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Steven Donnelly eyes Rio joy after shock second chance

By Declan Bogue

Published 13/02/2016

Taping up: Steven Donnelly is relishing the challenge he’ll face in Brazil
Taping up: Steven Donnelly is relishing the challenge he’ll face in Brazil
With Michael Conlan, Brendan Irvine, Michaela Walsh and Paddy Barnes at an Olympic training camp

The best storylines are always in the noble and brutal art of boxing. Take Ballymena welterweight Steven Donnelly as a prime example.

He only took up the sport at the relatively late age of 13, but within three weeks had an Antrim title. An Irish crown followed a few weeks later, helping him stay unbeaten for three years.

By 21, he already had three Ulster Senior titles to his name - quite an accomplishment.

And a couple of months prior to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India, he never felt better.

He was fancied. But by the time he faced Australian contender Luke Woods in the first round, there was nothing left to give. All his force and passion went into the pads held by trainer Mickey Hawkins.

"I was wrecked. I couldn't even breathe, I had over-trained. I couldn't eat either," he said with a rueful smile.

He went out for a few drinks to drown his sorrows that evening with a team-mate. Things got out of hand.

He recalled the story in early 2013: "The management of the Northern Ireland team didn't look too favourably on that and we were called into an office at seven o'clock the next morning and told we had half an hour to get ready because we were going to the airport.

"I ended up leaving half of my clothes over there - I couldn't wait to get out of the place and get home."

And then, there was no boxing.

Humiliated and ashamed, he drank way too much. His gloves gathered dust in the corner.

He had a bit of work with Crosskeys Meats in Randalstown but there was little else going on in his life.

"When I look back at that period of my life now, I'm embarrassed, totally embarrassed" the 27-year-old reflected.

"I was drinking myself into oblivion, getting into fights, getting barred from pubs.

"I was depressed and falling out with people I was close to - it just wasn't my normal behaviour at all.

"All the time I was thinking 'I'm finished in boxing - there's no way back for me after this'."

But class recognises class. Gerry Hamill was Donnelly's old trainer in the All Saints club and a personal friend of his father, Brian.

Hamill's advice to "wise up and get back to the gym," was backed up by his gold medal at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Montreal.

Donnelly's return, however, was conditional. Apologies had to be forthcoming.

"I had to go back to the gym and apologise to everyone. I didn't even want to step foot in the gym, I didn't want to speak to anybody," he recalled.

"I didn't feel like apologising to anyone, but I did and it was hard as well.

"Gerry felt I had to apologise to them because I let the club down.

"You can't do what I was doing.

"I was fighting in the street and people were saying, 'There's Donnelly from All Saints doing that'.

"So I came back from that and I was back into the club. It took me a while to get back into shape and a good year to get me back to the level that I should have been at. But once I did I was in business."

Nobody would ever have accused former Irish Amateur High Performance Unit Director Billy Walsh of having favourites, but no doubt he felt something for fellow Wexford man Adam Nolan.

Donnelly was 25/1 to beat him.

He also felt that Walsh wouldn't be in his corner when it came to facing Nolan in March 2014.

He added: "I went down and took it away from him. In Dublin, which was hard to do as well. In the National Stadium, three rounds. I stayed on him and never gave him space to breathe, I was on him the whole time."

Since then, he was welcomed into the High Performance Unit with open arms, joining the squad of Belfast fighters, goofing around and having the times of their lives, with a deadly and clear-eyed ambition behind it all.

In early December, it was announced that he had achieved a quota place for the Rio Olympics.

Fighting for the Huzzars of Poland in the World Series of Boxing (WSB) he won five out of six bouts.

Therefore, it was Donnelly and not Nolan that gained the one slot available at welterweight.

"You can't help but improve once you are down there," he said of the Dublin training camps.

"I was under Zaur (Antia) and John Conlan. Zaur is a brilliant coach. The best in the world I would say.

"I love going on the pads with him, you learn stuff all the time."

On a Friday he travels back home but Saturdays are spent working in the SINI complex at Jordanstown and Mondays are strength and conditioning sessions with Robbie Bremner calling the orders.

Having flopped so badly in India, he is no stranger to the fragility of the mind ahead of that flight to Brazil.

He warned: "There are always doubts.

"There are always things going on in your personal life and stuff like that.

"But we have a psychologist there, Gerry Hussey, who is good.

"The whole team here have a plan set out so if anything goes wrong there is someone there to sort it out."

He has plans for life after Rio.

"I am definitely done with the amateurs, I am turning pro straight after the Olympics," he added.

"I don't know who I am signing with, but there have been ones onto me before, Macklin and that.

"The Olympics is my first goal, to go over and do really well in Brazil.

"Then get a bigger signing-on fee."

It beats fighting on the street for no reward and plenty of shame. He knows he has Hamill to thank for that.

"I used to think I was out, that I would never be back," he said.

"But once I won that first Ulster senior after a few years out, I always knew I had the talent. I knew I did."

Boxing always has the best storylines.

Belfast Telegraph

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