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'I genuinely, hand on heart, thought Amy would qualify': Grainne Walsh determined to grab second shot at Olympics

Grainne Walsh endured an injury-hit three years after landing European Games bronze in 2019. Picture by PA
Grainne Walsh endured an injury-hit three years after landing European Games bronze in 2019. Picture by PA Grainne Walsh endured an injury-hit three years after landing European Games bronze in 2019. Picture by PA

ECSTASY, agony, setbacks, comebacks - the last 12 months have taught Grainne Walsh more about herself than she ever imagined possible.

It’s as well the Offaly woman is no stranger to adversity. Four operations on her right thumb came with the worrying warning that one punch could spell the end, three fights in three years leaving Walsh’s future in the balance as another Olympic cycle came to the crunch.

Yet deep inside remained a burning desire to show she still had something to give.

Despite her previous pedigree, a combination of Walsh’s inactivity and Amy Broadhurst’s medal-laden 2022 had most observers tipping the Dundalk dynamo when they clashed in January’s Irish welterweight final.

Just weeks before the championships got under way, a dropped dumbbell saw Walsh undergo surgery on her little toe. The omens were not good.

Yet, come fight night, the most eagerly anticipated bout on a stacked evening at the National Stadium, Walsh pulled off what many had considered mission impossible. Others doubted, but she never did.

“People didn’t know whether I was alive, dead, retired or training away,” she says, “and I wanted it to be that way.

“I kept everything very quiet, and I got the job done.”

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One huge challenge overcome, but plenty more lay ahead.

Although claiming the elite crown put Walsh in pole position for June’s Olympic qualifier in Poland, ongoing assessments would ultimately dictate who represented Ireland in this ultra-competitive weight class.

Broadhurst went to the Strandja multi-nations tournament in February and brought back gold, with Walsh exiting before the medal stages. Around the same time, her club coach Dmitry Dmitruk – “my right arm for the last 11 years” – was reunited with former Irish High Performance director Bernard Dunne in India.

When Broadhurst was picked to go to the European Games, it put the tin hat on a miserable few months.

“The coaches will go with whoever they think is right for the job and has the best chance of qualifying – that’s just the top and bottom of it. I had to take it on the chin but I genuinely, hand on heart, thought Amy would qualify.

“The best coping mechanism I’ve found over the years of being injured is that, when anything is on, I take myself off social media. I sent a message into the group chat and wished everyone well before they went to the qualifier, then I took myself out of the situation and did what I had to do for my own head.

“You’re nearly denying reality at that point. I was trying to ignore the fact they were all over there, and though I was wishing them all well, it’s very difficult when you’re not part of that, so I did struggle.

“I was thinking ‘what am I going to do in college? What’s my next move here? Will I turn pro?’ So much was up in the air.

“But my dad kept me going. He kept saying she hasn’t qualified yet, and he fully believes that Paris is my destiny, even if I didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

Having since hooked up with Noel Burke – club coach of Olympic champion Kellie Harrington at St Mary’s in Tallaght - all Walsh could do was wait, her fate now in the gloved hands of others.

A semi-final spot would have been enough to secure Broadhurst’s spot in Paris, but her dream was derailed by Wales’s teak tough Rosie Eccles in the last eight – reopening the door for Walsh and the rest of the chasing pack at 66kg.

“I had people warned that I didn’t want to know a single thing about the European Games unless she doesn’t qualify and I still have a chance.

“And it wasn’t even necessarily that I didn’t want her to qualify, it was nothing against Amy personally, but obviously my future was in her hands. Anyone who says they wouldn’t be the same in that position is lying.

“I didn’t even know she was fighting that day, I was training out the back of the house and as soon as the fight was over, my phone blew up. I did a 10k the next day and I absolutely smoked my previous record, thanks to that extra bit in the tank knowing the dream isn’t dead yet.”

Injury forced Broadhurst and fellow World champion Lisa O’Rourke – dropping down from light-middle – out of October’s Irish elites, and Walsh knew she had no option but to go and the business again.

Toppling Kaci Rock, then familiar foe Christina Desmond, she did just that to finish a rollercoaster 2024 on a high, leaving the Tullamore woman looking into next year with March’s World Olympic qualifier firmly in her sights

“It’s been crazy… I’ve been injury-free for the first time since 2019, but the challenges were still as tough to come through.

“My weight division is jam packed with talent, to the extent it’s nearly harder to get picked out of Ireland than qualify. A couple of years ago, when I was boxing at 69 kilos, I was being sent to every tournament, I never had to do any assessments, I never had a worry in the world – and I took it all for granted.

“For the last Olympic cycle in Tokyo, I got injured at the start of 2020. It genuinely felt like the world was falling down around me, but really I was never ready for Tokyo.

“I was on that path and convincing myself that was for me, but I didn’t even know what resilience meant back then – I hadn’t gone through enough in order to realise what it took to be an Olympian.

“I wasn’t really improving whereas now, every time I step into the ring in training, sparring, anything, there’s always something to prove.”

And despite the disappointment of missing out on the European qualifier, and with Broadhurst and O’Rourke still waiting in the wings, Walsh believes this is her time.

“Obviously I’m a bit scarred from what happened before, but hindsight is a great thing and maybe it was the right decision for them to send Amy. With everything that happened me, I was a bit all over the place.

“I can say that now – if she had qualified my answer would probably be different. I feel like I’m in a great position now, and I’m just glad that I kept going.

“I feel like I’m the best fit for the job, so hopefully the coaches agree.”