'I didn't know what was going to happen with boxing or the Olympics, I didn't really care either'
Had the Olympic Games gone ahead as planned 12 months ago, Kurt Walker wouldn't have been there, whether he had qualified or not. But now, having watched daughter Layla prove she has inherited his fighting genes, the Lisburn man can't wait to get going in Tokyo. He talks to Neil Loughran...
THIS time last year Kurt Walker could never have imagined himself inside Tokyo’s Olympic Village, counting down the days until a lifelong dream would be fulfilled.
Indeed, boxing and the Olympic Games were the furthest thing from his mind. There were a couple of runs here and there, but not a single punch had been thrown in anger since March 16, 2020.
That was the dramatic final night of the European qualifier in London – delayed after that session - when Walker knew all he had to do was beat Hamsat Shadalov to seal his spot at Tokyo 2020.
Whether it was nerves or the uncertainty surrounding the competition and the Olympics themselves as the world found itself in the grip of a pandemic, the fancied Walker underperformed, Shadalov flying out of the blocks and leaving the Lisburn man too much to do.
A European Games gold medallist the previous summer, Walker was considered one of Ireland’s major medal hopes, yet now there were doubts whether he would be in Japan at all. It was a significant body blow.
Within a matter of months, none of that mattered any more.
Before it was cancelled, Walker had been due to enter the last chance saloon at the World Olympic qualifier in Paris from May 13-24. Instead it was new baby daughter Layla, born three months early on May 17 and weighing just 800 grams, who was doing the fighting.
Due on August 14, the same day Walker would have arrived back from Tokyo, he had already imagined returning home to his young family with a medal around his neck, but instead he and girlfriend Ria found themselves living a nightmare.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, Walker wasn’t even allowed into the Antrim Area Hospital in the early stages. When that relaxed, he was granted 20 minutes before having to leave again.
At one point, when Layla was two weeks old, a doctor told the couple she had six hours to improve or she wouldn’t make it. He was crying, so were they. They had the baby christened in her incubator but had only hope to hang onto.
Within a couple of hours, though, Layla started to improve - and from that point on would never look back. On August 10, after almost three months in hospital, the couple were able to bring her home.
“That was all we had been waiting for. 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.
“I was probably 74 kilos. I didn’t know what was going to happen with boxing or the Olympics, I didn’t really care either. Some things are much more important.”
Fast forward to last month, and the County Antrim Boxing Board is holding a reception for the four Ulster fighters bound for Tokyo at Belfast’s Balmoral Hotel.
By virtue of a rejig in the qualification process, Walker booked his place without having another fight – the impressive performances of the pre-Covid years racking up the ranking points and sealing his spot.
Layla is all smiles and giggles as she finds herself the centre of attention. Irish coach John Conlan is holding her at one point when Walker is called away for a photo, but it isn’t long before she wants back into her daddy’s arms.
A bond built through the most trying of times, it has changed him in every aspect of life.
“It’s weird,” says the 26-year-old, who looks set to begin his featherweight campaign on Saturday, subject to today’s draw.
“I’ve never experienced anything like that before… it has changed the way I look at things, definitely. It’s weird thinking I’m a dad - I still think of myself like I’m 21. I think everyone else thinks it’s weird because I’d have been messing about all the time.
“But she’s the first thing on my mind when I wake up and the last thing before I go to bed, whereas before there was so much other stuff… stupid stuff, negative stuff that would’ve drained your energy. Thinking you couldn’t wait to get back and go out or go on the drink, where now it’s different.
“You know who’s sitting at home waiting for you, so you’re not worrying about what else you’re going to do. That’s the only thing that matters and I know when I come back, I’ll just want to see her.
“I think that’s why I’m not putting any pressure on myself here, because there’s worse things in life that could be happening. I see this as a celebration - I’ve been training my whole life to get here.
“Now it’s just about going there and performing, and performing should get me very far.”
Whether it’s in training camp or in the village, though, Layla and Ria are never far from his thoughts. Leaving for Japan three weeks ago, saying goodbye in Belfast before heading for Dublin airport, it was different from the excitement, the sense of anticipation he normally feels.
“Ah it was tough… very tough.
“She hadn’t a clue like, obviously she’ll know I’m not there but she doesn’t know how long I’m away. It’s tough on Ria too but she’s used to it with me away in Dublin Monday to Friday. It’s just something we’ve all had to work around.”
Having travelled from their training base in Miyazaki last weekend, Walker is now ready for the big show, his patience paid off.
Five years ago, he was number two to Michael Conlan in Ireland, just waiting for his shot. Would the day ever come? He hoped so but, in boxing, you can never be sure of anything.
“I remember sitting watching Rio last time. I had been out at the Euros in France that summer too, and people would ask you about the Olympics and you’d say ‘I’ll hopefully go to the next ones’, but you never really know.
“Those same people are asking you that when you’re sitting having a pint beside them, so you’re not doing yourself too many favours, are you?
“But I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress since then. I’ve loads more learning to do but I’m in a good position - I’m stronger than I ever was, fitter, running faster than I ever have…
“I think I perform a lot better in Games situations because all the pressure is getting here. The only pressure I have now is what I put on myself, I don’t really care what anybody else says - this was a lifetime goal and I’ve achieved it.
“Now I’ve set myself another goal of getting a medal… there’s no reason why I can’t.”