How the history-making Walsh siblings made it to the Olympic stage
Aidan and Michaela Walsh will make history when they become the first boxing brother and sister to compete at an Olympic Games in the coming days. It has been an amazing journey, but how did they get here? Neil Loughran talks to the west Belfast siblings, and those who know them best, to find out…
IF ever a picture said more than words could manage, it was the one posted by Monkstown Boxing Club back on June 6 this year. Taken in the living room of coach Paul Johnston, a TV screen shows Aidan Walsh on his knees in a Paris ring, arms raised in victory, the elation of Olympic qualification sweeping him off his feet.
Watching on from miles away are Johnston and proud parents, Damien and Martine. Johnston and Martine’s arms are pumping, joy etched all over their faces. Damien stands momentarily frozen, knees slightly bent, two clenched fists raised to his mouth - relief, and realisation of what has been achieved.
Sat ringside in Le Grand Dome, roaring herself hoarse, was Aidan’s elder sister Michaela. Less than an hour before he sealed his spot at Tokyo 2020, she had done the same.
When they step between the ropes at Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo stadium they will become the first boxing brother and sister ever to do so, their place in Olympic history already secured before a punch is thrown.
Watching them on the world stage is a nerve-wracking experience, but no worse than when they first dipped their toes in the fight game, as Damien recalls.
“To be honest, even from their very first bout, the emotions are exactly the same as right now.
“I thought 14 years ago the intensity might ease off a bit, but it doesn’t. As the years rolled on, the fights got bigger, the tournaments got bigger, and those same emotions still come out.
“Every parent or aunt of uncle, they all feel the same. We were sitting with their uncle watching them at the European qualifier and he was a nervous wreck, grabbing my arm and everything.
“Over time you learn to deal with those nerves a bit, but not completely.”
“I get very nervous,” adds mum Martine, “and I’m more nervous when I’m there watching them live. If I see them getting hit, I’d go out of the room and then come back in...”
Damien and Paul Johnston travelled to Australia when the Walsh siblings competed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, both boxing brilliantly to return home with silver medals.
Despite plans to go out to Tokyo this time around, they will be back in front of a TV screen to follow Aidan and Michaela’s journey in the Far East, Covid restrictions preventing family or supporters travelling to the Games.
“It’ll be completely different, but sometimes I think there has to be a detachment for them when they’re at these tournaments,” says Damien.
“The emotional side of it, your mum and dad are sitting there a few feet away, does it have an impact on them? If we’re not there it’s probably easier for them to disengage from that and think ‘I’m here to do a job’.”
In their wildest dreams they couldn’t have imagined it would come to this.
At the start, Aidan just wanted to give it a crack. Damien had been “a club fighter” at St Agne’s in the ’70s so took him down for a couple of sessions, unaware of the road on which they were starting out.
When Michaela wanted to follow suit, a fire was lit.
“Aidan was probably about eight but then Michaela kept asking me, and eventually I said to Sean Canavan, an old coach of mine, could she come down, and he was happy enough…”
“It took you a few weeks to ask,” snaps Michaela with a smile.
“For me, it was alien,” says Damien, “girls just didn’t box, it wasn’t something that was there then. I was sort of wary, not in the sense of having any fear, but then when she joined she wanted to train as hard as the boys.
“Alanna Audley-Murphy and Katie Taylor had boxed at the stadium in 2001, this was around 2006 when we went to St Agnes’s, and Michaela was pretty much the first there.”
While Damien quickly got his head around Michaela lacing up gloves, Martine took a little longer to be convinced.
“I wasn’t for it at the start, but she told me she was only going training. It was all boys at the time, no girls, and then the next thing I knew she was fighting in the Ulster Hall - ‘och mummy, it’s only a wee exhibition’.
“That was against Ray Close’s daughter Sarah, and we were watching, I was so nervous, covering my eyes because she was getting hit all the time. Afterwards she said to me ‘don’t you come back mummy, you’re putting me off’.”
A friend and fellow Translink employee, Alastair McFadzean, was a coach at Gerry Storey’s famous Holy Family gym in the New Lodge, and asked Damien about bringing one of their emerging young talents down to St Agnes’s to show Michaela the ropes.
“I had been telling Alastair she couldn’t get any sparring, so he said about bringing a young fella called Ryan Burnett down to take her round…”
“Take me round?” laughs Michaela, “he beat the head off me!”
After bringing Aidan and Michaela up to Holy Family to return the favour, the starry-eyed young siblings were soon hooked on the history and the buzz of a gym that not only included Burnett and Olympic bronze medallist Paddy Barnes, but had also produced the likes of Hugh Russell and played a major part in Carl Frampton’s amateur career.
“As soon as we walked in through the Holy Family doors, these two didn’t want to go back out. That was it,” says Damien.
“It just had an atmosphere, there’s something compelling about it. When you walk through the door, the ring was flat on the ground. That day the sun was shining in through the windows, Gerry’s a charismatic fella, and 10 years they were there…”
Those occasional move arounds with Burnett soon became a regular occurrence. He was on his journey to big things already, with an Olympic youth gold medal just around the corner before a professional career that would see him unify world titles in the bantamweight division.
Aidan Walsh knew he was sharing a ring with somebody special, and came to idolise his older sparring partner. Indeed, Michaela loves to tell the story of the time Burnett arrived at the gym sporting a new pair of jeans and Timberland boots, only for Aidan to arrive wearing the same the following week.
