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'In Ireland, there were roadblocks put in my way. Here, they really want you to be successful'

Irish boxing coach Billy Walsh chats to The42 about his rollercoaster year with Team USA.

Billy Walsh has enjoyed almost instant success after linking up with the US boxing set-up.
Billy Walsh has enjoyed almost instant success after linking up with the US boxing set-up.

IT’S BEEN A rollercoaster 12 months for Billy Walsh.

This time last year, he was only getting used to the prospect of leaving the Irish boxing set-up and moving away from the country where he had spent his entire life.

It was a much-discussed and acrimonious departure. The Irish Amateur Boxing Association had been his life, in one form or another, since the age of seven. As he contemplated leaving the set-up he knew so well, Walsh revealed that he had “spent many nights on my own crying”.

The IABA insisted they did their utmost to retain Walsh’s services, while Sport Ireland among others thought differently, with the association taking plenty of flak for failing to keep hold of the man who had overseen the most successful period in Irish boxing history.

But now, for better or worse, both Irish boxing and Walsh have moved on, and the latter certainly appears to be thriving in his new environment.

On Tuesday night, Walsh was named AIBA’s world coach of the year to cap a fantastic start to life Stateside.

This summer, with Walsh in his corner, Nico Hernandez secured the US men’s first Olympic boxing medal (bronze) since 2008, while he also subsequently oversaw a gold medal for Claressa Shields and a silver for Shakur Stevenson.

Walsh has also guided the US to medals in various other championships both before and after Rio 2016 and has been rewarded with a new contract taking him beyond the Tokyo Games in 2020. Moreover, having been previously responsible for just the women’s team, he is now national head coach, overseeing both the male and female set-ups.

There is one aspect of Ireland he occasionally misses, however — the rain.

We get 300 days of sunshine in Colorado. It’s probably not that much in Wexford,” he tells The42.

And while Walsh admits to missing family and becoming homesick every now and then, he points out that it is not necessarily a feeling that’s entirely new to him.

Some people are very close to you and it can be difficult at times, but even when I was (coaching) in Ireland, I spent three-to-four months of the year outside of Ireland at training camps and competitions. I spent most of my time in Dublin with the team. I lived in Wexford, but I only got home at weekends.

“Once you have a vision and mission of where you want to go, which I have done since I was a kid, that’s what drives you on… I’m very busy and that helps me (get over the homesickness) in so many ways.”

He adds, jokingly: “These guys slag me about my accent and the sayings we have in Ireland. Trying to get them to understand me can be a bit of a challenge.”

And while he can look back with great satisfaction on a successful first year with the US, Walsh admits that the process was not always completely seamless.

The task facing the Wexford native when he took over was by no means an easy one. Having grown accustomed to a culture of winning in Ireland, Walsh inherited a somewhat fractious set-up Stateside. Only eight American boxers qualified for the most recent Olympics, making it their smallest team ever at the Games, though six of the individuals in question managed to get as far as the quarter-finals.

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

Not everyone was comfortable with his methods initially. A documentary broadcast earlier this year showed Team USA’s preparation for the Olympics, with Walsh having disputes involving both Claressa Shields and Shakur Stevenson. But despite their initial intransigence, both boxers in question ultimately returned from Rio with medals, in the process contributing to the US boxers’ best overall performance at an Olympic Games since 2000.

The biggest problem was the culture and the challenge for me was to try to change the culture,” he says. “So we had battles in the beginning about that, as you might have seen in the documentary.

“It took me a while to change it because it was the case that the tail was wagging the dog here. They didn’t have any consistency in coaching. The people they had coming in and coaching were volunteers and none of them put demands on any of these athletes for behaviours or (were criticising them) for not turning up for training and doing what they wanted to do.

They all saw them as superstars, telling them they were going to be the next Floyd Mayweather and ‘I want to be their friends’ and all that. I came in and said: ‘Right guys, here’s how it’s going to be: it’s going to be structured, it’s going to be disciplined, we’re going to be a team — not a team of individuals. We’re going to be Team USA.’ And that’s what we’ve been building.

