about it over and over — but boxing in your national championships is different to boxing in a World Championships or in a Europeans or anything, because you’re with your club, like,” Harrington tells The42. “You’re with your coaches, your family is there and… Not that there’s not as much pressure on you, but it’s a different type of pressure — it’s a different build-up, and everything about it is just different.

“It’s really enjoyable, like. And I didn’t have that this year (in November). I didn’t have the buzz of training together with George [Bates] and Gillian [Duffy]. I didn’t have that with them this year. And that experience, that feeling when you’re training with someone else and youse are all going for the same thing, but you’re clubmates — it’s amazing, like. That’s like a family, d’you know?

“This year I missed that. I really, really missed that this year.

“And then being down in the Stadium, missing the buzz of being in the changing room, missing the build-up with your coach and with the other boxers out of your club, and the craic going on in the lead-up to getting into the ring… I missed all of that.

I missed a lot, like. To not be able to get in and box and try and get me 10th title was just devastating. At the start of the year when I won my ninth, I was convinced I was going to be boxing at the end of the year, obviously. And I was thinking, like, ‘Jesus, wouldn’t it be great if I could win the Elites twice in the one year?’

“Although I think I have done that before anyways,” Harrington interjects upon herself. “I think I might have done it in… It would have been…”

It was 2015, the last pre-Olympic year in which the Elites were held twice, the November edition having been moved forward from 2016 to make more room for the Olympic qualification schedule of the following spring.

“It would have been ’15, yeah. It would have been… Would it have been? ’15, going into ’16… Probably. Ah, anyway — it’s just a shame, like. If I could have been in there I would have been in there, but the hand is not ready. It wasn’t in my return-to-play plan.

“Sparring and fighting are two different things: sparring is quite controlled — you can control what shots you’re throwing in it. And if you’re getting messy in a spar, you can stop it to make sure you’re not going to get injured. Whereas in a fight, you just can’t. And I just can’t take the risk. I couldn’t. I had to listen to what medical experts were telling me to do, really. As hard as it was, I had to listen, like.”

kellie-harrington SAS will provide software and consultancy services to help the Sport Ireland Institute be a more data-driven and insights-led organisation, particularly across boxing and swimming. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The North Inner City icon stresses that she would like a fight in the coming weeks to get back into the swing of things, almost literally. She points toward international test matches in the new year as a prospective examination of her rehabbed right hand, explaining that psychologically, she’s still reticent to let it fly with any great fervour.

“At the moment, I’m sparring, but they’re selective spars — very selective. It doesn’t get messy where I’m going to throw something silly, like — because I’m known for throwing silly shots.

“It’s very controlled, whereas in a test match, I’ll… Well, yeah, I’ll throw those silly shots!” Harrington laughs. “And then I’ll know what way the hand is. I think it’ll take a couple of fights.

“As of now, I’m just trying to get back to somewhere close to where I was. Because I don’t feel like I’m ready. I’m not ready, to be honest. I’m not ready to fight now. In another two, three weeks’ time, possibly — I’m working on it.”

Her absence from the Elites earlier this month, and indeed her readiness for the championships or lack thereof, have been called into question by Harrington’s only bona fide domestic challenger at 60kg.

Amy Broadhurst, the standout Irish talent who deputised for Harrington at both the Europeans and the Worlds this year, and was crowned the new national champion without throwing a shot last Friday night, has for the most part bitten her tongue but has still flicked out a few throwaway verbal jabs.

The Dundalk woman’s bone of contention is that Harrington was among the seven reigning champions named in the official list of entrants for November’s Elites who ultimately didn’t defend their crowns, but are still fancied to represent Ireland at March’s Olympic qualifiers in London. Per IABA policy, boxers must ‘enter’ the Elites in order to be eligible for selection for such international events, but Broadhurst and several of her male peers felt robbed of what might have been their final opportunity to claim pole position in their respective divisions, many believing their more favoured rivals to have been wrapped in cotton wool — a theory which High Performance Director Bernard Dunne strongly denies.

amy-broadhurst-and-kelly-harrington Harrington (R) and Broadhurst trade during their 2018 Elite final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Upon hearing confirmation a fortnight ago that Harrington had been ruled out, Broadhurst slipped into an otherwise anodyne statement this particular barb: “With words said at the beginning of the year I thought it might have been backed up but I guess not”.

It was a reference to an interview Harrington did in February, in which the newly crowned world champion took umbrage with the notion that Broadhurst was to ‘take a step back’ so as not to obstruct the Dubliner’s path towards Tokyo 2020.

Broadhurst had previously indicated to The42 that she believed there to be no point in challenging Harrington considering her recent World Championships success. Harrington, however, perceived this to be a slight against her — an insinuation not only that she may receive favourable treatment over the subsequent 12 months given her newly achieved status, but that she would even need the helping hand despite soundly beating an albeit greener Broadhurst in the Elite final a year prior.

