Kristina O'Hara has no regrets about spurning soccer career as Commonwealth Games loom
BOXING or soccer? At 14, Kristina O’Hara had a choice to make. Nottingham Forest had been sniffing around the teak tough full-back spotted taking no prisoners during her days at St Louise’s College.
“If the ball came near me I just kicked it away, and made sure no-one got past me,” she smiles modestly.
But the Forest scouts must have seen something in O’Hara as she was soon invited over to Nottingham for trials. Had that offer come 12 months earlier, she might have gone.
The fight game, though, was beginning to tighten its grip. What started out as a bit of fun was now becoming a more serious endeavour, with O’Hara suddenly in the frame for international action as she progressed through the ranks.
Boxing or soccer? There was only ever going to be one winner.
“That was the year when I was starting to take boxing a bit more serious, getting a few more fights because I was moving up in weight and getting older.
“I had a choice to make but I never went for a trial. That was the football door closed, but the door to boxing was just starting to open. I was only playing football for fun and that was a wee bit serious for what I wanted to do at the time.
“But I was always sporty - I played a bit of camogie and a bit of basketball for the school too. I was into everything.”
Boxing wasn’t on the radar initially, until a chance visit to the local youth club, which just happened to be inside Emerald Boxing Club in Lenadoon.
“I was probably about 11, me and my friend Nicola went in just to mess about really, to have a laugh and beat up all the wee lads,” says O’Hara, laughing.
“For whatever reason I just fell in love with it the first time I went in. I don’t know what it was, but seeing how hard all the lads were training really got me.
“Harry Murray was the coach at the time and he obviously saw I was able to pick things up quickly. Nicola never came back, but the next day I went back on my own…”
Weighing only 29 kilos, O’Hara had to be patient as she waited for her first fight, but once she finally got between the ropes it felt like home.
Boxing at 48kg, she won gold at the European Union Junior Championships in Hungary in 2013 and followed that up with silver at the European Youths in Italy a year later.
The world was at her fists, or so she thought. But the step up to senior level, and an Irish Elite final showdown with veteran Ceire Smith, provided a “wake-up call” that caused O’Hara to redraw her future plans.
“As soon as that fight was finished, I knew then it was time - this is it. This is where my choices have to be made.
“I knew I couldn’t be getting into the ring in the National Stadium and getting beat like that. It was a close fight, a good fight, but she wanted it way more. Her strength, speed… everything was better than me. I knew that even before getting in.
“So I knew from there I had to step it up. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that fight. Even watching it back now, I still love it. It’s because of that fight I’m the boxer I am now.”
After relocating to St John Bosco and setting out a plan with coach Gerard McCafferty, O’Hara took a year away from the ring – with the ultimate aim to come back better than ever.
She was sparring against Christina McMahon, then WBC world bantamweight champion, who was travelling from Monaghan to Belfast for good, competitive rounds.
By the time O’Hara entered the national elites for a second time, at the start of 2017, she was ready. Shannon Sweeney was toppled in the final and, after competing at last summer’s European Union Championships, the Commonwealth Games loomed large on the horizon.
And when the 22-year-old convincingly saw off Chloe Fleck in the 48kg final of the Ulster Elites last November, Gold Coast dreams suddenly became reality.
O’Hara knows she has ground to make up in terms of international experience compared to some of her team-mates, admitting that the pre-Games training camp has been an eye opener.
“Even watching them training, they’re all so focused,” she says.
“I’ve competed at Worlds and Europeans but these guys have all competed regularly at elite international level. I haven’t really.
“The Europeans were in August, and that was my first international as a senior. There’s a big difference in strength, power and maturity levels, but I now feel I’m ready.”
And what about the soccer – does she ever regret not taking that opportunity when it presented itself?
“Not at all,” she laughs.
“Funny enough a few months ago I went and did a few training sessions with the Cliftonville senior team because Gerard knows one of their players, Billie Simpson.
“And then [Northern Ireland captain] Marissa Callaghan, who works up here at Jordanstown, was saying to me to get back into it after the Commonwealth Games is over.
“So you never know, it might be something I look into - but for now I’ll just stick to the boxing.”
DANGER IN THE DRAW
48kg: Mary Kom (India)
THIS is the first time the 48kg weight class has been open to women at the Commonwealths, and Indian legend Kom is undoubtedly the big name in the draw. A five time world champion, a 2012 Olympic bronze medallist, her life story has even been turned into a Bollywood movie. The 35-year-old was in Ireland last September and boxed Kristina O’Hara in a test match at the National Stadium
IN TOMORROW’S IRISH NEWS
Sixteen years after brother Cathal competed at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Stephen McMonagle gets ready to follow in his footsteps