Boxing was on the backburner as Kurt Walker took care of family business

Reigning European Games champion Kurt Walker has his sights set on the World Olympic qualifiers, which are scheduled to take place next May ahead of the rescheduled Tokyo 2021 Games. Picture by PA
Neil Loughran

UNTIL the end of July, Kurt Walker had barely thought about boxing in four months. With nothing happening in clubs or gyms across the country, it was a trying time for fighters with itchy fists at all levels.

For Walker, though, his mind – and his priorities - were somewhere else entirely. Even if the Covid-19 pandemic hadn’t happened, he still wouldn’t have been near a boxing ring for the majority of that time. Had the World Olympic qualifier gone ahead in Paris from May 13-24 as planned, he would have been flying home in the middle of them.

The 25-year-old and girlfriend Ria had been eagerly anticipating the birth of their baby daughter this summer. Due last Friday, August 14, her arrival would have coincided with his return from the Olympics had he gone on to secure his spot in Tokyo.

Walker had dreamt of coming home with the gold medal around his neck, ready to embrace the next chapter. But, just as much of 2020 has been thrown into chaos, so too were Kurt and Ria’s lives when baby Layla was born on May 17 – almost three months early.

Weighing just 800 grams, now she was the one doing the fighting.

“We had no idea, not a clue. Ria went to the hospital for a check-up and that was it. They found she had pre-eclampsia, so they rushed her to the Ulster and then she ended up having to go to Antrim Area Hospital because there was no space in the Ulster.

“Because of the Covid restrictions, I wasn’t even allowed in. We live in Stoneyford so eventually they would let you come in for 20 minutes. I was driving up, going in, back out again. When Ria had the baby they let me stay for an hour.

“Layla was really sick at the start so they let two of us in then but when she started getting a bit better, only one parent was allowed in at a time. Ria would go in for an hour and a half, then I’d go in for an hour and a half.

“When she was two weeks old the doctor brought us in and told us she had six hours to improve or she wouldn’t make it. He was crying as well, telling us that. We got her christened in the incubator… it was mad.

“She stayed the same for the next hour or two but then bang, she just started picking up and improving. Thankfully she has just kept on improving ever since.”

Last Monday, Kurt and Ria finally got to bring their baby home. Layla is now over the five pound mark and continuing to thrive.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for - it’s been frustrating the last few weeks because you just wanted her home,” he adds.

“Boxing couldn’t have been further from my mind through all that. For a while it was as if I wasn’t even a boxer because I didn’t think about it once. You’re just in a bubble.

“If I’d qualified for the Olympics, I wouldn’t have gone. No way. Some things are much more important. My daughter would have come first.”

Tokyo 2020 was due to get under way on July 24. Instead, four days before that, Ireland’s elite boxers were granted special dispensation to return to group training.

Rather than gathering everybody together at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown, however, the Irish Athletic Boxing Association opted instead for a regional strategy in the months ahead, with boxers being based in Belfast, Dublin and Offaly.

As a result, Walker, Brendan Irvine, Carly McNaul, Kane Tucker, Dundalk’s Amy Broadhurst and the Walsh siblings – Aidan and Michaela – have been training away at Jordanstown under the watchful eye of Ulster high performance coaches John Conlan and Damien Kennedy.

“It’s far better,” says Walker.

“There’s only a few of us there so you get more attention. You can’t mess about and do your own thing, you’re going to be watched the whole time.

“Until last week I was training in Jordanstown then just going straight to the Ulster hospital, but I’m feeling good already. I just need to get a bit of weight off and I’ll be alright - because I was at the hospital I was just eating shite, or grabbing a Chinese on the way home.

“Now things have settled down a bit that will all change.”

And attention will, eventually, shift to the rescheduled Olympics once more.

Walker had to win just one fight at the European qualifier in London last March to book his place but, in the final session before the competition was postponed, the Canal BC counter-puncher fell to tricky German Hamsat Shadolov.

For the best 57kg fighter in Europe to bow out to an opponent he admits he knew little about left him not only frustrated as the Irish team headed for home the following morning, but “embarrassed”.

“I was just too emotional, too eager. Once I got caught with a shot I was looking to land three back, then I was getting caught again instead of just taking my time and relaxing. I felt embarrassed more than anything.

“It would be different if I got beat by Peter McGrail or somebody like that, I still would be melted, but I didn’t really know him and then he came out and beat me. I was scundered.

“I’ve watched the fight back a load of times and the more I do, the more I rate him. I still know I’m better than him, but it took me a long, long time to get over that.”

Perspective is a wonderful thing, though, and soon the pain of defeat paled into insignificance.

Now, looking into the rest of 2020 and the year ahead, it feels like starting fresh, and a second chance of sorts.

“I always seem to do well, or do better, after I get beat, so hopefully I do it again. Even at training, I can see I’m getting better, I’m evolving with different styles.

“The way things have worked out, the Olympics being postponed is a blessing in disguise for me because I wouldn’t have missed them, no matter what.

“Everybody’s had to refocus and I’m the same, even with everything that’s been going on. When the time comes again, I’ll be ready.”

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