'There were many times when she'd come into the house crying... She wanted to walk away from it'

Kellie Harrington came close to packing in boxing less than three years ago, but now she stands on top of the world.

World champion Kellie Harrington is greeted by her parents Yvonne and Christy at Dublin Airport
World champion Kellie Harrington is greeted by her parents Yvonne and Christy at Dublin Airport
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“AND TELL ME — I don’t know anything about this Katie girl who won the gold there over in India,” a taxi driver said yesterday.

“Kellie, sorry. Kellie.”

Old habits and all that.

She’s only the third Irish boxer ever to win World Championship gold, I tell him.

“Go’way,” he says. “Isn’t that just fan-tastic? I’d be from the North Inner City meself. A world champion… Imagine that.”

Kellie Harrington did imagine it, of course. The ones who make it usually do.

But before these gold-plated times for the St Mary’s Boxing Club star there were many of a darker variety — spanning months, years — where imagination was all she had to call upon.

There were times when her belief wavered, never in her own prodigious ability, but more so as to whether she’d ever truly escape the boxing purgatory within which she honed that ability for so long.

Kellie Harrington with her gold medal 24/11/2018 Kellie Harrington celebrating her World Championships gold medal on Saturday. Source: Mandatory Credit - AIBA

How sweet it must have been to reach the podium summit, and in New Delhi of all places — the site of Ireland’s first ever World Boxing Championships triumph in 2006; a triumph that kickstarted in earnest the legendary career which left Harrington in the back seat for much of her own.

“Look, Kellie Harrington was always a good fighter,” says Joe Ward, who’s not a bad one himself.

“She probably didn’t get the opportunities because as we all know, Katie Taylor was a world-class boxer around that weight — and still is in the pro ranks.

“So the opportunities to fight in major tournaments weren’t there for Kellie for a long time, which is a pity because she was always so talented throughout all of those years.

She took it on the chin when Katie was going away getting all those gold medals, which was probably hard for her at that time because she wasn’t getting that recognition or the opportunities that her talent deserved. It was Katie who was in the limelight, and understandably.

“But what a way to get that recognition — to become a world champion,” laughs Ward, a three-time European champion and three-time World medalist in his own right.

“And she deserves it: she stuck around, and she worked extremely hard over all those years. Like, she’s part of the furniture at this stage,” chuckles the Irish captain. “She’s been there that long.

“But she boxed out of her skin in the Worlds, not only in the final but in the other four contests she had as well. She was really on top form and looked very comfortable.

“See, Kellie is a great fighter, like. She can fight in any style. She’s very universal: she can fight southpaw or orthodox and she can control her opponents. She’s an all-round fighter, and that’s what you need to be in order to be a world champion. You can’t be one-dimensional.

You have to remember as well that she was beaten by [Mira] Potkonen in a very close contest in her European Championships semi-final, so to come back from that — and full of confidence — to become a world champion… It really says a lot about her.

“And I know what it’s like to lose a world final, just like she did in 2016. It’s not a nice feeling. It speaks to her courage that she went on to go one better this time.”

Joe Ward after he received his silver medal Irish boxing captain Joe Ward has fallen short in two World Championship finals, and is proud of his Ireland team-mate for going one better in India Source: Pixathlon/Thomas Balke/INPHO

Adds Ward of his team-mate and fellow core leader within the High Performance ranks: “She’s a great person, a great role model within Irish boxing.

“Kellie is a talisman in training camps as well, a great person to be around, always vibrant. But she’s always willing to learn too.

If you ask her for advice, she’s always there to give it — she’s always there to help. A lot of the guys, as well as the girls, look up to her.

Kurt Walker, one of those guys, excitedly describes Harrington as “fanstastic.”

The young Lisburn bantamweight has been on the go himself for a few years but finally fulfilled some of his own stratospheric potential when he took top honours at the EU Championships in Valladolid earlier this month.

“Fantastic,” he repeats. “She really does deserve it, like.

“She trains very hard, so she does. But what she’s very good at, as well, is making sure she doesn’t get sick — things like that. She really looks after herself, if you know what I mean. She goes through every step in great detail — her diet and nutrition.

“She’s 28 now, like, Kellie,” adds the EU gold medalist, who’s five years Harrington’s junior. “She had to stick at it for a while, waiting for her chance because of Katie. Fair play to her.

“I’m delighted to see her win it. It’s great for her, it’s great for our team. It’s great for everyone.”

He has spent the last three years working as a professional football coach in Iceland, but Christopher Harrington is one of few who can claim to understand the lightweight world champion’s competitiveness better even than those who train alongside her in Abbotstown.

Just off a pre-season conference call with his fellow coaches, he laughs as he recalls how during childhood, his little sister fought gallantly and relentlessly with her two brothers, Joe being the other.

