Olympian Michaela Walsh falls at first hurdle as Irish enter fray at Strandja tournament

Michaela Walsh looks confident as she progresses to the quarter-finals of the European Games in Krakow (Pic: Sportsfile)
Michaela Walsh, who is preparing for this summer's Olympic Games in Paris, bowed out of the Strandja tournament on Monday. Picture by Sportsfile

SIGHTS are fixed firmly on a second crack at the Olympic Games this summer, but it wasn’t to be for Michaela Walsh as she fell at the first hurdle in Bulgaria on Monday.

The west Belfast woman, who has been on the wrong end of some strange decisions at the Strandja international tournament in previous years, fell to Tajikistan’s Mijgona Samadova in the featherweight preliminaries.

Walsh, who competed at the delayed Tokyo 2020, sealed her spot in Paris at last summer’s European qualifier, and will continue to focus on the opening bell in the French capital after Monday’s exit.

It was good news for Ireland elsewhere on theopening day, however, as bantamweight Niamh Fay beat India’s Preeti Preeti 3-2, before middleweight Aoife O’Rourke – another Tokyo Olympian bound for Paris – registered Ireland’s first win when she overcame India’s Lovlina Borgohain.

The reigning World champion, who has already sealed her spot at this summer’s Olympics, was disqualified in the third round.

O’Rourke’s younger sister, Lisa, is also competing in Strandja, and opened her account with victory over Thailand’s Janjaema Suwannapheng as the Roscommon woman bids to keep her name in the frame at 66kg.

Welterweight rival Grainne Walsh got the nod to go to next month’s qualifier in Italy, and O’Rourke will be among those watching on with interest. So too will fellow 2022 World champion Amy Broadhurst, although the Dundalk woman – who also due to box in Sofia – has confirmed that she damaged ankle ligaments while running recently.

A shoulder injury has kept the 27-year-old out of action since the summer, but she insists the Olympic Games remains her main focus.

“There’s been talk that I’m going pro but I can assure that is not the case,” she said in a social media post.

“My goal is still the Olympic Games. One thing about me is I always bounce back and this time I’ll bounce back harder than ever.”

There are two more Irish boxers in action on Tuesday.

Sligo light-welter Dean Clancy steps between the ropes in the afternoon session, as do featherweight Adam Hession and super-heavy Martin McDonagh.

With injury keeping European silver medallist Dylan Eagleson out of Strandja, and Irish champion Jude Gallagher preparing for the upcoming Olympic qualifier, Hession will be determined to lay down a marker when he opens up against Mongolia’s Karkhuu Enkh-Aman. Dubliner McDonagh meets Ukraine’s Andrii Khaletskyi.

Wednesday afternoon sees the Holy Family, Drogheda pair of Ricky Nesbitt and Eugene McKeever enter the fray, with Nesbitt up against Uzbekistan’s Asilbek Jalilov while Mullaghbawn light-middle McKeever takes on Moldova’s Davron Bozorov.

Paris-qualified Jack Marley has the longest wait to begin his campaign – he isn’t out until Thursday’s evening session, when he meets Uzbekistan’s Madiyar Saydrakhimov in the heavyweight quarter-final.

Erne's Rhys Owens celebrates Saturday's Irish U22 title triumph with coach Sean Crowley
Erne BC's Rhys Owens, pictured with coach Sean Crowley, hopes to build on his recent Ulster elite title success

ERNE BC ace Rhys Owens is hoping to force his way into the big time in the coming years after claiming his maiden Irish title last months.

Having lost out to Dominic Bradley and Teo Alin in previous tilts, the 22-year-old got the better of Holy Trinity’s Alin in the recent lightweight final at the Girdwood Community Hub.

“Third time’s a charm,” he smiled.

“He beat me last year in these, so I told him after ‘love you Teo but revenge is sweet’. To be honest, I thought I did enough last year by outboxing him - obviously the judges didn’t see it that way so I had to fight him a bit more.

“In the last year I’ve got my man strength, I feel a wee bit stronger in there so I knew I could fight with him. We’re mates, we’ve been away together on different trips, but it was good to get the win.”

Owens, with the encouragement of coach Sean Crowley, has boxed at tournaments across Europe in recent years in a bid to increase his international experience.

It has paid dividends, with his steady improvement leading to selection for the European U22 Championships in Montenegro last November – and Owens hopes there is plenty more to come.

“The Europeans was brilliant, a great experience – just a different level altogether.

“I was trying to pick things up off other boxers as much as possible that I can add to my own game. Hats off to Sean, he’s the man, he gets me on all those trips and helps me get that international experience so, heading out to Montenegro, I was already prepared for what I was getting myself into without ever having been to one before.

“There’s no 60kg at the Commonwealth Games so I’d have to go up or down, but it’s not for a couple of years so we can worry about that down the line.”