‘I fell to the ground - I was just done, completely done’: Aidan Walsh on battling back from the brink

This time last year, Olympic medallist Aidan Walsh had said farewell to boxing. Made his peace with a sport that once meant everything. With Paris 2024 getting under way later this month, however, the west Belfast has some unfinished business to look after. He speaks to Neil Loughran...

Tokyo bronze medallist Aidan Walsh is back for a second crack at the Olympic Games. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Tokyo bronze medallist Aidan Walsh is back for a second crack at the Olympic Games. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile (Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

WHAT do you do when your greatest asset becomes your greatest enemy?

Aidan Walsh always prided himself on his work ethic; leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of greatness, leaving everything he had on the gym floor.

Before heading out to the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, pools of sweat marked the stations where he had just finished. Only team-mate Steven Donnelly came anywhere close in terms of pushing his body to the limit.

When the Ballymena man was in training mode, when there was a goal to be met, he was utterly relentless. A machine. But Donnelly wasn’t always in training mode, life outside the ropes all too often stifling his huge potential.

It was different for Walsh. Neither he nor big sister Michaela have ever touched alcohol. They never smoked, never indulged in any extra-curricular activities. For them, boxing has always been at the centre of everything.

So from the first day they set foot in St Agnes’s, to marvelling at the celebration of Olympic achievement inside the Holy Family club that produced Hugh Russell, Paddy Barnes, Sam Storey, Paul Douglas and Gerry Hamill – among many others – the siblings were all in on a joint journey; their paths intertwined every step of the way.

When Michaela won Ulster and Irish titles, Aidan quickly followed suit. Both returned from Australia with Commonwealth silver. And when Michaela clinched qualification for the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Aidan followed suit less than an hour later.

For him, though, it was more than just the realisation of a dream. Instead, making it to Tokyo marked the end point of an obsession that dominated so much of his life; bringing home bronze the cherry on top of the cake.

Because when it came to school projects, his topic of choice was the Olympics. He drew pictures and wrote stories that related to the Olympics. In his bedroom were posters and Olympics paraphernalia. The wallpaper on his phone was of the Olympic rings.

And then, after returning from the Far East, recovering from the ankle injuries so dramatically sustained celebrating his medal triumph, a part of Aidan Walsh felt missing. Or lost. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

Before the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham two years ago, he didn’t want to go. Questions kept circling around his head, all the way to winning gold on the final day. Brother and sister on top of the podium, it doesn’t get much better, surely?

Yet within a matter of months Walsh broke down in the office of the IABA’s newly-appointed high performance director, Tricia Heberle. Having appeared at the peak of his powers in Birmingham, now it was over, retired. Aidan Walsh, former boxer.

No going back.

“I fell to the ground,” he recalls, “I was just done, completely done.

“At the Commonwealths I was putting a big emphasis on not chasing the gold medal, not chasing the performances, I was just chasing happiness… I’m still chasing it, but I’m a wee bit closer.

“I was so happy when I was away. I was so, so happy, and I enjoyed every single minute of it.”

Finally, the expectation, the pressure to perform, was gone. He began a Masters degree in sport and exercise psychology, started to look for jobs. No training, no running, no sparring. Boxing didn’t enter his head.

That was until September 2023, about an hour before entries for the Irish elite championships closed. A trusted confidante called out of the blue and asked did he think he had it in him to have another crack at the Olympics.

“I don’t know. I’m sure I do, if I put my mind to it…”

The next hour was spent on the phone to some of those closest to him, Michaela included, canvassing opinion. Ultimately, though, it would have to be his decision, and his decision alone; the ramifications of which were busily being processed before Walsh finally allowed his name to go forward.

“I’m an obsessive person.

“That was partly the reason for my breakdown, to be honest, trying to reach a certain goal. I know if I had that obsession, it’s very easy to go back into that… no amount of sporting success is worth that.

“That’s why coming back was a big decision. I was studying the masters, I started a new career for myself, I was looking for jobs, I was looking for things.

“I had stepped away from everything, stepped away from the programme. I was 14 months out of the ring, the most I’d done was walk the dog to be honest, and I was getting out of breath walking up a hill!

“So like, do you go back, put the effort in and not qualify? Do you put the effort in, qualify and then all your demons come back again and you push yourself to that limit? There was a lot to take into consideration.”

Aidan Walsh jumps for joy after securing a bronze medal at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Picture by PA
Aidan Walsh jumps for joy after securing a bronze medal at the delayed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Picture by PA

Even though he didn’t actually box at the Irish elites, Walsh was asked out to an Irish training camp in Lanzarote last December. It was then things started to click back into gear; then that the love once felt began to flow back.