With a figurative mic-drop in February, Harrington claimed Broadhurst lacked “the balls” to challenge her for an Olympic position, an accusation which prompted the Dealgan BC youngster to pull an almost immediate u-turn in an interview with her local radio station, LMFM.

It briefly descended to something unseemly, unpure. It was brilliant.

Alas, what would have been one of the most eagerly anticipated Elite finals ever — male or female — didn’t come to fruition on account of Harrington’s broken thumb.

download Harrington and Broadhurst pose with the Dubliner's World Championships gold medal in 2018.

The 29-year-old has paid little heed to the accusations levelled against her by Broadhurst-aligned boxing boffins since she was withdrawn from the championships two weeks ago. Blind eyes, deaf ears, stiff hand.

True to form, though, she doesn’t shy away from giving her three cents when the subject is broached, albeit she keeps her guns holstered this time around.

“Ah, listen, c’mere, like… Fantastic boxer,” Harrington says of Broadhurst. “I’ll take absolutely nothing away from her — she’s a fantastic boxer, a great athlete. And her time will come — d’you know what I mean? Her time will come.

I’ve earned my chance to go and try and qualify for the Olympics in March. I’m not going to let any bullshit or anything like that drag me down, or anybody who thinks that I don’t deserve a chance to go over there and qualify. Because I know I deserve it. People can say what they want because the outside noise doesn’t bother me whatsoever.

“But you just have to be patient. Ride the wave, basically. I did it for many years: ride the wave, keep going, keep the mouth shut… Loose lips sink ships!” she laughs.

“We’re both the same weight, we’re both trying for the same thing, we’re both top-class athletes. It’s not the case that one of us is automatically better than the other or anything, because I don’t think that by any means.

I don’t go around thinking, ‘I’m better than her’, and I wouldn’t be going around acting like I am better. I don’t presume I’m better — until we box. I’ll let my boxing do the talking. And at the end of the day, whoever is sent to the qualifiers is down to Bernard [Dunne], to Zaur [Antia], to John [Conlan] — to all the coaches. And they’re going to want the best going out there, so they’re not just going to pick someone for the sake of it! You just have to trust that. And that’s it, really, like.

Harrington’s belief is that by way of her earning five major international medals over the course of this Olympic cycle, she has banked enough credit to be put forward for Tokyo qualification. Broadhurst’s contention is that, as the current Irish champion in their division, she deserves a shot to flip the script.

kellie-harrington-red-in-action-against-irma-testa Harrington (red) lands a right hand on Irma Testa during her European Games quarter-final earlier this year. Source: Soenar Chamid/INPHO

Harrington raises a brow and purses her lips at the prospect — however unlikely it may be — of a box-off between them, mulling it over briefly. Rather than open a can of worms, however, she stresses that she’s “only a boxer” and reiterates that only Dunne and his High Performance coaching staff can decide upon such matters.

“I’ve no bad feelings towards Amy, genuinely,” she adds, likely all but closing the book on a rivalry that never really had the chance to properly take off. “Well, it’s not even that I have no bad feelings towards her — it’s just that I don’t care at all what she does, because what she does has nothing to do with me. You have to focus on yourself as a boxer. If I start focusing on her, I might as well hang up the gloves. That’s a tricky road to be going down.

“Like I said, she’s fantastic and her time will come. I’m pretty, pretty sure her time will come.”

Harrington sits backwards in her chair, surveying the kitchen in the Sport Ireland Institute in Abbotstown where she’s on hand for the unveiling of a deal between Sport Ireland and SAS, a new data-analytics partner which will provide software and consultancy services through Tokyo 2020 and beyond.

“It’s all good, everything’s good,” she assures. “I’m staying as positive as I can. I’m avoiding all the negative shit that’s coming my way. I don’t need it, like. What’s the point?

Boxing is boxing. I’ll be here to help the next person as soon as I’m finished. I’ll be here to help whoever’s coming up behind me, please God. Helping with sparring and doing anything I can do. That’s what sport is about. It’s bigger-picture to me.

kellie-harrington Harrington arrives home with her World gold in 2018. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Nobody can help a boxer more than somebody who has sought to exploit their weaknesses in the ring, of course. Rivalries can make for great alliances down the road.

But while she intends to reinvest into her sport the rewards she has reaped from it, Harrington isn’t looking too far ahead, either. Not even as far as March’s qualification event in London, participation in which she knows better than to take for granted given her woes over the past year.

She’ll take it day by day for now, all the while living her dream as the injury nightmare hopefully, finally, draws to a close.

“See, I didn’t start boxing to win an Olympic medal or to become a world champion,” she says. “It was to take myself down a different pathway in life.

“And for me, every day that I’m here, every day that I’m involved in sport, is a day that I’m winning at life.

“It’s more to me than winning an Olympic medal or a Worlds medal or anything like that…

“I’m just winning at life every day.”

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