'This is a part of the journey and I have to see what it brings me - what it brings out in me'

Aidan Walsh lost out to Dean Walsh at the recent Irish Elite Championships, but hope is not lost as Olympic bronze medallist aims to reach Paris 2024. Picture by PA
Neil Loughran

AIDAN Walsh hasn’t tasted defeat too often during a medal-laden career between the ropes, but perspective hasn’t been hard to find since his shock Irish elite semi-final exit at the hands of Dean Walsh.

The experienced Wexford man – nephew of former Irish head coach Billy Walsh – returned to the sport last summer after a ring exodus, and sprung the surprise of the championships when edging Olympic bronze medallist Walsh on a split decision earlier this month.

That victory leaves Dean Walsh in pole position for the first Olympic qualifier, June’s European Games in Poland, and a first crack at sealing a spot in Paris next year. But his west Belfast rival knows the terrain far too well to give up hope.

Back in early 2019, an Irish elite semi-final defeat to Paddy Donovan looked to have left him out in the cold as the road to Tokyo 2020 commenced, with Kieran Molloy - who beat Donovan in that decider - at the head of the queue.

When a disillusioned Donovan turned professional months later, suddenly there was a shaft of light. Walsh impressed High Performance coaches sufficiently to get the nod for that year’s World Championships, before beating Molloy on the way to claiming the Irish crown in December 2019.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In the midst of a global pandemic, Walsh clinched that coveted Olympic spot before bringing home bronze with some brilliant performances in the Far East.

Those experiences, as well as battling back from ankle and hand injuries in the time between, have altered his attitude to the sport; his attitude to life.

“Going through an Olympic cycle, two Commonwealth cycles, for me now a lot of it is trying to enjoy it to the best of my ability. Of course it’s always nice to win an Irish title, but I definitely think it’s early in the season and there’s still plenty more to come,” said the 25-year-old, who insists he has no intention of looking towards the pro ranks any time soon.

“For Dean, he’s in a great position for the Paris Olympics, and at the same time you wish him all the best because everybody has the same dream. But for myself, I’m not too sure - I always try and hope for the best, look at the positives and see what life brings.

“I know there’s another nationals in November, I’ll just see where it takes me and what competitions the coaches think I should be sent to.

“I’m a firm believer that what’s for you won’t pass you - I try and hold that approach. This is a part of the journey that I have to try and enjoy and see what it brings me, what it brings out in me, to see if I can qualify for the next Olympics.

“Ultimately then it’s down to the coaches, down to the High Performance and what they want to do.”

Lessons that have been learnt along the way too. Where once he was one-eyed, focused solely on the next mission, priorities have changed since August 2021. In Walsh’s mind, they had to.

The Olympics had been “an obsession” since he was seven years old – but once the mountain has been scaled, where do you turn?

“In school, all I did was draw things about the Olympics. In the house I had posters of things about the Olympics, my phone had an Olympics wallpaper, in my cupboard I had a thing with the Olympic medallists.

“It was like an obsession, and it was great, and it got me there, but once you reach that goal you sort of realise there are other things, and you have to set new goals. For me it was a box ticked, and of course you want to go to more tournaments and more big events, but a lot of the times you neglect your enjoyment in other areas.

“You take a step back and see there are other things apart from the Olympics. The small things in life bring me a lot of joy.

“You can’t be motivated every day, all the time. You learn that over time. That’s where burnout comes, when you’re obsessed – there is a price to be paid for that, and I’ve paid that price because I did it.

“That’s why I’m always trying now to find a balance that works for me.”

And part of that journey has been seeking the counsel of those around him.

Big sister Michaela has always been there, but it is Commonwealth Games team-mate Carly McNaul who has shown the way when it comes to resilience.

Setbacks saw her dip in and out of the sport for years, before the east Belfast woman knuckled down and showed what she was capable of – landing back-to-back Commonwealth Games silver medals and developing into a versatile operator capable of mixing it with most on the international stage.

If McNaul can take her licks and come back for more, then so can Aidan Walsh.

“Talking to people and getting good advice is a big thing for me.

“Carly’s huge inspiration - she’s been through so much over the last few years. Her resilience, her leadership, they’re second to none.

“Carly’s a real team player, always looking out for people, always trying to do good for others. She’s been in the game a long time, a lot longer than I have, and the likes of herself and Michaela are people I always look to for advice because they’ve been there, done it and had massive setbacks along the way.

“Carly just bounces back time after time, and she’s still improving. Like, in the last few years, how good she has got is unbelievable. I’m always trying to learn off good people, and I’m lucky I have a lot of good people around me who want to help.

“Like, it’s great to have achievements but, after my career’s over, I want to look back and be able to say I have good relationships with people, solid friendships that will last a lifetime… things like that bring me a lot of happiness now.

“Before, I was always so focused on goals and winning… after the Olympics, that was a huge thing I had to change about my life – to have other things away from boxing.

“Thankfully I’m on the right road.”