O'Rourke joins Harrington in claiming gold at prestigious Strandja tournament

The Tokyo Olympians took gold in Sofia, neither of them losing a fight in the eyes of a single judge all week.

Aoife O'Rourke (left) and Kellie Harrington (right) celebrate their Strandja wins.
Aoife O'Rourke (left) and Kellie Harrington (right) celebrate their Strandja wins.

Updated Feb 26th 2022, 6:15 PM

KELLIE HARRINGTON AND Aoife O’Rourke have won gold medals at the 73rd annual Strandja tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria in the lightweight and middleweight divisions respectively.

Harrington topped the podium at Strandja for the first time after a bruising 60kg final versus Serbia’s game Natalia Shadrina.

The Olympic lightweight champion withstood Shadrina’s abrasive challenge to take a unanimous decision, with all five judges awarding Harrington the bout (29-28 x3, 30-27 x2).

The 32-year-old Dubliner, who was on the wrong end of a controversial decision against her Finnish rival Mira Potkonen when she last fought at Strandja, was visibly emotional as she was presented with her gold medal and winner’s certificate at the end of the afternoon session.

O’Rourke, the 2019 European champion from Castlerea in Co. Roscommon, also won her final in the eyes of all five judges, outworking, out-landing and occasionally overwhelming Panama’s 2014 world champion and 2018 South American champion Atheyna Bylon over their three rounds.

O’Rourke forced a standing count of her opponent in the second round en route to her unanimous victory (30-27x 4, 29-28) and beamed as she was confirmed as the winner at 75kg.

FMinn6eWYAAfdmX Aoife O'Rourke with her Strandja gold.

Though it is not considered a ‘major’ tournament per se, the annual Strandja event carries significant prestige. Because only the world’s top boxing countries are invited to compete at it, it could be argued that it is on paper often more difficult to medal at Strandja than it is at a European Championships, a World Championships or an Olympic Games because there are simply no favourable draws in the annual Bulgarian event.

However, the Irish team and their contemporaries are using this year’s tournament as a preparatory pit-stop ahead of the women’s Worlds and the men’s Europeans, both of which take place in May.

Harrington, in competitive action this week for the first time since she captured Olympic gold against Beatriz Ferreira last summer, won unanimous decisions in all four of her bouts en route to gold.

She started sharply against Serbia’s Shadrina, bossing the first half of the first round before Shadrina, 31, brawled her way back into it with a 90-second period of sustained pressure. Still, Harrington produced enough over the three minutes to take a 5-0 sweep on the judges’ cards as she returned to Zaur Antia and John Conlan in the Irish red corner.

Harrington withstood that heat and clearly took the second through cleaner, cleverer work — albeit one judge bafflingly awarded that particular stanza to Shadrina. Harrington, though, was up 20-18 on four cards heading into the final round meaning that, for the most part, the pressure was off; Shadrina would need to produce a demolition job to claw back the deficit.

Instead, Harrington showed a different side to her game, standing, trading and sitting down on her shots — seemingly for the kick of it. She got the better of several entertaining exchanges as both women went toe to toe.

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Harrington let out an audible “woo!” as both women embraced at the final bell, each visibly exhausted.

She conspicuously enjoyed the scrap and, as a result of another accomplished performance, she can enjoy being the 2022 Strandja champion.

Like her more experienced team-mate, O’Rourke also made her return to competitive action this week and didn’t lose a fight in the eyes of a single judge, winning three unanimous decisions and, in her opening bout, by stoppage.

Through high tempo and high-volume punching, O’Rourke ripped final opponent Bylon out of her rhythm and tormented her throughout with what amounted to an onslaught, her straight right hand down the middle and left hook especially potent.

A flurry of unanswered shots with Bylon attempting to cover up against the ropes led to a standing count of the Panamanian in the second, all but guaranteeing O’Rourke the round and, indeed, the fight, barring a miracle for the Central American.

Tokyo Olympian O’Rourke simply had too much for Bylon, who represented her country at the Rio Games. Aside from a thudding right hand down the pipe, O’Rourke’s greatest strength is her relentlessness and she took it to an unprecedented level in Sofia on what was a great evening for the Irish boxing team.

- Updated with Aoife O’Rourke’s result

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