“The principles are the same all over the world. Human beings are the same all over the world. Motivation is the same. There might be a different language. We are speaking the same language, but there are subtle differences in the language. But that was the challenge — for me to find the peace that would motivate them, find the peace that would stimulate them.

Obviously they had to change their mindset and we had to educate them on what good looks like, what world class looks like.

“Having had that success, we went to a few championships. We went to the continental championships last March in Buenos Aires and were the number one world team. We went to the women’s world championships last May and finished in third place. We went to the Olympic Games and finished sixth. Now we’ve just come back from the world youths and finished second.

Some of these kids have arrived at these championships and said: ‘Billy, you’re always funny and always different,’ but all of that stuff worked. You’ve got to keep doing it and you win another gold medal. You’re building the culture, you’re building the belief, because Americans don’t think outside of America. Once you’re king of America, you feel you’re king of the world.

“They don’t understand that there’s a bigger pot out there and that’s why they fell so far behind. They only focused on being champion of the States whereas I’m changing the mindset to being champion of the world.”

London Olympic Games - Day 11 Billy Walsh embraces Michael Conlon at the London 2012 Olympics. Source: Julien Behal

One of the alleged reasons why Walsh left the Irish boxing set-up was the lack of freedom and inability to implement his ideas under the stewardship of the IABA. However, he has no such complaints in his new role in the US.

“The big difference in culture in Ireland — it’s a bit shocking, I met my board for the first time this week a year on. I’ve been too busy, I was out of the country that much.

Every day there’s a guy coming into my gym, the director of the Olympic Training Centre, and he says to me: ‘Have you got everything? Is there anything that you need? Is there anything we can do for you?’ That has been a theme throughout this (experience).

“The CEO of the US Olympic team flew in for my board meeting this week on a Sunday to show his support for what we’re doing. A guy who has so many athletes to look after all over in America flew in to make a point. He flew to Memphis to meet me when I arrived at the Olympic trials. We walked around Graceland together and I spoke to him about what my vision was and where I wanted to go. All they want to do is support me.

The difference is that in Ireland, there were roadblocks being put in my way towards what we wanted to achieve. The difference here is that they really want you to be successful. When they say to you ‘well done’ and ‘good luck,’ they actually mean it.

“It’s regrettable the way it finished in Ireland, because I am a product of the IABA. From a seven-year-old boy that walked into a gym in a Christian Brothers school in Wexford Town to a guy that went on to be an elite champion seven times to become coach of the team and to be manager of the high-performance programme.

And to be there for the most successful period in the history of Irish boxing, it was regrettable for it to finish up the way it finished up. At the end of the day, I am an Irishman and a very proud Irishman.

“All those guys I left behind, my colleagues, we worked very hard for the IABA to make that team the best in the world. That’s regrettable but since I’ve come, anyone that knows me knows I’m committed, I’m a 100%-er and I know my job is here now.

This is where my commitment and my drive is, to bring these guys back to the dinner table as one of the top countries in the world.”

Walsh is perplexed as most people as to what went wrong for the Irish team at the Olympics as and is diplomatic when asked whether things would have been different under his watch.

Who knows if similar issues would have happened if I’d been there? I think it was a bit unjust — a lot of the criticism they took. But that was a very good team. It was the best team Ireland has ever had going to the Olympic Games. Last year, we were in Doha, we finished fourth in the medal table and two more Olympians would have joined that team – Paddy Barnes and Katie Taylor, who weren’t in Doha.

“That team was trying to be one of the best teams in Rio and unfortunately, things didn’t pan out for them that way. I know they’re going through a review over the last four years, which I took part in, to try to find out what really went wrong. But it’s hard for me to comment, as I haven’t been in the camp for (so long).”

Source: Ritchie .T A/YouTube

Walsh was as appalled as most people by some of the controversial judging decisions in Rio, likening them to the “robbery” of Roy Jones Junior in the 1988 Seoul Games (see above) and suggesting that Michael Conlan’s outspoken reaction to his own misfortune will instigate positive change, even if AIBA are not exactly publicly embracing his provocative words.

