'I feel lucky to still love it': Michaela Walsh targeting second crack at Olympics
The day qualification for a first Olympic Games was sealed will always hold a special place for Michaela Walsh. In a few weeks' time, without brother Aidan by her side, she aims to secure a spot at Paris 2024. Neil Loughran talks to the Belfast woman…
MICHAELA Walsh had plenty of birthday memories to look back upon when she turned 30 on Monday - but none could ever better the dramatic events of two years ago.
The Belfast woman is currently at a sparring camp in Assisi, where preparations are being fine-tuned for the European Games in Poland later this month.
Those Games also serve as a continental Olympic qualifier, offering Irish boxers a chance to seal their spots at Paris 2024.
It is also a good opportunity to relive the most unforgettable birthday celebration in 2021, when Walsh and younger brother Aidan ensured their joint Olympic dream would be realised at the delayed Tokyo Games.
The siblings had been due to box their deciders on different days, until a schedule reshuffle saw them enter the ring within half an hour of each other in Paris.
Michaela held up her part of the deal at Le Grand Dome by defeating Sweden’s Stephanie Thour, leaving an anxious wait as Aidan stepped between the ropes to face experienced Ukrainian Yevhenii Barabanov.
“It was actually surreal – one of the best moments of my boxing career,” says Michaela.
“Kellie [Harrington] and Aoife [O’Rourke] had qualified the day before, so it was just me and Aidan up on the Sunday.
“After I won, it was a relief – finally, everything has paid off. The wins, the losses, the injuries, it was worth it for this, to get to an Olympic Games. Well, it felt like that for probably 10 seconds and then it hit me ‘aw Jesus, it won’t be the same if Aidan doesn’t get there’.
“They handed you a ticket after you got out of the ring, like a fake airplane ticket to say you were going to Tokyo. I had to go for a drug test straight after but I passed Aidan on the way, held up the ticket and said ‘you better have one of these’.”
After pleading with the drug test chaperone to allow her into the arena to watch Aidan, Michaela took her place at ringside for the longest nine minutes of her life.
“The chaperone had to come out and watch it with me,” she laughs.
“Honestly, I was more happy for Aidan qualifying than myself - I don’t think it would’ve been the same. This was something we’ve always dreamt of.
“It was a big amount of pressure for Aidan because I had gone first. I don’t think I could’ve fought after him… I would’ve been in a heap, whereas he’s the cool and calm one.
“Thankfully the stars just aligned that day.”
Comhghairdeas le Michaela agus Aidan Walsh!!!!!!! Tá siad beirt ag dul go Tokyo— Spórt TG4 (@SportTG4) June 6, 2021
*níl muid ag tá sibhse ag gol
Aidan would go on claim bronze in Tokyo, while his sister just came up short against Italy’s Irma Testa in a tough opening outing in the spectator-less he Ry?goku Kokugikan.
A few years down the track, though, Aidan won’t be with Michaela when she bids to qualify for a second Olympics, Wexford’s Dean Walsh earning a crack at taking the light-middleweight spot on the Irish team bound for Paris.
A silver medallist at the last European Games in 2019, reaching the featherweight semi-final stages this time around would be enough to seal her spot in Paris. And, having been around the domestic and international scene long before Aidan’s arrival, Walsh – who started her elite career 13 years ago - isn’t exactly in unfamiliar territory.
“It is different, but the main thing is to qualify.
“It would be great to have it done early, because last time we qualified at the start of June, then at the end of June we were away to Tokyo for the camp.
“Obviously I’d love for him to be with me, and on the team going, but I’ve done it before. I did it for years. That’s boxing, people get picked, some people don’t… I just have to focus on myself.
“It’s not going to impact on my performances. It’s not something I can control. I know he’ll be rooting for me all the way, and you never know what can happen in this game either…”
Both remain philosophical about the future too, both inside and outside boxing.
Where once achieving, and medals, dominated all else, the Walsh siblings have matured over time.
At 30, Michaela is far removed from the young woman who cried tears of rage after a controversial Commonwealth Games final loss to England’s golden girl Nicola Adams in 2014 – but that change in perspective doesn’t necessarily alter her ambition for the years to come.
“As you get older, you grow up a bit.
“When I was younger, everything was like ‘I have to win gold’, but even at the Commonwealths last year, I just wanted to enjoy the moment. Since my wee niece was born a few years ago, you see there’s more to life than boxing – being an auntie, being a girlfriend, a sister, a friend.
“I want to enjoy the journey because sometimes you look back on old trips and think I was maybe too serious, or too focused.
“You do get times where you think I’m stuck in this hotel room, the food’s sh*te, I haven’t eaten in four days, then I’ve to go out and spar this girl and she’s going to try and take my head off - what am I doing? I could be sitting at home with a bar of chocolate watching Coronation Street!
“It is mad, it’s not normal at all. But when you look back on it all, you can be satisfied.”
And the drive, the desire that first brought Walsh to the ring all those years ago, it still remains – as long as it does, she will lace up gloves and do what she has always done.
“It’s not that it’s all I know, but obviously most of my life I’ve been boxing… I’m in love with it.
“Being on the team, being around so many great athletes, ones coming and going – Brendy Irvine, Paddy Barnes, Mick Conlan, Katie Taylor, I’ve been away with them all.
“I feel lucky to still love it because a lot of people get to the point where they can’t wait to retire, or it feels like it’s too much. I’m just going to continue until I don’t love it any more – I don’t know when that day will come, but for now doing this gives me a great purpose in life.”