“Everybody was laughing their head off,” she says.
“He was loving it,” smiles Aidan, “the exact same boots and exact same jeans - same top and all. I just wanted to be like him.”
Burnett was becoming a fan of theirs too.
Plenty came through those doors and plenty went back out over time. But there was something different about these two – their focus, their dedication. It set them apart.
“At the start, when I used to spar with Aidan, it was always like me playing about with a kid,” recalls Burnett, who called time on his career two years ago.
“But over the years he just kept getting better and better, and then one time we sparred and he got the better of me – he gave me a few digs in the chops, and I had to get really serious with him, just to be able to hold my own. That day always stayed with me.
“From then, he has just kept progressing and improving, and it’s the same with Michaela. When they first came I was always a lot more skilled but then they just kept catching up with me, bit by bit, and both of them always had this determination about them. They were really hard driven.
“That was the thing about the Holy Family too - we all had someone in the gym who we were competing against. I was always competing with Paddy, Paddy was always competing with Carl Frampton, Aidan and Michaela Walsh were competing with me… we had the Upton boys and loads of other really good fighters too.
“We were lucky enough to be one of those gyms where there was a lot of talent, so it was a really competitive environment. We all brought each other on.”
Brother and sister pushed each other too.
The more success Michaela achieved, the more determined Aidan would become. Seeing what it meant to her younger brother, and the pride he got from seeing her do well, Michaela never let her standards slip.
“I get my competitiveness from her,” says Aidan.
“If Michaela had got to a certain age and then packed boxing in, I probably would have packed it in too because I just followed along with what she was doing.
“I was always seeing her going down to Dublin, or going away with the Irish team, so when she won an All-Ireland, I wanted to win an All-Ireland, and so on. She was setting my goals.”
Michaela announced her arrival on the senior international stage with Commonwealth silver at Glasgow 2014, pushing reigning Olympic champion Nicola Adams all the way in the final.
Within a year, Aidan had returned from Samoa with gold from the Commonwealth Youth Games. Eventually, having moved to Monkstown before landing Ulster and then Irish elite titles, the classy counter-puncher joined his sister on the national team.
“Paul Johnston has been phenomenal with them,” says Damien.
“We were only in the club about three weeks when Michaela went out to Cascia and got gold at the European Unions, a few months later Aidan won the Ulster elites to get into the Commonwealth team, now they’re both Olympians.
“So the progress has been steady, and my belief is it has all been right place, right time. You couldn’t write this, it just happened.”
The Commonwealths was special alright, to finish on the podium on the same day, another glorious moment for the family scrapbook. But the Olympics? Tokyo has been the target for as long as both can remember, and here they sit now, ready to realise a dream.
As soon as Aidan qualified in Paris last month after edging past tough Ukrainian Yevhenii Barabanov, Michaela was waiting backstage to present him with the official Olympic card confirming he was Tokyo-bound.
The celebrations after that, though, were fairly mooted.
“I went to the bar and bought two bottles of Coke – two wee 330s, it cost me €9.50! – and she couldn’t even drink hers because she was getting drug tested,” says Aidan, “so I went back to my room and drank the both of them. I didn’t get much sleep that night!
“The day before, when we had our first fight, Michaela was on second for, I think, the first time ever. Right the way up through Antrim novices, Ulsters, All-Irelands, it’s always been Michaela on first and then me, so for it to be the other way about was pretty strange.”
“I didn’t like it,” adds Michaela, before Aidan carries on.
“I’ve just got used to it. It happened in the Commonwealths… I was going into the Commonwealth final right after she was beat for the gold medal, so it plays a part too. When she wins it’s great, it gives you that buzz. But obviously when it doesn’t go her way, you can’t let it affect you. I’ve learnt that over the years.”
The Tokyo 2020 draw will be made on Thursday, opening ceremony Friday and then Aidan looks set to box in the welterweight preliminaries on Saturday. Michaela, seeded fourth at featherweight, waits to find out when she will enter the fray.
With the days ticking down, still they don’t feel pressure - never have, even with their journeys intertwined over time.
“I just believed we would get here,” says Michaela.
“I know people say that, but just deep down within me, all those years at Holy Family and Gerry talking about the Olympians, I just believed we were going to do it no matter what.
“You never could’ve known what way the journey would have taken you, or how we would’ve got here, but I always believed we would one way or another.
“Obviously Rio, things didn’t go to plan for me, but I knew Aidan was on the way up and I knew when Aidan got into the Irish team, Zaur [Antia] and the coaches were going to love him. “Everything came together for us to qualify on the same day. When you see things like that… this was meant to be.”
Mum and dad believed too, and seats on the sofa have already been booked for the days ahead – not that there will be much sitting done.
“You think back to your own boxing days,” says Damien, “I don’t know whether I had any potential or not, but I just maybe didn’t have that drive to get where they wanted to go. That’s what has brought them here.”
“Obviously you have to have that focus,” says Aidan, “but when I was younger I was out of school at 15, 16, me and Michaela used to go down to Holy Family every day, and my daddy never once said to me ‘go get a job son’. Other people were saying it, but he never did…”
“That’s because I knew,” smiles Damien. “I don’t say that being cocky, and the same goes for Michaela. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it and it’s easy to say when we are where we are now, but I just believed in them.
“It’s been a phenomenal journey.”