Michaela and Aidan Walsh will make history as the first sister and brother combination to compete in the Olympic Games’ boxing tournament that begins on Saturday, but they intend to go much further...
IT will rank as one of the most iconic images of the year as a video circulated on Sunday, June 6. Aidan Walsh stepped out of the ring at Le Grande Dome in Paris having defeated Ievgenii Barabanov in the quarter-final of the European Olympic Qualifier to book his place at the Tokyo Games with older sister Michaela, who had achieved the same feat less than an hour earlier following victory over Stephanie Thour, there to embrace her brother.
The Blacks Road siblings, who box out of Monkstown ABC, had just achieved a piece of Olympic Games’ history by becoming the first brother and sister combination to qualify for the boxing tournament, but in typical fashion, they feel they have much more to do.
It had been a long journey to get to this point, having first walked through the doors of St Agnes’ ABC on the Andersonstown Road as youngsters when their father, Damien, introduced them to the sweet science, but hard work, determination and no little skill has brought them to this point as they get ready to perform at the greatest show on earth where the ambition for both is to return with a special piece of luggage.
Michaela greets her Brother Aidan backstage with his ticket to Tokyo after his fight. #StrongerTogether— Olympics (@Olympics) June 6, 2021
Catch all the action on the Olympics: https://t.co/5MPOtTaqV3#Boxing | #RoadToTokyo2020 | @michaelaw57 | @aidanwalsh997 | @IABABOXING pic.twitter.com/vrzBeixTQY
As an eight-year-old, Aidan was first to lace up the gloves, but with women’s boxing not quite as mainstream as it is considered now, Michaela was unsure whether she would be given the nod to join her younger brother.
But St Agnes’ ABC supremo, Sean Canavan, was only too happy to give his seal of approval and the journey to sporting history had begun.
“My dad brought Aidan down to the gym first and at the time he didn’t know of women were allowed to box,” said Michaela.
“He wasn’t against it, so I was at him for a few weeks and he asked his old coach at St Agnes’, Sean Canavan, could he bring his daughter down and Sean said ‘yes, of course’.
“I just remember walking into the gym for the first time and falling in love with it, so this is me today - it’s been a journey.”
It was a similar feeling for Aidan who quickly discovered he had a talent, but also an early ambition as the objective was clear from the off.
“Any gym you walk into, you’re asked what the dream is and the dream is to go to the Olympics,” he recalls.
“Once you qualify, the goal is then to get a medal and keep changing the colour until you get the gold. For me and my sister to start of at eight or nine years of age then become an Olympian is phenomenal.”
Despite being the older of the pair, 28-year-old Michaela looks back and remembers Aidan being a natural, while she claims her road to success was built on hard graft and being the hardest trainer in the gym.
That work ethic would begin to yield results over time and in 2011 came a big moment when she became National Elite champion for the first time, defeating Dervla Duffy, and has been national champion ever since.
However, the big breakout moment came at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow when - boxing at flyweight - she advanced to the final against Olympic champion Nicola Adams.
Walsh was adamant she had done enough to claim the win, but two of the three judges saw it differently. Despite her disappointment, the Belfast woman had proven her worth at Elite level against the best in the world and hasn’t looked back since.
“I had just turned 21 before that tournament but I just believed I was going to go all the way,” she recalls.
“I was actually a big fan of Nicola Adams but going out there, my thought was ‘I’m going to beat you’ as I was so confident. From that fight, it took off and put me on the world stage.”
The top of the podium would be ascended at the 2017 EU Championships in Italy, with 2018 yielding a European bronze plus another Commonwealth silver, before another silver in 2019’s European Games.
However, the main objective was always to reach the Olympics and having watched fellow Belfast fighters go to the big one and return with medals, joining that group was always a tangible goal.
“The Commonwealths are a great achievement, but the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of the sport.
“It’s always been a dream for me and Aidan to get there. I remember Paddy Barnes coming back from Beijing (2008) with a bronze medal and thinking ‘imagine coming back with that or even a gold’. To even just get to the Olympics is an unbelievable achievement, but I don’t want to just take part; I want to go there and win the tournament and I believe in my ability that I can.”
It wasn’t a straightforward process to stamp the ticket to Tokyo, with the European Qualifier abandoned before it really got going in London last year, but the eyes remained on the prize.
During the periods of lockdown, Michaela, now at featherweight, and Aidan maintained their focus and continued to work, even in a limited way as gyms were initially shut.
It all built towards Paris last month and they knew exactly what was required to achieve what they had worked tirelessly for: reach the semi-final of their weight class or at least get to the last eight and triumph in a box-off.
The latter was not required as both got the job done at the first time of asking and whilst Michaela was on cloud nine after her win, the nerves were not too far away as Aidan made his way to the ring shortly after.
“It was some feeling,” she reflected.
“After my own fight (against Stephanie Thour) I was relieved, but then started thinking that Aidan had to do it.
“I was coming back into the warm-up area after getting my ticket to say I had qualified and was waving it at him saying: ‘you better go and get yours now’.
“It was a lot of pressure on him as he was in against the number four seed in the tournament (Ievgenii Barabanov), but I knew he could do it.
“In a way, I was prouder of him qualifying that I was for myself because he’s my younger brother. It meant more to me that he qualified than it did for myself because I know how hard he has worked.
“We both live the right lifestyle so the stars aligned that day. It was an unbelievable feeling and one that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”
Taking part is one thing, but reaching the Olympic podium is on another stratosphere and that is the new goal for the pair.
Michaela has been there or thereabouts in major tournaments before, absorbing the lessons in victory and defeat.
It has been hard work, belief and a sheer will to win that has brought her to this point, so there is only one objective yet again.
