‘We did think we may have lost him’: How remarkable turnaround led to Aidan Walsh reaching second Olympic Games

Belfast counter-puncher sealed spot at final World Qualifier in Bangkok

Aidan Walsh collects his Olympic ticket after sealing qualification for Paris in Bangkok on Sunday. Picture by Joe Walsh
Aidan Walsh collects his Olympic ticket after sealing qualification for Paris in Bangkok on Sunday. Picture by Joe Walsh

A SMILE barely crept across Aidan Walsh’s lips. Maybe it was exhaustion after completing the most arduous path of any Irish boxer to this summer’s Olympic Games – both inside and outside the ring.

The west Belfast man, a bronze medallist in Tokyo three years ago, became a two-time Olympian after winning a sixth fight in eight gruelling days on Sunday, guaranteeing his place in Paris alongside sister Michaela.

Walsh beat Puerto Rico’s Gabriel Llanos Perez in the light-middleweight box-off decider, having missed out on his first opportunity to qualify against Jordan’s Zeyad Eashash two days earlier.

It was another reminder of the 27-year-old’s remarkable resilience as, this time last year, his future in the sport was clouded in doubt.

Indeed, Irish High Performance director Tricia Heberle admits “we did think we may have lost him” at one stage – until Walsh decided he was ready for another crack at the big one.

“At the back end of September/October last year, I really wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure whether he wanted to come back - it had to be his decision.

“All we did was take the pressure off him, allow him to have his break, allow him to work through whatever it was that was troubling him and just be in the familiar environment of home.

“It was just before [a training camp in] Tenerife, towards the end of November, we started having conversations, he came to me and said ‘I’m not finished, the business is not done’.

“Like any athlete that has earned the right to be within the HPU, we said ‘okay, we’ll make a plan’. He went to Tenerife, he was fantastic, given that he’s had that time off. Because he’s just a great athlete, he doesn’t lose conditioning, he has no issues making weight. Aidan could have three months off and he still comes in in good shape.

“I did think we may have lost him, but I think we did the right thing… we just took all the pressure off. That’s the key with Aidan.”

Heberle admits she is on the edge of her seat watching Walsh’s counter-punching style, which relies heavily on his supreme footwork and reflexes – and she believes he can go on to bigger and better things in Paris.

“All of our athletes are different, they come from different backgrounds and they have a different DNA, different personalities.

“Aidan is complex but he is an outstanding person and an outstanding talent. He’s a different type of boxer and we see that.

“I find it pretty hard to watch Aidan. I don’t always find it enjoyable, but I do enjoy watching him win. I’m not a boxing person but the bout against the Cuban, that was one of the amazing contests and performances I have seen since I’ve been here, which is over 12 months.

“But we have to work with Aidan, we have manage him, he has a different set of needs than some of the other boxers and I think we’re just really pleased that he’s still doing what he loves and what he’s passionate about and that we give him the support where he can continue to excel and going to the Olympics for a second time is just an incredible achievement.”

Aidan Walsh celebrates with Irish coaches Lynn McEnery and Damian Kennedy after sealing his Olympic qualification on Sunday. Picture by Joe Walsh
Aidan Walsh celebrates with Irish coaches Lynne McEnery and Damian Kennedy after sealing his Olympic qualification on Sunday. Picture by Joe Walsh

Meanwhile, Irish coach Damian Kennedy “never doubted” Walsh’s ability to return to the big stage.

Kennedy first worked with a teenage Walsh at the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa, when he returned with a gold medal around his neck. And the Toome man insists he never lost hope.

“Aidan Walsh, on his day, can beat anybody in the world, and I think he showed that.

“He had six fights in this competition, an unbelievable mindset to get into each and every one of those bouts, especially coming off the back of the defeat to the Jordanian [Zeyad Eashash, in the quarter-final].

“I actually thought he nicked that one, that he had a couple of dodgy decisions regarding warnings and stuff but look, that’s neither here nor there.

“Against the Cuban [Jorge Cuellar] he was absolutely punch perfect. He controlled distance, he managed distance, he was very, very creative. He has the ability to make you look very ordinary… I think he was phenomenal.

“I really enjoy watching him because there’s an unbelievable amount of skill attached to what Aidan Walsh does. To the untrained eye, you probably don’t see that, but everything is so calculated. He’s very, very special.”

And yet, last autumn, it looked as though he could be out of the frame after missing the Irish elite championships.

“Absolutely,” said Kennedy, “but look, I’ve never doubted Aidan Walsh’s ability. Never.

“I’ve known what he is capable of doing from a very young age and it’s testament to him that he made that choice to come back again and give it another go and here we are again, he’s become an Olympian again.”

Aidan Walsh was one of four Irish boxers to seal qualification in Bangkok on Sunday, with Jennifer Lehane, Daina Moorehouse and Grainne Walsh all coming through win-or-bust quota matches.

They join Michaela Walsh, Kellie Harrington, Aoife O’Rourke, Jude Gallagher, Dean Clancy and Jack Marley in a 10-strong team bound for Paris – the largest Ireland has ever sent to an Olympic Games.