STEVEN Donnelly knows all too well what it’s like to go from hero to zero.
Now the Ballymena boxer is determined to learn from the personal setbacks of the past couple of years as he prepares to resume his ring career next week.
With three Ulster Senior Championship titles under his belt by the age of 21, the year 2010 should have been the start of something really big for the All Saints fighter.
Instead. Donnelly’s sporting and personal lives took a spectacular nosedive, which it has taken him until now to get back on track.
In an extraordinary, no-holds-barred interview, the 24-year-old talks publicly for the first time about:
* his Commonwealth Games humiliation
* being sent home in disgrace from the Delhi games
* his alcohol-fuelled antics on returning home which landed him in court
There is no attempt by Donnelly to hide behind his actions or forget it ever happened – instead, he is aiming to show that not only can he personally make a return to the top of his sport but also act as an inspiration to others to show people they too can recover from setbacks in their lives.
After the peak of being selected for the Northern Ireland team for the Commonwealth Games in India in 2010, the downward spiral was a slow, painful one for Steven.
“I was going to the Commonwealths in the best shape of my life and people within boxing circles were talking about me as a possible medal contender,” he recalls.
“But I think I overdid it in the training camps and I burnt myself out, especially with the heat out there. I found myself getting tired on the pads which wasn’t like me at all.
“Once I got in the ring for my first fight, against an Australian, there was nothing left at all. I tried to do it but nothing was going to connect at all.
“After all those months of training, my Commonwealth Games was all over in 10 minutes – beaten 10-0 with all my friends and family watching on live TV back at home.
“Disappointment doesn’t even come close to describing how I felt. You look back now and see a situation like my team-mate Paddy Gallagher, who I had beaten three times in competitive fights, winning a gold medal and it just shows you how different people’s lives and careers can go in different directions.”
While Northern Ireland’s boxing team went on to celebrate a record-breaking haul of medals in Delhi, Donnelly sought solace for his early exit in a night out with a team-mate. It was to have catastrophic consequences for his career.
“We decided to go out for a few drinks. We weren’t allowed to go outside the athletes’ village because of the security situation so we had a few drinks there and we were messing about and being a bit loud.
“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 my clothes over there – I couldn’t wait to get out of the place and get home.”
Little did Steven know that he hadn’t yet sunk to his lowest depth. Disillusioned with boxing, he turned his back on the sport and with no job to focus his attention on, a combination of alcohol and having too much time on his hands was to lead to further woes.
Steven’s name continued to crop up in press reports – only now it wasn’t as a result of his boxing exploits, but rather court appearances in the news section of the local papers, chronicling his latest brush with the law.
“It was just a mad period – there’s no other way I can describe it,” he recalls.
“When I look back at that period of my life now I’m embarrassed, totally embarrassed.
“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’.
“Boxing has been my life since I was a wee boy and I missed the discipline and the routine of training.”
After a spell of absence from All Saints Boxing Club, Steven realised he would have to pluck up the courage to make the familiar trip to the Cushendall Road clubrooms if he was to turn his life around.
“I had to go to the club and say sorry. It wasn’t an easy thing to do but I knew I had to do it because I had let so many people down, people who had been good to me.”
That reconciliation set Donnelly back on the path which has led him to prepare for an assault on a fourth Ulster title when the championships begin next week.
“The mistakes I have made have been my motivation for getting back to what I do best and I’m still as hungry as ever for success.
“I want to go out and do it not only to prove to myself but also to show people that the person who went off the rails for a while isn’t the real Steven Donnelly.
“Two years is a long time to be out of a sport and I’m under no illusions about how hard it’s going to be but I totally have the motivation to do it.
“I have been back training and sparring and feeling good. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well but I can handle that – losing isn’t an option for me.
Donnelly’s return has been welcomed by his coach Gerry Hamill, who hopes that Steven can recapture his past glories.
“There is absolutely no doubting that Steven Donnelly is one of the most talented boxers ever to come out of the All Saints club.
“He has been through a tough time but he has been willing to come back and give it another go and we will help him in whatever way we can.
“I notice a change in him now in that he’s prepared to listen more. We also have a rule within our club that the senior boxers aren’t allowed on the floor until 7.30pm on training nights, until the junior boxers finish. Steven would be in at maybe 7.15pm but now he would be taking time to tutor some of the youngsters – no-one has asked him to do it, he has taken it upon himself to pass on some of his knowledge,” added Gerry.
For Donnelly, the Ulster Championships represent the first step on his road to recovery, which he hopes will have a longer-term goal.
“I’m fully focused on the Ulster Championships but in an ideal world, I would love to get back to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 and really redeem myself,” he said.