The experienced coach is confident the success of Conlan, Katie Taylor and Paddy Barnes will continue, now that they have made the decision to turn pro, even if he is somewhat sad to see them turn their back on amateur boxing.

The IABA and the Irish Sports Council wanted to hang on to Katie, Michael, Paddy and John Joe Nevin (after London 2012). John Joe stayed for a while and then went and I think that career professionally has gone pear-shaped for him.

“Those three people (Conlan, Taylor and Barnes) are three of the best athletes that Ireland has ever produced. To get to the top of their game, as they have done, their mindset, their athletic capabilities and skills have to be at the top of the world, so I’ve no doubt that those three people will be successful no matter what part of the sport they decide to pursue.

I’ve always been an amateur boxer. The purer side of boxing for me was always amateur boxing – the skill, the technique, the movement, the intensity, they were always what I loved. But I will now sit back and look at these guys perform on the world stage. I think they’ll bring more joy to Ireland and maybe receive the recognition that they haven’t received at amateur level.

“I’ve spoken to Michael, who was over training Stateside and I look forward to flying in to New York for St Patrick’s Day (to watch him fight) and see Katie the next day, when they make their American debuts.”

And as for Walsh’s own career? He now has to effectively start again, with stars from the last Olympics such as Shields deciding to turn pro. Nonetheless, the early signs are promising, with the US recently finishing second in the U18 World Championships in Saint Petersburg.

In Ireland we looked at holding onto a team for two Olympic cycles to create that success. Here, with the amount of talent and people in the country, we can do that in a four-year cycle,” Walsh adds.

“We’re going to put a system together where we’re going to finance these guys, which they didn’t before, to be full time, as we did in Ireland with the Irish Sports Council and as all the major boxing nations do. So there isn’t really ‘amateur’ boxing anymore. It’s been long gone.

“It may not be the money of other sports — it’s just enough to get them by and make sure they’re not struggling while they are here in training.”

Nico Hernandez with Billy Walsh USA's Nico Hernandez celebrates with his coach Billy Walsh at the 2016 Olympics. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

As is often the case when a largely unknown (from an American perspective) foreigner comes into a new environment, Walsh’s outsider status led to plenty of skepticism initially. Yet, inevitably, success has prompted a change in how he is perceived.

Like in any country, they were saying why are we bringing in an Irishman? We’ve got a lot of great coaches in this country’. So I’ve had to break down barriers in that respect.

“Now, they recognise me and support me and a guy across the room last night, he sent a drink over to my table and said ‘well done at the Olympics, you were brilliant, fantastic job’.

So there was probably a little bit of scepticism out there, but they’re beginning to see me now. I’m an easy-going guy, I get on well with people, so any questions or answers they need, we’re here to give them that.

“One of the biggest problems here was that the club coaches in boxing (often) happened to be the parent. The Olympic team that went to London for Ireland — four of the boxers, their parents were the coach. So I’ve had to deal with parents all my life.

It does (work well sometimes). You have to live the boxing 24/7. But sometimes you can see a problem with the parent, not allowing their kid to grow and develop. So I spoke to the board about this — there is a stage where the parents have got to let go. It was like the kid going out to life — cut the strings and let them go.

“You’ve got them to the point where they’re now ready to go on to the international stage. If you don’t have experience on the international stage as a coach — the style, the system and the technique that is needed, you’re going to hamper them and prevent them from progressing.

So here’s a guy coming in from Ireland that has all this expertise in amateur boxing and has run one of the most successful programmes in the world in Ireland for a decade. Let this guy take these kids and help them. So some of these guys fly to Colorado Springs and (in the case of) the youth teams, they only had three parents there.

“At the training sessions, I included them, encouraged them and we sat down after the Championships, we had a meal together as a team and everybody had their say at the table. And some of the fathers said it was the first time ever they’d been included in the coaching set-up.

We were encouraged to help out, you were educating us on what we were trying to do. It was the first time we’ve seen ‘Team USA’ where we’ve all worked as a team. That’s what I learned with Team Ireland and what I’m trying to build here with Team USA.”

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Paul Fennessy

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