Kenyan boxer Christine Ongare ready to punch her way to Commonwealth Games glory: “The only way is up”

Boxing saved the Tokyo 2020 Olympian who became a mother at 12. Now Kenya’s only female bronze medallist at the Commonwealth Games hopes she can upgrade to silver or Gold in Birmingham. 

By Evelyn Watta

17 years ago, Tokyo 2020 Olympian Christine Ongare was in a very rough patch. She became pregnant at the age of 12.

Now the minimum-weight boxer (Women's Over 45kg - 48kg) is looking to the 2022 Commonwealth Games to change the outlook of her future career.

The first Kenyan woman to win a Commonwealth Games medal in boxing is eager to script more history.

She is banking on her Olympic and 2022 IBA women’s World Championships experience to help her navigate a way to the top of the podium in Birmingham, England, when she takes the ring for her first bout on Wednesday (3 August).

“I keep pushing, knowing how far I have come as a person or a boxer,” the 2018 Commonwealth Games flyweight bronze medallist told Olympics.com ahead of the event.

“I would like to upgrade my medal to silver or Gold in Birmingham. I have put in the work, trained hard and prepared well for the ultimate."

How early life struggles fuelled Ongare’s boxing ambitions

Ongare won plenty of fans when she returned home to Nairobi in March 2020 from the Tokyo 2020 Africa Boxing Olympic qualifiers in Dakar, Senegal.

She had become only the second Kenyan female ever boxer to qualify for the Olympics. Ongare outboxed Uganda’s Catherine Nanziri in the women's flyweight (51 kg) category to earn her ticket to Tokyo.

She won plaudits for her speed and grit in and out of the ring.

Her journey has been challenging, becoming a teenage mother, but boxing gave her an outlet and a safe space for her frustrations.

Speaking to the Olympic Channel in 2020, she shared her story.

"Boxing is all I have ... It is said that when you fall you must rise up again.

“I have gone through a tough life, so hard. It's just that I don't like talking about it. I fell pregnant when I was 12 years old. So, my mum took the responsibility of raising my child. I was a small child. It was just peer pressure, to try something and then it ruins you.”

Finding refuge in the ring

In 2012, Ongare earned her first call-up to Kenya’s boxing team for the World Championships in China.

The international experience, and seeing a path to follow when teammate Elizabeth Andiego become the first Kenyan woman to qualify for the Olympics at London 2012, motivated her even further.

“She remains my idol and I’m happy that we have been training together for the Commonwealth Games where she will also be competing,” she said of the light heavyweight Andiego, who is also boxing on Wednesday (3 August 2022) in her second Commonwealth Games after Glasgow 2014. Andiego missed the 2018 edition after fracturing her legs in a car accident.

The boxing team popularly known as ‘Hit Squad’ is Kenya’s most successful discipline at the Commonwealth Games after athletics. They have clinched 48 Commonwealth medals including 13 gold, increasing the weight of expectation on the two women in Birmingham. Two-time Olympian Nick Okoth and Shaffi Bakari made up the Kenyan team of four. Neither made it past the round of 16 in the men's competitions..

“It’s normal for an athlete to have pressure, but for us there is that, and then the pressure on the team,” said the 2017 Africa bronze medallist who is always all smiles outside the ring.

“We have always sent full teams to the Commonwealth Games but this time we only got four slots. So, the pressure is on us to medal and put up a good performance in Birmingham that could influence slot allocations for us for the next Games.”

Ongare has learnt to draw on her faith to overcome performance anxiety.

“My pressure builds up usually on the eve of the tournament, but once I am in the ring, everything disappears. To ease up, I like listening to gospel music and reggae, as most reggae songs are based on bible verses,” she told Olympics.com.

Christine Ongare of Kenya exchange punches with Irish Magno (L) of Philippinesduring the Women's Fly (48-51kg) on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)
Picture by James Chance

Punching above her weight

The 142cm tall pugilist has also learnt that in order to move forward, she needed to look back to boost her mental toughness.

“There are many times that I have have wanted to give up... But I always remember how far I have come as person and a boxer. I keep working hard knowing that they only way forward for me is up,” said the 2022 Africa zone three silver medallist.

“I always remind myself that my journey has been long and hard. I have to keep going because where I have come from is far more difficult than where I am headed.”

Now 28, the boxer continues on the legacy she hopes to leave: “Again, I can’t come this far to quit. That decision could have a snowball effect…There are so many girls who now look up to me and if I quit, they will also give up on their passions and argue that ‘Christine whom we looked up to also reached a point and gave up’.”

Boxing has helped instil a fighting spirit in the soft-spoken boxer that she hopes can fire her up in the ring at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.

Moreover, Ongare has many reasons to keep fighting.

“I fight for a lot of people, top being my son (Maxwell). He is the one who has made me fight this hard." - Christine Ongare to Olympics.com

"He has never really seen me boxing even on TV, but I know he’s very proud of me. In fact, his current WhatsApp profile picture on his phone is of me fighting in the ring,” said the boxer who hopes her third Commonwealth Games will add more evidence to her case as one of Kenya’s greatest female boxers in history.

Christine Ongare of Kenya (blue) compete in  the Women's 51kg Quarterfinal bout during Boxing on day seven of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

After years of boxing as a flyweight, she is also drawing some comfort from the fact that in Birmingham she will be fighting in her right weight category, minimum class, for only the second time in her career at a top event. The first time was at the World Champs in Turkey last May.

“My opponents always underestimate me, especially as a flyweight boxer. I am small-bodied, and they never expected me to be up to the task. I remember at the Olympic qualifiers, one of my opponent's coach wondered how such a small-bodied boxer could unleash such powerful punches.

“I also learnt a lot about myself as a boxer at the World Championships. I have no big titles to my name, and I am not even known outside the Commonwealth Games. But when I faced a former world finalist (Okhota Hanna of Ukraine), I made her sweat. That’s when I realised, I am at the top of my game,” said Ongare who boxes for Kenya Police in the National League.

She will face Priyanka Dhillon of Canada in the opening round, but seems happy to face anyone. “I am not even keen to see the draw and entry list as to know the opponents I am facing," Ongare shares. "Sometimes I find myself being weighed down and scared off by their high rankings. I don’t mind going head-on in the ring and handling each opponent as they come. I like to decide in the ring whether to unleash the fighter or the boxer in me.”

It's one fight at a time, for the boxer whose life challenges have made her more determined to succeed.

"Anyone watching me will obviously see my good speedwork. Most of the flyweights I faced in the past had dropped down from the bantamweight, so they had a little more power, but I beat them with my speed in the ring. Even though they may not know me they will probably know my story and can imagine the Christine before and see Christine the boxer.”

Christine Ongare of Kenya looks on after sending Dulani Jaysinghe of Sri Lanka to the canvas in their 51kg Quarterfinal bout at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Christine Ongare's provisional schedule at the 2022 Commonwealth Games:

August 3, 2022

13:00-17:00 - Women's Over 45kg - 48kg (Minimum) Quarter-finals - Versus Priyanka Dhillon (Canada).

August 6, 2022

11:30 - 14:00 - Women's Over 45kg - 48kg (Minimum) Semi-finals

August 7, 2022

15:30- 18:30 - Women's Over 48kg - 50kg (Light Fly) Final Bout.

Click here for the full boxing schedule at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

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