'There's still a bit missing in me': Michaela Walsh hoping it's third time lucky in Birmingham
Michaela Walsh has suffered heartbreak at the final stage in her two previous Commonwealth Games appearances but, as Neil Loughran finds out, this time she is determined to go all the way…
NOBODY knows this terrain better than Michaela Walsh – a road that has brought happiness and heartache, and the hope that third time lucky could finally see a gold medal around her neck.
Last night’s opening ceremony at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium was familiar footing for Walsh, having beaten the same path in 2014 and 2018. If everything goes to plan in the years ahead, it will be the last Commonwealth Games she graces.
First, though, there is business to attend to.
Walsh was 21, still relatively new to the scene, when she announced her arrival as an international force to be reckoned with at the 2014 Games in Glasgow. It seems like light years ago now.
A quick look down through the names to come out of that tournament shows the quality on display. Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan led the way for Team NI with gold medals. Scotland’s future undisputed world champion Josh Taylor topped the podium at light-welter, Cardiff’s Joe Cordina, regarded in some quarters as a world champion in waiting, had to settle for bronze.
Heavyweight contender Joe Joyce, Tokyo 2020 gold medallist Lauren Price, big-hitting Savannah Marshall - preparing for her date with destiny against brash American Claressa Shields in a matter of months – all gave glimpses of what was to come.
And there, at flyweight, is Nicola Adams, the baby-faced assassin with the beautiful smile who, after sweeping all before her on the way to Olympic gold in London two years previous, was expected to ease beyond the relative unknown on the opposite side of the ring.
It was here, though, amid a galaxy of future stars, that Michaela Walsh made her name.
Even if her days at 51kg were short-lived, she pushed Adams harder than anybody, with many onlookers believing she would get the nod as both boxers anxiously awaited the decision.
“At that time it would’ve been the biggest competition I’d ever been to, I soaked it all up.
“Obviously I knew Nicola Adams was going to be at my weight, I’d watched her in 2012, I remember getting photos taken with her at the European Union Championships, being a fan of hers – it’s mad going from that to them being your main target, and wanting to beat them.
“That was special because no-one knew me. I was 21, so that was a big shock and probably made people realise how good I was. Tournaments like that can just change you, in terms of how they can speed up your development.
“That was definitely the case for me… I loved every minute of it.”
Unfortunately for Walsh, though, it was golden girl Adams who had her hand raised, emotions getting the better of the west Belfast woman as disappointment took hold.
By the next time the Commonwealth Games rolled around, there was a new kid in town – Michaela’s younger brother Aidan. The pair travelled as a team, making history and sharing the journey of a lifetime, the siblings returning with silver medals around their necks again.
Yet, while Aidan was beaten by the more experienced Pat McCormack in his final, Michaela again got the short end of the judges’ stick after a cagey decider against Australia’s Skye Nicolson.
Once more, she had every reason to feel hard done by – the hurt etched across her face at the Gold Coast medal ceremony telling its own tale. So, as she prepares for a third crack at Commonwealth gold, how does she view those two silvers now? Does she know where they are?
“Jeez,” she laughs, “I’d have to ask my ma, I don’t know… Somewhere in the house!
“I think mine and Aidan’s are together from the last one, probably in a drawer or something. We’ve a good few medals now between so they’re about somewhere.
“Obviously in the moment I didn’t want the medal at all, I wanted to throw it away. But when I look back now, it’s a big achievement to have those two medals, especially the first one because I came so close to beating an Olympic champion.
“From my first Games I’ve matured a lot as an athlete and as a person… you just say what’s on your mind when you’re a bit younger. You learn to deal with it the more competition experience you get.
“In Australia then, she [Nicolson] didn’t do much… that’s why I was so upset because I think I got hit twice the whole fight, if even. Being so close, I know how much it means and when you hear split decision you’re going ‘please go my way’. I hate that moment.
“She was the hometown girl, but it is what it is. I’m not a judge, that’s the way they saw it so I just have to accept that.”
This time around, Team NI are a bit closer to home. Having operated across time zones in Australia and then at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, it is reassuring to know that family and friends will be cheering her on in at the NEC.
“Last time I had my coach, my dad, my brother’s girlfriend out there, but it felt far away. This is near enough like a home Games, family and friends are able to go over and that’s probably more important now after Tokyo.
“It all felt a bit alien. I remember my dad saying ‘if one of my kids gets to an Olympics I’m not going to miss it, I’m going to be there’… everyone wanted to go, they had a plan to go, but then obviously Covid changed all that.”
At 29, Walsh knows opportunities to add to her medal collection are running down, especially if – as expected – the pro ranks call down the line. Silver is nowhere near her thoughts heading to Birmingham.
As they stood on the podium, Skye Nicolson smiled widely while Walsh, with red rings around her eyes, watched on. She reached over and grabbed the gold medal, pretending to try and rip it away.
In that moment she made herself a promise that, in the coming weeks, she intends to fulfil.
“I said this will be in four years, hopefully standing on top of the podium. There’s still a bit missing in me not having a Commonwealth gold medal - it’s still eating away at me.
“I want to change that.”