The Harringtons were always a sporty bunch — incidentally, before turning his hand to coaching, Chris played alongside former Cork City star Steven Beattie for Icelandic outfit UMF Tindastoll in 2014. But Kellie was especially earmarked for athletic distinction from a young age.

Mind you, she could have broken their hearts were it not for the strength of her parents’ characters. Yvonne and Christy believed that their Kellie could box her way to greatness even when she didn’t quite see it that way herself.

Jessica Lyons in action against Kelly Harrington Harrington in action against Jessica Lyons in the 2010 Irish Senior Elite final Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Not many people know what Kellie’s been through with boxing,” says her older brother of three years. “They just see the success, you know? It’s the iceberg effect. Kellie has been through the wringer in boxing.

“Throughout her career, she’s had a lot of lows. There were times when she didn’t get a lot of support, but she stuck in there.

There were many times when she’d come into the house crying… She wanted to walk away from it. She strongly considered that on a number of occasions. She probably felt the people around her on the boxing side of things weren’t properly giving her what she needed at the time.

“Obviously, my Ma and my Da were big factors in her never stepping away from the sport because they knew how good she was. They talked her out of quitting many times. And she’d go back boxing, but then she’d come back again, crying, just devastated about how things were playing out.

We have a great family that always kept her going, but the people in the North Inner City that are inspired by her played a massive role in that as well. Their impact on her shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s the people on the street — the comments from young kids that would meet her in the area — that kept her going as well.

Fans greet Kellie Harrington Fans await world champion Harrington's Dublin Airport arrival. One of their banners reads: 'Rock bottom bottom built more Champions than privilege ever did'. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“To see her come out on top”, Chris adds, pausing briefly. “For me, I just want to see her come out of the ring with her health, but to see her win a World Championship… It’s genuinely incredible.

“I still can’t believe it, to be honest. It’s a bit of a whirlwind. But we always knew she was capable of doing it. My Ma, my Da, my brother Joe — we knew she had it within her. It was a matter of bringing it out of her.

“And it’s worth remembering that she’s had many great people, including the Irish coaches like Zaur [Antia], who have helped her to do that as well. Good people — not just good coaches.”

Chris currently coaches Icelandic women’s champions Þór/KA Akureyri, who earlier this season emerged from a group including Wexford Youths and Ajax to reach the last 32 of the Champions League. They eventually lost out to quarter-finalists Wolfsburg.

At 31, he’s in no rush to get back to Ireland or even make a go of the UK football scene; he’s surrounded by the right people in order to learn in Iceland, he maintains, and he has already seen a similar environment bear fruit for his world-beating sibling. Proud as punch, he concludes:

Kellie has now inspired me to go and be as good as I possibly can be in my own job, you know?

Kellie Harrington with her parents World champ Kellie with parents Yvonne and Christy Harrington Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Kelly Harrington is greeted by her partner Mandy Loughlin Kellie and partner Mandy Loughlin Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I got a text in late November 2015,” recalls Jay Byrne, a fighter, trainer and manager now indelible to Irish pro boxing. “It was Kellie Harrington, and she was looking to pop down and do a bit of training in my amateur club at the time. I said, ‘Yeah, no problem,’ so she came down and did a bit of padwork. We clicked straight away.

She liked the session, but she came back to me at the end of the class and gave me a run-down of what was going on with her. She said she wanted to retire from the sport.

“She didn’t really say why,” Byrne continues. “She just said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m finished. I don’t really want to go on with this.’

“I believe she’d had a bit of a falling out with the club she was in [Glasnevin BC] — although she still had great respect for her trainer there, Jimmy Halpin. She loved Jimmy.

“I said to her, ‘Look, don’t be retiring — you could still easily win an Irish Senior title.’

“That was the start of December, and the Seniors were the first week of January, so she said, ‘I won’t be ready on time.’ I told her: ‘You’ll be ready on time if you want to be ready on time, Kellie.’”

After an honest chat with Byrne, Harrington went away to deliberate as to whether the Seniors were a feasible target only a month out from first bell.

“She came back to me that night”, Byrne recalls, “and she said: ‘I’d like to take you up on your offer.’”

Kellie Harrington Harrington teamed up with Jay Byrne this time three years ago, but she was considering quitting the sport Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Byrne contacted IABA secretary Art O’Brien to organise a club transfer for Harrington from Glasnevin to his own St. Margaret’s Boxing Club, the justification being that Byrne’s Glenageary premises — a five-minute drive from Harrington’s Cabinteely home — was a better fit given she also had work commitments at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Fairview. (Harrington still puts in the odd shift at St. Vincent’s for the love of it, and winces at the oft-peddled media narrative that she’s ‘forced’ to work; a full-time athlete in essence, she was allocated €20,000 grants from Sport Ireland in both 2017 and 2018, and this is likely to increase significantly next year in light of her New Delhi heroics.)

