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How a 16-year-old with no boxing experience went from idolising Katie Taylor to competing with her

Ireland’s Gráinne Walsh discusses her circuitous sporting journey.

Ireland's Gráinne Walsh with her Bronze medal in the Women's Welterweight, during day nine of the European Games 2019 in Minsk.
Ireland's Gráinne Walsh with her Bronze medal in the Women's Welterweight, during day nine of the European Games 2019 in Minsk.
Image: Martin Rickett

The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew

– Robert Burns

IN JANUARY, Gráinne Walsh was staring at a potential personal disaster as most of the world was still oblivious to the impact of the coronavirus.

During a routine sparring session, the boxer ruptured a ligament in her right thumb.

Amid an Olympic year, this predicament was less than ideal, to put it mildly.

Before then, for all of the Christmas period, she had been training intensively in preparation for a competition in Strandja, Bulgaria.

“I just threw my right hand and whatever way the punch landed, my thumb just completed ruptured,” she tells The42. “I knew straight away I was in trouble.” 

After receiving the results of an MRI, Walsh discovered surgery would be required to fully reattach the thumb.

Suddenly, the next few months were looking far different to how she had imagined and Walsh’s Olympic ambition appeared increasingly doubtful.

Both herself and Christina Desmond were battling for the one spot at Welterweight 69KG. 

That competition in Bulgaria, they were sending the two of us in the one weight,” Walsh explains. “So it would have been a massive indication as to who would have been sent to Tokyo, who [performed better].”

Subsequent news of the surgery meant she would also miss the European qualifiers in London, which were ultimately suspended last March due to the pandemic.

“It was just waiting to see then would [Desmond] qualify to give me a chance in the second qualifier or whatever, but it was out of my control at that stage, there was nothing I could have done. I was just doing all my rehab and waiting to see what would happen with her. It was all up in the air.”

So, while many athletes were disappointed with the news that the Olympics was being postponed, for Walsh, it felt like a lifeline, a second chance effectively.

“I had never been injured in my life before,” she says. “So I was kind of thinking to myself, there must be some reason why this has happened. How could I have been this unlucky and unfortunate? But I was like: ‘You know what? I have to stay positive.’

“My ma and da were saying at the start of this whole coronavirus thing: ‘Don’t be surprised if the Olympics was postponed for a year.’ I was thinking that would never happen. When there was talk about it, I was secretly hoping they would be postponed.

“I would have been ready for the second qualifier, which was due to take place this month. I would have been rushing to get back, sparring and fighting, but I’m delighted to have this extra time to focus on getting the hand 100%, doing it the right way, because as a boxer, your hands are your main tool. You have to mind them.

“Being out of the ring, with no sparring for at least 12-14 weeks, it would have set me back massively. I was trying to convince myself I’d be ready, but considering these girls have been sparring and have been in high-level competition for the three months when I was completely absent, just using my left hand, it made me a little bit sceptical in reality of my chances of qualifying.”

christina-desmond-and-grainne-walsh Christina Desmond (red) and Gráinne Walsh (blue) are both competing in the 69 kilo category. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Four months on from initially picking up the injury, and partly as a consequence of the government lockdown, Walsh still hasn’t done any sparring.

“But I’ve been hitting bags flat out with no real support or strapping, just my hand wrapped under gloves, with zero pain,” she says. “It’ll be a bit of an indicator [where I'm at] when I do spar with someone. When you’re on the bag you can half control what you’re doing, the way the bag moves and when you’re sparring, you can’t predict what you’re going to do. It’s like when I injured my thumb, it’s the unpredictability of sparring against another person. 

“So at the moment, things are going from strength to strength. I’m still doing my rehab and I’m still doing the small things that are going to get me there in the long run. I just have the extra time now.”

Actual fighting and combat for Walsh is still quite some time away, however. On account of the close physical contact it necessitates, boxing has only been permitted in the final phase of the government’s roadmap, as society prepares to get back to relative normality.

10 August is the date that the Offaly native is provisionally planning to return to training in Dublin, and even then there will be strict social distancing guidelines in place.

In the meantime, Walsh’s younger brother is helping her keep busy, throwing punches for her to dodge and competing against her in table tennis as a means of sharpening her reflexes. The sport also provides a competitive edge and a sense of fun that is more difficult to derive from the regular runs and other physical activities she undertakes.

“We did up the family shed out back,” she adds. “We emptied two tonnes of rubbish, just before the lockdown happened. All the gym equipment that we never knew we had, that was beneath all the rubbish, so we have a full gym out the back now.”

Despite missing boxing, Walsh says she has coped relatively well with the change in lifestyle that the lockdown has enforced.

We’re all in the same boat, and I think that makes it a little bit easier. You know the rest of the world is feeling the hit of this as well. There are no competitions. Whereas I found it harder being out injured, because everyone else was continuing on and I had to sit and wait. I know, given the circumstances, it is a terrible time for a lot of people and there is a lot of sickness. But I’m really enjoying the time at home. It’s time I normally wouldn’t have. I’d just be living out of a suitcase and living in Dublin all week. 

“So I’m using the time as well as I can and trying to keep my mind active as well. But obviously, that natural high from competing is what I miss and I never thought I’d miss getting punched in the face. That’s a massive thing. Being in a contact sport, you miss that kind of rough fighting edge to it. You can hit a bag all day every day, but sometimes it’s nice to just punch someone.”

******

aine-ogorman-and-grainne-walsh-2712013 Peamount's Áine O'Gorman and Gráinne Walsh of Shamrock Rovers during a 2013 National Women's League match. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Even before the Olympics’ postponement, Walsh was accustomed to taking a circuitous route to reach her desired destination. Before boxing became her primary focus, she spent seven years playing soccer, starting aged 11.