“I really believe it will be the podium at least, but I’ll be aiming for gold,” she predicts.
“After those fights (in qualifying), I took a lot from each of them and know I could meet those opponents over there. I feel like I’ve learned a lot and can go on from there.
“We’ll see what the draw is and take it one fight at a time, but I am fully confident I can go all the way.”
When big sister Michaela was emerging from the shadows in 2014, Aidan was just beginning to break through at senior level.
There had been Youth and Ulster Intermediate success, but it was the following year at the Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa when he fully announced his arrival with gold in a tournament that also saw Stephen McKenna top the podium, with Callum Bradley and Brett McGinty return with silver.
A National Elite title would take a little longer to arrive with the 2020 Championships (held in late 2019) finally resulting in his coronation as Ireland’s top welterweight, but there had been Ulster Elite success, plus a silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games at the Gold Coast banked.
“We had strong team there (at the 2015 Commonwealth Youths), but I’m the last one from the team to still be amateur,” he notes.
“Coming back from that, I had a few injuries and missed the first year of the Elites, so it set me back in terms of experience at that level.
“My first year at the Elites, I was beaten in the semi-finals (by Paddy Donovan) and the year after I won them so that got the ball rolling.
“Going from there, it was World Championships and a lot of different tournaments that helped build my experience that has helped massively.”
The experience and maturity needed at Elite level was tested to the limit as he embarked upon qualification to the Olympics that were, of course, planned for last summer.
Reaching Tokyo was initially to be decided by way of the European Qualifiers that began in London back in March 2020 with those who failed to reach the quota (top six for male welterweights) entering a final World Qualifier in Paris.
Life had other plans as Covid-19 ripped through Europe and forced the tournament in London to be shelved, but not before Aidan had defeated Estonia’s Pavel Kamanin in a first round clash.
Almost 16 months would pass before he traded leather with Wahid Hambli in the last 16 of the tournament that was now the be-all and end-all as those remaining World places would go on ranking points rather than a planned tournament.
Having just broken into the World Elite picture, the 24-year-old hadn’t enough of those points in the bank to earn a reprieve, so it was all or nothing as he headed to Paris.
“Thinking back, when it (European Qualifier) was cancelled after the first one (fight), I didn’t take a break after,” he explained.
“Even throughout Covid when the gyms were closed, I was still training every day.
“Some people used it as down-time and there were times where I could rest up, but for the majority I was doing runs, my own strength training and doing bits with Michaela at home.
“I nearly did more than I should have been doing but that benefitted me because I’m the type of person who likes to train anyway.
“Even before that Qualifier (last month) I only had one fight and that was in Belfast, but the Qualifier showed that what I did during lockdown worked for me as it all paid off.”
It certainly did with victory over Hambli preceding that quarter-final victory against Barabanov that saw him join Michaela as a qualified Olympian.
Waiting for him coming out of the ring in Paris was older sister who handed him that golden ticket as the pair embraced and the moment caught on camera.
The self-belief, drive and ability that is a Walsh trait had paid dividends, but like his older sister, Aidan insists there is more to come. That’s not to say they won’t take it all in when walking out into the Olympic Stadium on Friday, but the bar will be raised once the action begins.
“I have been to the Commonwealth Games and now the Olympic Games, so it’s just about enjoying it as not every athlete gets to experience this,” he insists.
“The Commonwealth Games are massive, but the Olympics is bigger, so to experience both in my boxing career is massive, especially at such a young age. I only turned 24 so I’m still up-and-coming and to qualify for the Olympic Games in my first go is phenomenal.
“Plus, to do it with my sister is something that will stay with me forever. It’s just been an incredible journey so far.
“We give our lives to it, as does every other boxer, but we’re getting our rewards now after all the hard work.
“That video is from when I was eight, right through until now at 24, all those years wrapped into 10 seconds. For me, it’s always been about being an Olympian, but I want to go there and medal - that’s the next goal.”
It has been a quick turnaround from qualification to the Games this time around, with the disrupted schedule due to Covid making it so.
Therefore, with the exception of Brendan Irvine who did qualify in London last year, there has been little time for Ireland’s pugilists to sit back and let the magnitude of what they have achieved to fully sink in.
It was straight back into the gym with the team departing for Japan at the and of June as they switched their attention to the challenges that lie ahead.
Of course, it will be a special moment for all once they take their cue to step out into the stadium for the opening ceremony, but it may be some months, potentially years before they can fully appreciate what has been achieved already.
It can get better and should medals follow, the names will be etched into Irish sporting history, but the Walsh siblings have already done that with their qualification, although that is merely a statistic as they aim to push higher again.
“In years to come, this will be something to look back on,” said Aidan.
“I’ve been to so many competitions and racking up the experience, so hopefully it all pays off now.
“That was my first time being at the Europeans and I came away with a bronze medal. Everyone in front of me was either a world number one or two, so I know I’m up there and can strive to get to the top. I was delighted with the bronze, but I always go for gold and that’s what I want to improve on.”
Michaela added: “Maybe after the Games, I’ll sit back and think: ‘Jeez, I did that’, but after the qualifiers it just felt like another tournament.
“I was happy to get four fights, but I know that walking out in the stadium is going to be surreal. We’ll be away for six weeks, so I’m glad I’ll have Aidan with me as when you are away for so long, you can get a bit homesick. Me and Aidan are best friends, so it’s great to have him with me and living the dream together.”
The Olympic dream is one that most amateur boxers aim for when first pulling on the gloves, but just a tiny fraction get to live it.
On June 23, the Walsh siblings will know they have arrived. Being the first brother and sister to take part in the boxing tournament in Olympic history will be achieved, but their journey is not yet complete and as they have always done, will aim to set the bar higher by becoming the first to medal.