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Her transfer approved, Harrington and Byrne trained together throughout Christmas.

The Loughlinstown man, who himself had a full-time job outside of boxing, sacrificed his early mornings and much of his festive downtime in order to shape the out-of-practice 25-year-old for the national championships; Stephen’s Day, for example, was spent not with family but taking Harrington sparring in Mulhuddart.

“Ah, look, she’s a very, very dedicated girl,” Byrne says. “I got to know her well: I’ve been in her house with her, she’s been in my house. My missus did her hair for the Seniors — the plaits and all that shite.

She eats the right way; in her house, she’d have shots of this, shots of that — all homemade remedies of all the nutrients that you’re supposed to be putting into your body. Everything perfect. She fuels herself properly and is extremely professional in her approach.

“She has really dedicated herself to the sport. I can’t knock her on anything.

“When I had young girls in the club — my sister and another couple of girls competing for Irish titles — she always supported them as well, and helped them out in the gym.”

And believe it or not — she wasn’t part of the High Performance team at the time — but I wanted her to challenge Katie. Our plan was to win the Seniors and then spend the whole following year focusing on going after Katie Taylor.

“We had discussed it, and she said she wanted to do it. Like, Kellie was walking around at 59 or 60 kilos, and fighting up at 64. She was putting on weight to fight!”

Kellie Harrington and Katie Taylor Harrington and Katie Taylor return from the 2016 World Championships Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Part one of their masterplan came to fruition: after a four-and-a-bit-week camp with Byrne, Harrington won the Seniors in January of 2016, with former trainer Jimmy Halpin alongside Byrne in her corner.

Part two never got off the ground: conflicting schedules eventually dictated that Byrne and Harrington go their separate ways after the Seniors — not a shocking development within the context of the latter’s career to that point. She returned to Glasnevin, but there were no hard feelings on Byrne’s part.

“I actually sent her a text the other day,” he says, before proceeding to read it aloud.

‘Jesus’, I said to her… ‘I’d say it feels like a million years since you sat on the floor of my gym telling me that you were retiring. I’m delighted that you never did. Number one in the world, bud. Congratulations.’ She text me back and she just said… ‘Thanks so much. I’m over the moon. I can’t believe it.’

Still, Byrne wonders why Harrington never pursued Taylor in the end.

In a January 2017 interview with Kevin Byrne in the Irish Sun, Harrington was asked why she didn’t move down to 60kg in time for the Rio Olympics. She replied rather candidly: “I didn’t try, because Katie was there and you’d wanna bleedin’ hit Katie with a stool to beat her, like!”

Funny how things work out…

Amy Broadhurst and Kelly Harrington Amy Broadhurst and Kellie Harrington trade leather in the 2018 Irish Senior Elite final at lightweight Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“There was no respect between me and Kellie when we boxed each other in February, I don’t think,” muses Amy Broadhurst, the 15-time Irish champion at underage level who, while she doesn’t feel she’d require a stool to usurp the world champ, must now park her own Olympic aspirations for six years following Harrington’s New Delhi gold.

Cruelly, the 21-year-old Dundalk woman — a reigning English Senior Elite champion on her father’s side — exited the same World Championships in India just prior to the medal stage, and in rather scandalous circumstances.

Nonetheless, she was seen in the stands to roar on Harrington along with the rest of the Irish team during the Dubliner’s World final on Saturday.

“We probably weren’t major fans of each other”, Broadhurst admits, “but we’ve spent four weeks together away at the Worlds and we’ve gotten to know each other.

Kellie is nearly 29, so she is, and the fact that it’s taken her this long to get to where she is — that’s a bit of an eye-opener for me. For years and years, she took a step back because of Katie Taylor and she never really got the opportunities that she deserved.

“But over the last two years, she has really proved herself. I have to take my hat off to her. Fair play to her. She boxed class over there [in New Delhi], so…”

Amy Broadhurst dejected after losing to Kelly Harrington Amy Broadhurst is commiserated after losing out to Harrington in the 2018 Irish Senior Elite final Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I have to take a step back for Kellie ahead of the Tokyo Olympics because of what she’s just achieved, which I’ve accepted,” Broadhurst adds. “Come 2024, though, I won’t be taking a step back — that’s my time. The Olympics has always been a dream of mine, and I’m not going to be waiting 10 years or whatever to get there.

“But look, fair play to Kellie. I wish her the best of the luck, so I do.”

For the meantime, anyway.

But one suspects Kellie Harrington will be more than pleased to finally be the one with the target on her back.

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’13 years of blood, sweat and tears’: Kellie Harrington returns to Dublin a world champion

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