Sport

‘He’s a role model to me, an inspiration’: Harrington hails fellow Tokyo hero Aidan Walsh ahead of Olympic qualifier tilt

Belfast counter-puncher in Thailand for last crack at securing spot in Paris

Olympic bronze medallist Aidan Walsh, pictured with golden girl Kellie Harrington, intends to remain amateur for the next Olympics in Paris. Picture by PA
Kellie Harrington and Aidan Walsh pose with their medals from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Picture by PA

THEY are inextricably linked by the photos from three summers ago, during which time so much has happened both in and out of the ring.

From the Irish team that headed into the Covid minefield of a Tokyo 2020 Olympics delayed by 12 months, and still shrouded in uncertainty even then, it was Kellie Harrington and Aidan Walsh who gave everybody back home something to shout about in the early hours of August mornings.

Harrington went all the way to gold, finally freed from the shadow of Katie Taylor as she sank to the canvas at the Ryogoku Kokugikan arena after defeating Brazilian beast Beatriz Ferreira.

A few days earlier, Walsh claimed bronze before some over-exuberant celebrations brought a premature end to that Olympic journey.

Three years on, though, the Belfast man is back, entering the last chance saloon in his bid to reach Paris 2024 as the Irish team prepare for the start of the final World qualifier next week.

It has been a strange few years for Walsh, having bounced back from the injuries suffered to his leg and ankles in Tokyo to impressively claim Commonwealth Games gold 12 months later.

However, following a further spell of inactivity that saw him miss out on last year’s Irish elites, he was named on the Irish team bound for the first World qualifier in Italy back in March – admitting it had been “a real mental struggle” at times.

Despite coming up short in Busto Arsizio, the 27-year-old will have another crack in Bangkok as he bids to land one of the five quota places up for grabs at light-middleweight.

And he will have team-mate Harrington is his corner all the way.

“I mean, it is a love-hate relationship, to be honest with you. Most of the time its hate,” said Harrington when asked about her own relationship with the sport.

“It’s only when you are in competition that you actually love it, that’s the truth. It’s hard, boxing is a hard sport, it’s a lonely sport. It can be taxing on your mental health as well, I get where Aidan is coming from.

“I have been there too, and I am just happy that he is out there and he is going again. He is trying to qualify again. If you are looking for a role model... that is role model material right there, because it is not all sunshine and rainbows - it can be dark, it can be dirty and everyone thinks that they know you at times when they actually don’t.

“You are just another athlete, and all you are trying to do is fight and trying to represent your country. I admire Aidan Walsh so much for speaking out and talking about what he went through. He’s a role model to me, an inspiration.

“I know he is younger than me, but he is really incredible.”

Irish boxer Kellie Harrington pictured at the launch of the SPAR Stay in the Game campaign. The campaign, which is part of SPAR's community fund, will run until June 30 and encourages the public to nominate a school or club in their community that is fostering the continued participation of girls in sport. To nominate a post-primary school or club visit www.spar.ie/communityfund. Picture by Sportsfile
Kellie Harrington pictured at the launch of the SPAR Stay in the Game campaign. The campaign, which is part of SPAR's community fund, will run until June 30 and encourages the public to nominate a school or club in their community that is fostering the continued participation of girls in sport. To nominate a post-primary school or club visit www.spar.ie/communityfund. Picture by Sportsfile (SPORTSFILE)

No matter who is on the final Irish team with her in Paris, it will be an entirely different experience for Harrington and co.

Strict Covid regulations remained in place in Tokyo, which prevented family and friends being able to travel out to Japan, while all the drama took place in a largely empty hall. It was an Olympic Games in name, but not an Olympic Games in feel.

“It’s going to be so different, obviously with a lot more people there, there’s going to be a lot more noise, outside noise, that will factor into your life, and what you’re doing out there.

“What we’ll have to really do is to and stay in control of what you’re doing out there, and your emotions, and your activity, that you’re not going off and meeting people, and wasting energy.

“You need to be conserving all that for training and for competition, and not like, getting caught up with anything that’s going on at home, or outside the village, or in the village.

“Because I imagine it will be like an Irish invasion over there.”

Meanwhile, Harrington insists that - no matter what happens in Paris - she will not return to the international stage with Ireland.

Question marks surrounded her future in the amateur game after Tokyo but, with the lure of the professional now gone, the Dubliner insists there is only place she would want to return to the ring.

“That’s it internationally but I’d like to box in the National Stadium again.

“I love boxing in the National Stadium, that’s where everyone wants to box and there’s no better way to give back than for your fellow athletes to see you step in the ring in the National Stadium.

“You’re never too big for your boots and never too big for your roots.”

Another reason to step away is the desire to bring some normality back into her life, while news of the retirement of former world champion Heather Hardy due to long-term brain damage has given everyone involved in the sport pause for thought.

“I didn’t hear that about Heather... I hope she is alright.

“Yeah, of course I worry. And that would be part of why I wouldn’t go pro because I have been taking punches in the head for 20 years with 10 ounce gloves and a headguard. It is a lot different from professional boxing.

“And sometimes you come out after a really tough spar and could be a little bit slower than when you went in. So that is partly why I didn’t want to go pro because I would worry about stuff like that.

“They wear smaller gloves and clashes of heads – just like the clashes of the heads alone with shoulders and head on head clashes but would be. Twenty years is a long time.”

On life after boxing, Harrington added: “I’m looking forward to retiring and having normality in my life; being able to do the things that normal people do. Because what we do is not normal, like.

“I’m really looking forward to being able to celebrate the success that I’ve had over this short number of years, basically - and it has been short. Although I’m boxing for 20 years, the success has been over a short number of years.

“So, I am looking forward to being able to celebrate that in a normal way with my family and with Mandy.”