Coaches kept a close watch in the months that followed, saw his sharpness come on, his footwork improve, those famous reflexes restored.

But going from nothing for over a year into a world Olympic qualifier at the start of March was a huge ask – and so it proved, the west Belfast man bowing out at the hands of experienced Brazilian Wanderson de Oliveira before the quota places in Milan.

After coming through an assessment against Armagh’s Eugene McKeever, Walsh had earned himself a second crack. The 11 weeks between Milan and Busto Arsizio sharpened him further, and he needed every bit of it.

Six fights - including two through boxing’s equivalent of the back door after quarter-final defeat to Jordan’s Zeyad Eashash left his Paris hopes hanging by a thread - asked every question possible, mentally and physically.

Three years previous, inside the Grande Dome in Paris, Walsh had fallen to his knees when Tokyo qualification was secured. All that it meant was written on his face. This time, there was barely any reaction as his hand was raised after a unanimous decision win over Puerto Rico’s Angel Llanos.

“I had no energy to do anything,” smiled the 27-year-old.

It was relief as much as anything. Relief to have got there, and relief that it was over.

“As the tournament went on in Bangkok, it helped me because I needed fights and I needed that exposure, but mentally it’s hard.

“I’d be lying if I said it was easy because it’s not. For me to compete, for me to reach this level, I have to do a lot of work with my support network. That’s just me being open.

“I have two key figures in my support network who I work with religiously and I need that, because if I don’t do that, I wouldn’t be able to continue to box. Mentally and psychologically, you have to have things in place that you do to keep yourself right.

“Some people can go through sport and they don’t have to do any of that, it’s a breeze to them, and that’s great. I wish I was able to do it, but I just can’t and I have to work on things and I have to do things… that’s just the way it is.

“That was part of me coming back saying like, if I want to make it to the Olympics, if I want to continue my career - which I did - I have to do these things.”

The first bell in Paris is nearing, with Aidan likely to be in action on the second day, July 28, with Michaela entering the fray on Tuesday, July 30. At the minute the team are in the German city of Saarbrucken, putting the finishing touches to preparation alongside a host of top nations.

Might this be the last time we see Aidan Walsh duck between the ropes on a major international stage? Even he doesn’t know the answer, and probably won’t for some time yet.

Above all else, though, it is this which makes him proud; speaking out, addressing his problems, sharing his vulnerabilities. Forget the medals, the wins, and whatever might come along later, being the best person he can has always carried far more weight than metal around his neck.

“Sport is just crazy, especially when there are a lot of people coming through, and sustaining it is hard. One thing I learnt about coming back was I knew I could do it, but not every week. That’s a key thing for me.

“I don’t even know if I will be able to do it at the Olympics. Who knows? Because for me to perform at international level takes a lot. To be honest, I probably don’t train as hard as I should, due to my own needs. I just can’t.

“There were times when I was the first one in the gym and the last one out for years - I just can’t do it now, I just can’t sustain that level of training. There are days I have to take off. It’s not that I’m lazy - people who know me know that I’m not; you don’t get to the Olympic level being lazy.

“It’s just about trying to find that balance because I don’t want to ask for anything that other people don’t get. Coming back, it wasn’t the environment, it was me putting that pressure on myself, me turning up to the gym an hour early, an hour late, me putting pressure and so many things that were adding [pressure]…

“The massive thing now is speaking out. Probably, over all my achievements in sport, speaking out and saying I’m struggling with that, it’s the best achievement of my career. I don’t care, regardless of the Olympic medal, Commonwealth success, Irish titles… it means nothing to me in terms of my mental health.

“To speak out is true strength because anybody can get in a boxing ring, anybody can prepare for a boxing fight or sporting contest. There’s so many people that don’t speak out.

“To be vulnerable to somebody that you don’t know, or you want to get to know, that’s real success. Sport is easy compared to that type of stuff. There’s so many people struggling outside of sport. I come from a loving family, have a loving girlfriend and a real good support network. A lot of people don’t have that.

“I think that’s why I like sports psychology, because of the two people who helped me massively in my career... I would always love to say when I’m older, if there’s someone in their 20s who is struggling, that I have the skills that can maybe help them one or two per cent and get them out of a wee place that maybe I noticed I was in when I was that age.

“That’s extremely important to me, but that’s due to the people that helped me along the way.”