By Paul Keane
Kellie Harrington is sitting in one of the spectator seats at the National Indoor Arena in west Dublin, a white mask covering her nose and mouth.
In tiny writing on the front you can just about read ‘Kellie H’, below a pair of expressive eyes that meet you with solemnity for the important stuff and dance with mischief when the conversation turns bolder.
She’s speaking at the launch of the European Week of Sport, which takes place from September 23-30, and confides that she almost didn’t make the event.
She got her dates mixed up, she explains, and it was only when an organiser rang the 2018 world championship gold medallist to remind her to bring her boxing gloves for the photos that she realised.
“Lucky they rang,” she laughs, the story a neat summary of a colourful, straight talking, elite Irish athlete living a life less ordinary.
Aside from her ambition to box at the Tokyo Olympics next summer – presuming they go ahead – lightweight hopeful Harrington also works as a cleaner at St Vincent’s psychiatric hospital in Fairview.
As the 30-year-old says herself, ‘if half the athletes I know had to go in on the weekend and do the job that I do, do the cleaning that I do, I don’t think they’d be able to do it because it’s not so nice’. Yet she loves it, the deep personal connections she experiences with the patients proving a rich antidote to the humdrum and materialism of everyday life.
“I’m there 10 years,” she says. “I just get on so well with them all. I was working on the catering side of it so I’d be giving them out their dinners and stuff. I absolutely loved it because I used to get a lot more time between meals to sit down and have the banter with them, have the karaoke going and all sorts, it was great.
“A new company came in and took over and it turned out that I couldn’t work in the catering anymore because basically they couldn’t give me the time off that I needed.
“So I went to cleaning then, they changed me over to the domestic side of it. One of the patients, and she says it to me every week when I’m in, I’ll be in there cleaning the floors and she’ll turn around and go, ‘Ah Jesus Kellie’, and I’ll say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and she’ll say, ‘I’m so sorry you got demoted’. I’m on the deck laughing. I’m like, ‘Don’t worry about it, someone has to do it, it’s a tough job but someone has to do it’.
“So it’s a rewarding job for me. The job itself is not so great but it’s the interaction, they’re vulnerable people and I just like being able to go in and put a smile on their faces basically. Sometimes they haven’t got anyone going in to see them and that’s just me as a person, like, I think if I’m ever in their shoes I hope to God someone like me comes along and does what I’m doing now.”
The thought of passing on the deadly Covid-19 virus to any of the patients is something that fills Harrington with dread.
“If I thought I was going in there and I was going to give them a bloody virus that could potentially kill them, I genuinely would hang up my gloves and leave the country,” she says. “Ah look, I actually don’t know what I would do. That’s just crazy. So I have to think about where I am during the week, who I’m with and what I’m doing. I’m very, very cautious about that because I’m going in around very vulnerable people.”
Wearing the mask at least isn’t a new thing for her. We remind her of how she wore a face covering when out and about in Astana, Kazakhstan for the 2016 world championships when she claimed silver.
“It was very dusty where we were and also in India, that time we went out there, so I did the same, that’s right,” explains the Dubliner. “It’s actually quite funny because the two world championships I was at, I was going around wearing stuff over my face. I was doing that in Kazakhstan and India, I was very conscious of it. I need to give myself every opportunity to be successful, I don’t want dust in my lungs so, yeah, I would wear a face covering when I’m away if I feel the air is not quite clean.”
The thing is, nobody else was wearing masks back then.
“No, just me,” she nods. Which neatly brings us back to Harrington the free spirit, the one off.
“The thing about it is, I don’t care about what anyone thinks,” she says. “I just do what I’m doing, I wear what I wear and I say what I say. I care about what people think of me as a person but I don’t care about what they think of how I look, what I have on or what my hair is like or what clothes I’m wearing, what shoes are on my feet, I don’t care about that. That’s materialistic things, it doesn’t bother me whatsoever. But I do care about my reputation and whether people think I’m a nice person or not a nice person. I hope that people think I’m a nice person. Sometimes I care too much and I try too hard.”
Harrington, who last fought in January and lost out on a split decision to old foe Mira Potkonen in the 60kg final of a multi-nation tournament, will lace up the gloves again in Germany in October though admits that too is only a ‘stepping stone’ to the Olympic qualifiers in early 2021.
The original qualifiers last March were scrapped because of the global health emergency, literally hours before Harrington was due to fight Poland’s Aneta Rykielska.
There are no guarantees the rescheduled qualifiers, or indeed the Olympic Games themselves, will go ahead next year either. If the Games are cancelled, Harrington would have a decision to make about her future.
“If there is no Olympics, I’d be interested in coming back and….I’ve nine elite Irish titles, I’d be interested in coming back and getting another two Irish titles,” she said. “International-wise, I don’t know, I don’t know what I’m going to do if the Olympics is cancelled. I’ll definitely be on the Irish scene anyways.”
** Ambassador and boxer Kellie Harrington was speaking at the launch of European Week of Sport 2020, in partnership with Sport Ireland. European Week of Sport is a celebration of sport which promotes physical activity in people of all ages, background, or fitness levels. Sport Ireland are calling on you and your family to get out and #BeActive between the 23rd – 30th of September and who knows, this may be the start of a new found love for sport. See www.sportireland.ie/europeanweekofsport for more information.