Akron Irish: Aoife O’Rourke Wins European Elite Boxing Gold

Akron Irish: Aoife O’Rourke Wins European Elite Boxing Gold
by Lisa O’Rourke

Aoife O’Rourke dances around the ring as light on her feet as Ginger Rogers. She never stops moving, regardless of what else is happening around her. Her long arms are tough to avoid and she knows it, as she lures the competition in and then jabs them into corners of the ring. She is surprisingly tough, competitor’s blows bounce off her solid frame. The lady in question is my niece, Aoife O’Rourke.

On August 31st, Aoife became the second young Irish lady to win the European Elite Boxing Gold Medal. The other who shares this accomplishment with Aoife is the world champion Irish boxer, Katie Taylor, who won it in 2012.

That win set in motion the series of events that brought Aoife where she is now. Katie Taylor’s achievements sparked Irish national interest in boxing in a way that has not happened before. Boxing clubs began luring more and more women in to have a go or just train with them. And why not?

Aoife and her sisters went to the Castlerea boxing club and found that they liked the intense level of the workouts. Skipping rope, running, jumping and lifting produced better results than anything else they had tried. Aoife started sparring in the ring for fun and found that she was good at it.

Aoife w devoted uncle Gerard O’Rourke

Aoife has five sisters. Their father owns and operates a cattle and sheep farm. At least a few of those girls were going to have to get involved with the farm and help out. Since around the age of seven or so, Aoife has been moving bales of hay, hefting tubs of feed, and even assisting in Caesarian cattle births.

One of my favorite memories is of her sitting on a phone book so she could see to drive a pick-up truck down the field. There is no doubt that she is tall and strong. She loves animals. Sure, I am biased, but honestly, she is a sweet, shy girl. She has always been athletic, bright and kind. The transition to boxing competitively did not come easy. It was a progression of her passion for fitness.  Boxing is a tough sport and no one in the family was a fan. But like many other things, the passion of a loved one can bring the others along. Her parents and all of the family started to see how much Aoife enjoyed it and how much it seemed to do for her.

In five short years, Aoife grew as a person and a competitor. Most of the girls that Aoife has fought against have years more training on their side. While contact is part of any sport, it is an integral part of boxing. It is hard to see your lovely niece with a black eye or watch her get hit.

But, just like their male counterparts, Irish women are good fighters. Their style is different from many of their European competitors, especially those from Eastern Europe and Russia, who dominate the sport. The Eastern European style involves strength, stillness and conservation of energy, imagine an immovable tree.

The Irish style is loads more Riverdance with boxing gloves. The woman Aoife beat for the gold was Russian and had lost two out of 116 fights.

While five years is not a long time to fight, Aoife has seen some disappointment. She has not won every match and some of the judgements have not seemed fair. Politics and subjective opinions are part of how fight outcomes are decided.

She has not let those few setbacks bother her though; she emerges more determined to show them who she is. The European matches are streamed on YouTube, so we were all watching, holding our breath, terrified of jinxing her. I did not breathe fully until she won the last match for the gold medal.

Unbelievable was the first word that sprang to mind when she did win. Not that I doubted her ability for a minute, but it is hard to trust the world to see things the way that you do. She is amazing competitor, but honestly all the girls are amazing in their own right.

For me, what I enjoyed was watching her sportsmanship in the win, shaking hands, giving hugs all around, and acknowledging how hard everyone worked to be there. The very best moment was seeing her stand on the podium, gold medal, big boxer belt and bouquet in hand. She was so happy to represent Ireland and hear the national anthem, The Soldier’s Song, played while the tri-color rippled in front of her. It was pride of self, family, town and country.

You have to wonder what is next for her. She wants more and she believes that it is possible. Her quick rise in the sport may have surprised her and everyone else, but each win has increased her confidence. She wants to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. There are a few critical matches to determine that between now and then.

Aoife’s rapid rise may have caused her to not receive the full support and funding from the Irish government parallel to some of her peers. Hopefully, this gap will be mended. She works part-time in a local deli to support herself when she is not training. Her discipline and focus are extraordinary. She is always focused on her sport, even to the point of giving up trips to the local chip shop.

Three thousand people showed up on that mercifully sunny Sunday evening to welcome Aoife home from the finals in Madrid.  She rode in the back of a pick-up truck, much like the one she drives on the farm. Beside her was her trainer Paddy Sharkey. The Castlerea Brass Band marched ahead of her.

The stage that is set in the town square for the Rose Festival was hastily erected. The proud family were seated on the stage just beaming, waiting for her. Aoife smiled, shook hands, and took photos like a pro as she made her way to the stage.

There were speeches and stories. It was an individual achievement on one hand, but all those people had their share in it too. The whole town was with her in that ring in some capacity as they were watching, holding their collective breath, having a few, saying silent prayers; united in sport, united in community, united in hope.

Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She enjoys spending time with her puppy, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at [email protected].

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