HE has been in and around Irish teams getting ready to head off to the Olympic Games on two occasions, but now it’s Kurt Walker’s time to gear up for the greatest show on earth.
The Canal, Lisburn, featherweight was drafted into the Irish training camp for London 2012 to act as a sparring partner, and then when Rio rolled around, he was second in the pecking order behind world champion Michael Conlan.
He watched from home as John Joe Nevin claimed silver in 2012, then again four years later as Conlan was on the receiving end of that scandalous decision against Vladimir Nikitin in the quarter-final that prompted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to take control of the boxing tournament away from AIBA for the Games.
Of course, he would rather have been there but now it’s his turn to walk out at the Olympic Stadium and join a unique group of athletes who get to compete at the pinnacle of sport.
“I trained with the boys for London,” he recalls.
“I wasn’t on the team but was brought in for sparring, so I saw them all heading to London and then to Rio. Now I get to go to Tokyo.
“It was unlucky having the likes of Mick Conlan there and before that (John Joe) Nevin got silver in London and Mick was world champion in 2016, so they are tough shoes to fill.”
Only 2 more weeks to go and I’ll be fighting in the biggest sporting event in the world😎Training camp is going brilliant can’t wait to get in and do the business 👊🏅 #tokyo2020🇯🇵 pic.twitter.com/TEB1o5cS1t— Kurt Walker (@KurtWalker7) July 10, 2021
Vastly talented and highly decorated, the 26-year-old is one of the team’s brightest stars heading into Tokyo and has the potential to fill those shoes he speaks of.
Walker will go as the reigning European Games champion, having claimed gold at the 2019 tournament in Minsk, whilst also topping the podium at the EU Championships a year previous.
There has been Commonwealth Games’ silver, plus European silver and World bronze as a Youth boxer, so once the qualification process began for Tokyo, the former St Patrick’s Academy pupil was marked out as a sure thing to seal his place.
However, a shock opening round loss to Germany’s Hamsat Shadalov at the Copper Box Arena in London back in March 2020, just before the qualifying tournament was called-off due to Covid-19, left him in a precarious position with a planned second chance at a final World Qualifier that was supposed to take place in Paris last summer.
That, of course, was also cancelled with the 2020 Games also pushed back to this summer, but the decision to grant the remaining places through a quota system of the world’s highest-ranked boxers fell favourably for Walker whose past achievements stood to him as he knew his place was secure.
“For the first few weeks I was a bit wary as I had no confirmation, but then after doing a bit of research I knew I was too far ahead (on ranking points) to be caught, so it was amazing,” he confirmed.
“It was a mad way to find out, but every fight I had won over the last four years gave me the points I needed, so I was lucky.”
Having been eliminated from that European Qualifier, Walker was not in action with the remaining members of the Irish team at the tournament when it restarted in Paris last month that resulted in the Ireland team for Tokyo swelling to seven.
However, that’s not to say he has been sitting back and relaxing, as his sights have been firmly fixed on the Games and his preparations have reflected as much.
“It would have done me the world of good, but I’m sharp now and have been treating every spar like a fight,” he reports.
“Usually, I would go into spars very lackadaisical, but I have been zoned in now and I feel good. I will get good sparring over in Tokyo too, so it is great preparation as everybody will be on form.”
Walker first caught the boxing bug when watching the exploits of Amir Khan back at the Athens games in 2004 and marvelled at the speed and skill of the-then Bolton teenager.
That prompted him to lace up the gloves as a nine-year-old and 17 years later, he gets the chance to live every amateur boxer’s dream.
There is a serious task on his hands as he is not just going there to take part, but instead intends to reach the podium at least.
The past experiences have taught him to enjoy the occasions too, and having been a part of Commonwealth and European Games, he knows what to expect from a multi-sport event that can offer distractions from staying in an athlete’s village.
“I just want to have the experience of doing it and I plan to enjoy it,” he stressed.
“I was talking to Paddy Barnes and he told me not to forget to enjoy it as some people can take it all too serious. Of course, I’ll be taking it seriously when the boxing starts, but I’ll enjoy it (overall experience) too.
“I’ve been to two European Games too and what you take from that is learning how to use your time wisely.
“People can waste a lot of energy from running about looking at stuff at the start. You can do all that after your fights but not before it. That’s where some people make mistakes as they get a bit too excited.”
The defeat to Shadalov last March and subsequent sweat to find out whether he was on his way to the Games has not only sharpened the mind, but also help relieve some of the pressure on a man who many consider to be one of Ireland’s major prospects to medal in Japan.
Walker had received a bye into the second round in London with the German entering that fight with a win under his belt and perhaps this standing start was a reason for a below-par display.
Those who have watched the Lisburn man will testify that he is a boxer who grows into a rhythm in fights and tournaments, so the first objective will be to get through the first round and take it from there.
He faces stiff competition with Shadalov not qualifying, having lost to the eventual winner and professional boxer, Albert Batyrgaziev of Russia, but is content to come in under the radar and believes he will rise to the biggest of occasions.
“I think the best thing that happened to me was getting beaten as before that fight, I was going in at the number two seed expected to win, but then I lost,” he offered.
“I’d have preferred a (preliminary) fight before it like he did. I just need the first fight to get the ball rolling. That’s why I’m happy enough going into this not as the favourite.
“The bigger the occasion, the better my performance. London was a one-off and I know it as I usually rise to things very well. I’m in good form and the best condition I’ve ever been in.”