“My idol back then was Cristiano Ronaldo, I was obsessed, I loved United when he played for them,” she recalls.

At 16, Walsh joined Shamrock Rovers and spent three years playing there, getting capped by Ireland U17s around this period and appearing set for a career in soccer.

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It all changed in 2012 though, when Katie Taylor visited her hometown to open a boxing club. The Bray fighter had just won gold at the World Championships and was preparing for the 2012 Olympics in London.

Walsh had never boxed before, but the prospect of her 16-year-old self meeting Taylor proved alluring.

“If I just showed my face in the boxing club for a couple of weeks, I might get to meet Katie Taylor and I’d go back to soccer whenever the season started up,” she explains.

It quickly became apparent that Walsh had a talent for this new sport and after initially balancing the two, with the added pressure of the Leaving Cert, she opted to give up soccer.

“The individuality and discipline aspect was more my cup of tea [in boxing], rather than relying on 10 others to have the same work ethic as you.

I had invested a lot of time in soccer and got to a good level, but I just felt with the effort and what I could do on my own in the boxing, it suited my temperament a bit more.

“And I suppose Katie was to thank for getting the Olympics for women [in boxing] in London. Seeing her success was obviously a massive inspiration for me as well.

“After I met her in 2012, I was like: ‘I’m putting the head down as well,’ and I was on the team four years later going to the next Olympic qualifier in Kazakhstan. So that kind of showed me as well what I could achieve within four years. What could I achieve four years after that? I thought, if I take it in four-year chunks, I could be an Olympian some day.

“That’s the kind of outlook I had on the whole thing, whereas there wasn’t really set targets like that in soccer.”

Unsurprisingly, the Cristiano Ronaldo posters were swiftly replaced with images of her new hero.

“I think she’s a massive idol for all women everywhere, not just in Ireland. Even for men, too. She’s just achieved so much.

“I’ve a lot to thank her for, for getting me as far as I have got so far. I hope to follow in her footsteps even more.”

michaela-walsh-kelly-harrington-katie-taylor-grainne-walsh-ceire-smith-and-christina-desmond-take-a-selfie Pictured from (L-R) in 2016: Michaela Walsh, Kelly Harrington, Katie Taylor, Gráinne Walsh, Ceire Smith and Christina Desmond. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

And did Taylor live up to Walsh’s lofty expectations once she got to know her and the pair both competed as part of the Irish team leading up to the 2016 Olympics?

“She did, yeah. She takes the time to talk to everyone and I felt I could really relate to her being female and having come from a soccer background into a boxing one [Taylor used to play soccer, representing Ireland at underage and senior level]. 

“And I met Ronaldo as well when I was a kid. It’s obviously a bit different, he’s next-level fame, so it was a quick picture and ‘see you later’ kind of thing. 

Obviously, Ronaldo is very hard to relate to, because he’s on another level. But Katie, being a boxer, being Irish and being on the team with us, there’s a lot more of a friendship thing as well. She’s obviously busy doing her own thing in America, but she’d come back and pop her head into the gym, and she’d always have time for chats and stuff with all of us. She’s great — she’s always giving her time to us.

“So I just thought I could relate to her a lot more [than Ronaldo].”

Before the untimely hand injury, Walsh had been making good progress in her boxing career, winning bronze medals in 2017 at the European Unions and as well at the European Games last year.

“They were massive experiences and all the competitions I’ve gone to, wins and losses, you learn from both.”

Yet if the past few months have emphasised anything, it’s that a career in high-level sport is a precarious one.

Walsh had deferred a degree in Italian at NUI Galway after two years to focus on boxing, and plans to return to an online version of the course this September.

While her pathway in life has been anything but predictable in recent years, it is one commitment Walsh is determined to fulfil, knowing all too well that athletes can easily fall into the trap of failing to prepare for such eventualities.

“That’s it, and sometimes retirement’s staring you in the face. You think it’s very far away. You think ‘I’ll do it after’. And I’m one of the biggest culprits. I do put it to one side, because when you’re competing and stuff, you don’t really have the time.

“But at the moment, everyone has a bit of extra time. It’s really made me think about the future, and things I really need to knuckle down and get done, because as an athlete, you can only train so much in a day.

“You have so much free time that you could be really using to your benefit. And Italian is a massive part of it. I would be quite good at speaking it, but you need to practice it as well, so I want to do that online course to get me to the next level.”

grainne-walsh-celebrates-her-victory Walsh celebrates a victory at last year's European Games. Source: Soenar Chamid/INPHO

That said, making any kind of plans at the moment seems somewhat futile owing to the widespread uncertainty that exists in these unprecedented times, and Walsh has often surprised even herself. 10 years ago, she would never have expected to give up a career in soccer in favour of boxing.

There’s no history at all in my family of boxing. A lot of the girls and the lads that I train with, their grandfather, uncles and everyone have been boxers. But for me, there’s been no real exposure to boxing other than the likes of Katie Taylor being on the news and that kind of thing.

“For me, it was kind of a mad one to get involved in, but my parents have really supported me no matter what. When I was playing soccer, my dad was driving me around the country every week for games and training. So I owe a lot to them.

“My mother wasn’t a massive fan of the whole contact side of things from the start. But coming into a fight, she feels more nervous now in case I lose, more than [out of fear for me] getting hurt. I think she’s just accepted it’s a contact sport and sometimes, you’re going to get hit. But they’re absolutely great, the whole family, I’m very grateful.”

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