Sport

‘A year out of sport and now I’m enjoying something I once loved’: Aidan Walsh ready to make ring return in Olympic qualifier

Aidan Walsh had always dreamed of making it to an Olympic Games, and in 2021 he returned from Tokyo with a bronze medal. Picture by PA
Aidan Walsh claimed Olympic bronze in August 2021 - and the west Belfast man hopes to get back to another Games this summer. Picture by PA

BY the time Aidan Walsh steps between the ropes at the first World Olympic qualifier ON Tuesday morning, it will have been over a year since he last laced up gloves in competition.

For a man whose boxing career had been a non-stop treadmill of domestic and international achievement since his teenage years, standing on the podium at the delayed Tokyo Games in August 2021 - a bronze medal placed around his neck - represented the realisation of a lifelong dream.

It was also the moment, however, when Walsh’s outlook on life, and the sport he loves, started to shift.

Injury kept him sidelined for the next eight months, with the west Belfast man having broken his right ankle and suffered ligament damage in his left ankle during the celebrations that followed a medal-sealing performance against Mervyn Clair in Japan.

As he was already out of action, it was the perfect time to go under the knife in a bid to sort out a niggling problem in his right hand. Other interests, such as kayaking and photography, were pursued while boxing was forced to take a back seat.

Alongside sister Michaela, Walsh was back in time to turn in a series of masterful performances on the way to Commonwealth Games gold in the summer of 2022.

Up from welter to light-middleweight, it was as good as he had ever looked, the timing of the run apparently perfect just as the next Olympic cycle was about to kick into gear.

But then, in the wake of a surprise Irish elite semi-final defeat to Dean Walsh, it looked as though any hopes of making it to a second consecutive Olympics had been parked. After a couple of wins at the Strandja tournament in Sofia, injury forced him out of a clash with Uzbekistan’s Nurislom Ismoilov.

That was on February 23, 2023. Aidan Walsh hasn’t been seen in a boxing ring since.

When Michaela went to Poland and booked her ticket to Paris last July, her younger sibling was cheering her on rather than in the mix to make it a joint celebration.

Dean Walsh missed out on the qualifying spot, but already talk turned to a shootout between the Wexford man and Holy Trinity’s Jon McConnell for a crack at this first World qualifier in Italy. Will he, won’t he talk surrounded Aidan Walsh as entry lists were compiled for the Irish elite championships, having been involved in an international training camp in Abbotstown the previous month.

Dean Walsh bowed out of the Strandja tournament on Thursday evening at the hands of Denmark’s Nikolai Terteryan. Picture by Sportsfile
Dean Walsh went to last year's European Olympic qualifier in Poland, but failed to secure a spot in Poland. Picture by Sportsfile

Yet, when the draw came through, his name was not on the list. McConnell and Dean Walsh got their shootout, the second inside nine months, Walsh again emerging victorious on the way to successfully defending the 71kg crown.

This left the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) in a pickle. Dean Walsh had already tried, and failed, to qualify. Out of all the weight classes, men and female, this was the only one subject to behind-closed-doors assessments in the weeks and months that followed.

Mullaghbawn man Eugene McKeever, beaten by Dean Walsh in his first final at light-middle, was invited in. So too was Aidan Walsh, despite his inactivity.

Was it too late in the day to make an impact? Apparently not. When the IABA confirmed the team bound for Busto Arsizio, Walsh was the man who got the nod, much to the disappointment of namesake Dean.

His experience of the biggest occasions, his track record on the international stage, and the ability – on his day - to bamboozle the world’s best swayed the decision in his favour.

On Tuesday morning he enters the E-Works Arena in Busto Arsizio, just outside Milan, to face Husain Alkandari from the UAE. Whether his selection was the right call, only time will tell.

But, having spent so much time in the shadows, and steered clear of the media spotlight in recent times, an Instagram post last week suggested the 26-year-old is happy with where he is, and happy to roll the dice once more.

“To be happy within yourself is one of life’s greatest pleasures,” he posted.

“A year out of sport and now I’m enjoying something I once loved. If you are struggling in life please speak out and get the help you deserve. Your mental health is more important than any sporting success... thank you to the people who stuck by me.”

SCHEDULE
World Olympic qualifier, Busto Arsizio

Tuesday

Round of 64

71kg: A Walsh v H Alkandari (UAE) – morning session

Wednesday

Round of 32

92+kg: M McDonagh v Y Acik (Turkey) – afternoon session

Friday

Round of 32

51kg: D Moorehouse v T Cedeno (Venezuela) – afternoon session

66kg: G Walsh v S von Berge (Germany) – morning session