IT’S only 21 months since the 2020 Olympic welterweight bronze medal was placed around Aidan Walsh’s neck in Tokyo and it’s already looking the worse for wear but that’s exactly how he likes it. “The colour has already worn away in places because that many have held it,” he laughs. “It’s got a dent in it too because people have dropped it but, for me, I try and let as many people as possible touch it. “I wouldn’t want it to be sitting on a shelf in my house and no one seeing it. I want to let people feel it, especially kids and people in sport, not just in boxing. “To me, if they feel it they’ll go home and think ‘I can achieve that. I know him from down the street or from my club’.
An Olympic medal shows you that anything’s possible, not just in sport but in business and life.” Walsh is particularly evangelical about the power of an Olympic medal because he was once that wide-eyed kid, begging to hold one and feeling the weight of its inspiration on his pre-teen shoulders. Not only does he live in the city which has, remarkably, produced 10 of Ireland’s 18 Olympic boxing medals to date, but he boxes in a renowned club in Belfast’s New Lodge that won four of them. He first got to hold one when he got unique access to the first of Paddy Barnes’ bronze brace, at the light flyweight star’s triumphant homecoming from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “I was around 10 at the time. There was thousands of people around Paddy’s house, just incredible but because we knew him and the family from our club they let us into the house and we were able to see him and the medal. “The same thing happened when Paddy and Michael (Conlan, from St John Bosco BC) came back with their medals from the London Olympics (2012). Because you knew them from the club you were able to get to see them – and they knew who you were!”
Holy Family BC has produced Olympians like Gerry Hamill, Hugh Russell, Sam Storey, Paul Douglas, Paddy Barnes, Ryan Burnett and himself and his sister Michaela and its legendary coach Gerry Storey coached at three Olympic Games. “When we walked into the Holy Family gym as kids all the photos of the club’s Olympians were up on the wall. The most relevant ones to me immediately were Paddy Barnes and Ryan Burnett, who became a Youth Olympic champion. “From a young age I was seeing Paddy and Ryan, training with them. To be able to see them in the flesh, to see how hard they trained and to see their medals and the rewards they were getting internationally, that gave me the bug to kick on, to want to become an Olympian like them.” Even some memorabilia that 2010 Youth Olympic champion Burnett brought back proved inspirational. “A Team Ireland top, that I’ve still got it to this day! He brought me a green one, a pink one for Michaela and a navy one for my dad. For me to wear that was like this badge of honour, like Ryan Burnett, the Youth Olympic champion, got this for me! “Ryan was only about five or six years older than me. For me, to be sparring Ryan and sparring Paddy, that brought me on so much. “When I started coming through Paddy was really in his prime. Seeing his Olympic success and medals, I think that did wonders for myself and Michaela.”
Hugh Russell, who won flyweight bronze in Moscow in 1980, was at Walsh’s own homecoming and not just in his professional capacity as a successful news photographer. “He was there taking photos but someone took a cracking photo of myself, Michaela and Hugh, with me showing him my medal. Hugh’s also given me so much advice over the years. “Before I went to Tokyo he said ‘Aidan, don’t be worrying about the next fight because in the Olympics every fight could be your last so just give it everything.’ That was great advice.”
So what is it about Belfast that has created such a decorated Olympic boxing history that crosses so many clubs and eras, starting with John McNally’s bantamweight silver in Helsinki in 1952? Walsh reckons it’s because “it’s such a small place and you’re constantly around other boxers. In my local area , within a few mile’s radius, there’s maybe 10 boxing clubs. “Most of them kids would see me or Paddy or Michael Conlan or Hugh Russell walking down the street or sparring in their boxing club. When you see things like that it’s not alien to you. “Paddy’s from Cliftonville, Ryan Burnett’s from the Antrim Road, Michael Conlan’s from the Falls Road and I’m from the Andersonstown Road, all within a few miles of each other. “There’s so much talent in Belfast boxing that just getting out of Ulster is a tough start but I think that really stands to us.” And just how tiny Belfast is was brought home to him when he walked into a random coffee spot a few months after the Tokyo Olympics. “Hugh Russell was sitting there. He laughed and said ‘how often would you see two Olympic bronze medallists in the one coffee shop?’
Now Walsh is part of its enduring boxing heritage, another real-life Olympic hero, inspiring the city’s next generation to follow their dreams, inside and outside the ring.
Watch Aidan’s video here