Winning always right up his alley

 

Handball/ Profile of Michael 'Ducksy' Walsh: Seán Kennytalks to most the decorated player in handball history who, at the age of 41, is contesting another All-Ireland senior softball semi-final today after successfully battling personal setbacks More than a handful of titles

No one ever calls him Michael. The provenance of the nickname is obscure, lost in time, but it was his father's and his brothers' and so became his. It is one of those GAA sobriquets that has long since taken precedence over birth-cert nomenclature.

He was Ducksy at the altar on his wedding day. He is Ducksy on the cheques he signs. Most of all, he is Ducksy on the handball alley. The name is writ large across the sport.

For over two decades, Michael Ducksy Walsh has hovered round the hazy edges of the Irish sporting consciousness. Few who follow Gaelic games have not heard the name. Equally few know much beyond the bald facts. That he is an absurdly successful phenomenon of his sport - witness 16 All-Ireland senior singles softball titles - is a given. Yet, as the years fall away, the story rolls on. Ducksy seems perennial.

At the age of 41, he is once again contesting an All-Ireland senior softball semi-final. Today he plays a fellow Kilkennyman, Michael Gregan. The two are friends, and train together. Ask about his opponent and Ducksy returns an answer that measures the length and trajectory of his career.

"It is harder playing younger lads. But I train fierce hard, always have. I'd be giving Michael Gregan 16, 17 years. When I won my first senior All-Ireland title, I was 18. Michael would have been one or two then. It's a long time playing at that level."

The long road to now began on an outdoor county council alley in the lee of St Canice's Cathedral in Kilkenny city. Some strange alchemy in the old town made it a gold-standard hotbed of handball. The small housing scheme in St Canice's Parish where Ducksy grew up has produced six All-Ireland medal winners.

"Winners used to hold the alley. You'd play for money on a Sunday. You'd be there for the day, sure. That's the way it was. I used to come out with a few bob."

He moved away from there as he got older, playing indoors at the Talbot's Inch club near the city. He goes back to the old alley sometimes, pulling the car in to have a look, soak up a little of his past. He would like to play there again, but only with no one around. Otherwise it would be too much like the return of the local hero. It would embarrass him.

At Talbot's Inch, he became a champion. He still plays for the club. It is a tumbledown sort of place, showing its age, but it is home and he couldn't leave. As a Talbot's Inch player, he first became an All-Ireland (under-12) winner at the age of 10. In the intervening 31 years he has earned a mountain of silverware. He has never calculated the exact number of titles he has won. The task would be laborious, a riddle of memory and arithmetic.

"Most of my trophies would be with my mother. I don't keep anything. I wouldn't have any meas on them. They wouldn't mean a whole lot to me. Only to win would be the thing."

To win is the thing, and he still hungers for success. At the end of July, the Walsh family took a week's holiday in Spain. Removed from his usual training environment, Ducksy had a priority: find a gym, and join for the week. In baking Spain he ran 18 times round a running track each day. He cycled. He skipped.

Conventional wisdom has it that the 20s are the parentheses housing peak athletic prowess, and he is slower now than he once was. Still, at 41, he has pushed back the usual boundaries. He is welterweight lean. Fitness is not a chore to him. To win is the thing.

"My wife, Shena, says I'm cracked to be playing at this stage. 'You're after playing enough,' she says, 'you'll be disappointed when you lose.' I'd be saying, 'sure, I'm not going to lose.' The sneering would be going on.

"God, they'd be very supportive, though. If I got to the final my wife would be nervous, and disappointed if I lost. I'd be saying that it's only a game at the end of the day. But, you know, it's not only a game at the end of the day. If you're in the All-Ireland, you want to win."

His last All-Ireland singles win was in 2001. He still smarts at the remembered sting of defeats in big matches. In conversation, he passes lightly over successes, but lingers on times he was beaten, getting diagnostic.

These things play on his mind. There is defeat, and there is loss. Late last year, his father died. If Ducksy makes this year's final, it will be the first his father has missed. He knows, at least, how proud he made his dad.

Another death came from nowhere on May 31st this year. His friend and training partner Eamon Law was playing a match at Talbot's Inch. He suffered a fatal heart attack on the court. He was 37.

The brutal suddenness of his friend's death and the shocking incongruity of where it happened hit him hard.

"It was terrible. He was such a nice lad. I was shook, I was terrible upset. That week he trained with me on the Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. He died on the Thursday.

"The week after Eamon died, I went training a few times. Lads were saying they could see something was wrong. My heart just wasn't in the handball."

He is organising a tournament at the Mullinavat club in Eamon's memory on September 29th-30th. If he wins another All-Ireland this year, it will be in tribute.

It would be a tribute, too, to his own regeneration. Five years ago, Ducksy was in the depths of drink. He was sinking in alcohol.

"The last two or three All-Irelands I won, the commitment wouldn't have been there. I would have been training, but I would have been drinking too. I was browned off. I'd had enough of handball. I really wanted to give up.

"Maybe handball didn't help. Because I won so much, everywhere you went it was drink, drink. I'm not blaming handball, but I probably wouldn't have come back playing if Aiseiri (the treatment centre he attended) didn't recommend it."

He followed the 12 steps. Handball, integral to his being, became part of the process. He is four stone lighter now than he was before treatment. He has been dry for four years. He says he feels sharper now than for some time.

"I'd love to win it this year. I know if I did, it'd be my last. I wouldn't play next year. I'd definitely be gone."

He has said this before, only to stay on, drawn back magnetically to the sport, adding further chapters to the story. The Hollywood ending would see him bow out this year, triumphant, against the odds, capping all that has happened.

It may or may not happen. All he knows is that he has a chance. That alone is remarkable.

More than a handful of titles

Michael Ducksy (often misspelled "Duxie") Walsh was born in Kilkenny city in 1966. He is the most decorated player in handball history, having won 16 All-Ireland singles titles on the 60 x 30 court.

This haul includes 13 titles won in succession between 1985 and 1997, a record.

In August 2006, he became World Over-40 champion at the Handball World Championships in Edmonton, Canada.

At the age of 41, he is contesting another All-Ireland semi-final today, against a fellow Kilkennyman, Michael Gregan.

Among his doubles partners was DJ Carey, with whom he took three All-Ireland doubles titles on the 40 x 20 court.

As a way of sharpening his game, he frequently plays training matches alone against two opponents.

His facility with his hands led him to a career as a kitchen fitter; today he runs a kitchen business in Kilkenny.

He lives in Bennetsbridge, Co Kilkenny, with his wife, Shena, and their three children.