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‘If you offered me €500m or Olympic Gold, I’d tell you to keep your money’

The Tokyo Olympics were supposed to open tomorrow but instead of parading around Japan’s National Stadium, medal prospect Michaela Walsh will be running north Belfast’s roads.

Flying high: Walsh celebrates beating world champion, Omella Warner, last year.
Flying high: Walsh celebrates beating world champion, Omella Warner, last year.
Image: Martin Rickett

MICHAELA WALSH HAD big plans for 2020. Crowds. Cheers. Podium. Olympic Gold. Anthem. Homecoming.

That isn’t all. Her brother, Aidan, was to be part of the narrative, a mix of the Klitchskos and the Waltons, the first brother and sister to box at the Olympics. The perfect sports story.

March was the opening chapter. The Walshs had made it to London for the Olympic qualifiers, older sister and younger brother trying to become two of the 77 boxers who’d win a ticket to Tokyo. “I know I can be Olympic champion,” Michaela says. “That’s not cockiness, just a confidence in my ability to beat anyone in the world.”

Covid-19 is one opponent no boxer can defeat, however. Picture this. Tomorrow was meant to be the Opening Ceremony of the XXX11 Olympiad but instead of parading around Japan’s National Stadium, Michaela Walsh will be running up and down the hard concrete roads of north Belfast. She wishes she could make 2020 disappear and wake up in February next year at the Olympic qualifiers, a few months and a few fights closer to her destiny.

Still, there’s perspective. All she has lost is a year. “And people have lost loved ones in this pandemic,” she says. “You need to put things in context. What I do is just sport.”

But it’s not just sport.

When you’re a world class athlete – and with two Commonwealth Games silvers, European Games silver, European Championship bronze and European Union gold – Walsh has justifiably earned that status, sport gets wrapped up in your identity. It is the reason you don’t drink at family weddings and birthdays; the reason you turn down a biscuit when your auntie offers you a cup of tea; the reason you starve your body to make weight.

“Well, sports people aren’t superheroes,” she says. “We’re normal.”    

Then she checks herself. She thinks about what she’s like when she steps through the ropes and stares across the ring at her opponent. Then polite, charming Michaela Walsh goes ‘into my own world, into a different place’.

Psychologically it isn’t all that easy to transition from kind older sister into cold, calculated fighter. But she’s good at what she does. “A star in the making, I’ve been saying that for years,” was Katie Taylor’s summation of Walsh last year. Both Carl Frampton and Michael Conlon have tipped her for a medal. Others in the trade have constantly referred to her dedication.

sport-commonweath-games-2014-northern-ireland-photocall-queens-pavilion Conlon (right) has tipped Walsh for a medal in Tokyo. Source: Niall Carson

She sees the positives of an extra year’s preparation; the chance to harden those muscles; tweak those technical deficiencies; get extra miles into those legs. This time next year she’ll be 28, a peak age in the fighting trade, two years older than Katie Taylor was in London.

Like so many other sports fans she watched those Taylor fights through the cracks of her fingers. “Whenever I fight, I’m not nervous but when it’s a friend in the ring, I’m off my head with fear,” she says. “And when it is Aidan, I’m a nightmare to be with. No one sits beside me when he’s fighting because I just lose it.”

It’s a common enough problem in the business, brothers and sisters often scheduled to box on the same night, their emotions tangled up in the fortunes of their sibling, feeling their pain if things go wrong, struggling to reengage with their own duties.

Yet there are positives. Before Aidan became an international, Michaela suffered homesickness in training camps and tournaments. When he’s there with her, things feel different. “I’m stronger,” she says.

So last March, on the eve of St Patrick’s Day, after Aidan had defeated Estonia’s Pavel Kamanin, she was buzzing ahead of her own Olympic qualifier. “I was ready for it. One hundred per cent.”

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carl-frampton-with-aidan-and-michaela-walsh Walsh pictured with Carl Frampton (middle) and her brother, Aidan. Source: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

Soon the buzz would go, the coach driver the first to break the news that the qualification programme was about to be postponed. “You guys heading out tonight, then,” he asked as she, and her Ireland team mates, boarded the team bus to travel back from the Copper Box to the Ireland team hotel.

“Whaddyamean?”

“It’s cancelled. There’ll be no boxing on tomorrow.”

Nor would there be for months. Instead, Michaela Walsh and every other Olympic hope woke up on St Patrick’s Day to the purgatory of not knowing if or when they would get a chance to fulfill a dream.

“It got me down for about a week,” she said, “then I gave myself a little pep talk. ‘What’s the point of feeling sorry for yourself?’ I said. ‘Who’s benefiting if you do that. Get back out there and train’.”

And that’s what she’s being doing ever since.

“It’s like this. Growing up, we were a boxing family. It’s in the blood. We were in the Holy Family club when Paddy Barnes came home from Beijing with his medal. The place went crazy, the whole area. I remember looking at all that and imagining what it would be like to be an Olympic champion. That’s the dream. But back then it was an unrealistic dream because back them women’s boxing wasn’t allowed in the Olympics.”

That changed in 2009, the IOC rostering women’s boxing on the London itinerary.

“I know who we’re representing – our families, our communities.

“I know all that. I get it.

But this …. this dream of mine, it’s powerful. I have to do it for myself. For me. It’s what gets me up every morning, it’s what puts me on the scales, seeing if my weight has fluctuated (over the 57kg limit). If people end up looking up to me, well that’s lovely but I want this for my own pride. You could offer me €500 million or an Olympic gold, and I’d tell you to keep the money. I’d take the offer of a gold medal every day of the week because I’m the one who has been running those roads, punching those bags and lifting those weights. I’ve been chasing this goal since I was 13-years-old.”

All going well, the chase will end next July but politics and pandemics may get in the way, Japanese authorities suggesting a cancellation is possible if there are renewed surges of the Coronavirus in 2021. “I’m not worrying about that,” Walsh says. “It’s pointless. I’m just worrying about getting myself ready.”

Unblinking and intense, power in her words as well as her fists. What’s another year? Nothing but a small toll to pay for the prize at the end of it.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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