The delays in qualification events for next summer’s Olympic Games may have thrown sport into an unstoppable tailspin. But for those who have been injured or were coming back from some kind of impairment at a rate that would have made their appearance in Tokyo this summer unlikely, the pandemic has had a favourable effect.
Grainne Walsh gave up a burgeoning career in football after catching the boxing wave in 2012 that was lightweight champion Katie Taylor. The Walsh family actually made the trip from Tullamore to Bray for the homecoming after Taylor’s gold medal win in London.
The transformative effect stayed with Walsh, who played with the Irish under-17 soccer team, and even when she signed for Shamrock Rovers at 16-years-old and played with them for three years, the pull of boxing endured. She kept both going for three years but one had to go.
Now at 24-years-old her ambition is to box in next summer’s delayed Olympic Games. That possibility is alive because the lockdown wiped out the boxing qualification tournament scheduled for the Grand Dôme, Villebon-sur-Yvette in Paris from May 13th to 20th.
Walsh had seriously injured the ligament in her thumb in January and with surgery she would not have been in peak condition had she to step into a ring then in a qualification bout. The delay has kept her hand healing and hopes burning.
“We were supposed to go to a competition in Bulgaria,” says Walsh. “It was early January so all over Christmas people were busy training. I was raring to go. There was me and another girl Christina Desmond going for the same weight. How we got on in this competition in Bulgaria determined who would be going to the qualifiers.
“So a week before the competition I was sparring against her and whatever way I threw my right hand I ruptured the ligament in my thumb. I was out for over three months. I had surgery and that was massively difficult to deal with mentally. There was no way I was going to be back for London (qualifiers in March).”
Desmond ended up travelling to London in what became a heavily criticised staging of a Tokyo qualifying tournament that was finally abandoned on day three. But she lost her welterweight bout and did not secure an Irish qualification place. World champion lightweight Kellie Harrington also went over to the Copper Box in Olympic Park but did not compete before they belatedly scrapped the event.
“I had to wait to see if Christina had qualified in London,” says Walsh. “Even when people started talking about this coronavirus I never thought they would cancel the Olympics. But that ended up happening and it’s worked in my favour. It’s given me the time to get my hand 100 per cent and not rush it.
“Even hitting bags now it is getting there but it isn’t 100 per cent. I think it would have been a bit of a long shot to have gone to Paris and produce the goods when my opponents would have had three or four months of hard competition and sparring ahead of me.”
Dates for final qualification as well as the continuance of the London event, however they may decide to do that, has not yet been agreed. The Irish Amateur Boxing Association can select whoever they choose to go to the next event. Their prerogative is to send Desmond for a second chance or allow Walsh her opportunity to box.
It’s not as if Walsh has no experience at international level. She travelled with the Irish team to the World Championships in Kazakhstan prior to Rio in 2016, where she finished in the top eight but out of the medals. She has also won bronze medals at the EU Championships and European Games.
“There are no guarantees that I will be even picked for the next qualifier,” she says. “But I am going to do everything in my power. Irish boxing can send her (Desmond) to the next qualifier. They have the power to do whatever they want. I feel I deserve the next slot. But we’ll have to wait and see. I’m hoping it will pay off when we get back to Dublin (after lockdown).
“I’m going to do everything I can to get that spot and that’s how this time has worked in more way than one, even motivation and putting things into perspective. I am raring to go again. Youth is on my side. I’ll be 25 this time next year and feel I’ll be in my prime for the Olympics at the right time and hopefully for the next Olympics as well.”
There is a striking similarity to Taylor in how Walsh’s career began in football and was bit by bit taken over by boxing. It was also Taylor who inspired Walsh to box in the first instance and then a series of happenstances cemented the boxing into her psyche. The first was when Taylor came to officially open a boxing club across the road from the Walsh house.
“Katie Taylor was a massive inspiration in female sport and the fact that she played soccer as well with Peamount United. I would have played against them. She was the main attraction and then she came down in 2012 to officially open a boxing club across the road from my house.
“It was the first summer I wasn’t playing in the summer soccer league so I said I’d show my face at the boxing club for a couple of weeks, meet Katie and then when the soccer came back in the winter time I’d be back for that and I wouldn’t think anymore about boxing.
“There was only about 50 people to see her. Then after the Olympics I was 16 and I came up with my family to Bray and there were 20,000 people on the seafront.”
The other happenstance was Dmitry Dmitruk, who coaches with the Irish High Performance team. He is also Walsh’s club coach. It was Dmitruk’s link with the elite boxers that drew Walsh closer to the higher levels in the sport.
“He’s still my coach,” she says. “He was my club coach from the start and at the time he was training Katie with the Olympic team. I was fascinated with this. I used to go up with him every Saturday and sit in the National Stadium watching her train and do pads with Zaur (Antia). I was fascinated with the whole thing. Honest to god I never thought I’d ever get near that kind of level.
“But after a couple of fights my confidence grew. Within four years of meeting her I was on the team with her going to Kazakhstan to the World Championships. In the four years when I put the head down and thought I might get somewhere I managed to get to the last eight of the World Championships. That was a big eye opener for me. I tried to balance soccer with boxing for three years and then it just got too much and I had to choose one.”
Good luck, bad luck who can tell. But another arch lesson in never letting a serious crisis go to waste.