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olympic countdown Boxer Kurt Walke's rocky road to reaching Tokyo Olympic dream

Kurt Walker has had to deal with his daughter’s health issues and Covid chaos ahead of Olympics

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Kurt Walker (left) and Hamsat Shadalov of Germany.

Kurt Walker (left) and Hamsat Shadalov of Germany.

Kurt Walker (left) and Hamsat Shadalov of Germany.

Nine years ago, Kurt Walker sparred with Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan before they won bronze medals at the London Olympics.

Five years ago, he traded leather with them before their ill-fated Rio Olympics expedition.

Early next Saturday morning the 26-year old Lisburn boxer will finally get a chance to follow in the footsteps of his heroes and become an Olympian in Tokyo’s Kokugikan Arena.

But few of his 105 Team Ireland colleagues have experienced the range of emotions which engulfed him in the last 14 months.

Walker’s life changed forever on May 17 last year when his partner Ria gave birth to their daughter Layla. The baby was due on August 14 – her arrival would have coincided with Walker’s return from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics had he qualified, and had the Games gone ahead as scheduled.

But life has a way of upsetting the best-laid plans. The Covid-19 pandemic caused the postponement of the Games for a year. But this was minor stuff, compared to the personal trauma Kurt and Ria endured last summer.

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Walker with Zaur Antia and Billy Walsh back in 2015.

Walker with Zaur Antia and Billy Walsh back in 2015.

Walker with Zaur Antia and Billy Walsh back in 2015.

A routine hospital check-up in May discovered Ria had pre-eclampsia. She was rushed to the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald. There was no room there and she was transferred to Antrim Area Hospital, where baby Layla was born. She weighed just 25 ounces or 1.54lbs.

For weeks her life was in the balance. Due to the Covid-19 restrictions her parents could only take turns to visit her.

“It was touch and go,” recalls Walker. “After two weeks the doctor brought us in and told us they had to turn up the ventilator to 100, which meant that Layla wasn’t breathing for herself.

“Basically, they could only keep the ventilator running at that level for eight hours. After that there would be too much lung damage for her to survive. It was the longest eight hours of my life.

“Four hours passed before she started to improve. Then they were able to turn the ventilator down gradually. It went down to 99, 98 and by the end of the eight hours it was down at 50.”

Three months later Layla was able to come home with them to Stoneyford near Lisburn. Now 14 months old, she is walking despite her tiny frame. “It is amazing what she can do,” says Kurt, who looks after her at the weekends when his partner is working.

Walker had fallen out of love with the sport he was devoted his life to when Layla was born.

Train

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Kurt Walker believes that a medal is achievable.

Kurt Walker believes that a medal is achievable.

Kurt Walker believes that a medal is achievable.

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While still at secondary school he accepted an invitation from the then Irish Head coach Billy Walsh to train alongside Barnes, Conlan and Katie Taylor in Dublin before the London Olympics in 2012.

“I only went to school on a Monday but trained in Dublin from Tuesday to Friday. After a year doing that, I quit school and I have been full-time in Dublin ever since. Becoming an Olympian has been nine years in the making. Thank God I made it, or I would have cracked up.

But on a surreal night in March 2020, in the Copper Box Arena in London, Walker’s career hit the skids in the space of three minutes. Everything about the occasion was surreal.

The Olympic Task Force, who are in charge of the boxing tournament in Tokyo after the AIBA was banned by the IOC, made the ill-fated decision to go ahead with the

European qualifier tournament for the Games, despite the growing threat of the pandemic.

Eventually, they were forced to recognise the folly of their decision, and the tournament was abandoned. Before the lights went out Walker faced a German opponent Hamsat Shadalov, trained by former Irish coach Eddie Bolger. The prize for the winner was a slot in Tokyo.

“I was just too relaxed about the whole thing. I had never been so relaxed in my life. It was the last session before the whole thing was called off. But I was happy enough, because I’m thinking ‘if I win this, I will have qualified, regardless of what happens.’

Walker knew he was in trouble when he saw the five judges’ score cards after round one. Shadalov was ahead on them all.

“I knew there was no way I was going to get back against a southpaw. He just kept running during the next two rounds.

“I was devastated for a good seven months afterwards, because there would be a lot of pressure going into the final qualifier. Basically, I had one bad performance in two years, but it came at the worst possible time.”

Walker wasn’t to know it at the time, but the level of consistency he had achieved on the international circuit – which saw him win gold medals at the 2019 European Games and the 2017 European Union Championships, and silver medals at the 2017 European Championships and the 2018 Commonwealth Games – secured him a place in the featherweight division at the Tokyo Games.

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Kurt Walker sparred with Michael Conlan before the London 2012 Olympics.

Kurt Walker sparred with Michael Conlan before the London 2012 Olympics.

Kurt Walker sparred with Michael Conlan before the London 2012 Olympics.

But, as his daughter Layla battled to stay alive, boxing disappeared from his radar.

“Training was the last thing I wanted to do. I just didn’t care. I was just eating rubbish and I ended up getting fat. I was over 70kg,” recalls Walker who had to shed 10kg (22 pounds) when he did return to the ring.

Slots

Eventually the Task Force changed the qualification process and abandoned plans for a final qualification tournament. Instead, they filled the final slots through a qualification process.

Walker ended up being ranked 14th in the featherweight, comfortably inside the cut-off point.

There still have been obstacles on the journey. He contacted Covid-19 at Christmas, and then picked up a rib injury.

He is woefully short on competitive boxing, but feels the majority of his opponents are in the same position.

“Apart from the Asians and the Russians, who kept fighting during the lockdown, all the other boxers are in the same boat as myself. I know for sure that German won’t beat me again.”

Walker wasn’t a child prodigy. There was no tradition of boxing in his family and the first sport he tried was taijutsu.

When the club moved to another part of town, he walked through the doors of Lisburn Boxing club, aged nine.

“I was good, but I was never the champion. During my first three years I never won a title. But when I went to Youth level, I destroyed everyone. I was winning every fight by 20 points. So, I knew then I could achieve something.

Bronze

“I went to the World Youths in 2012 and won a bronze medal. I moved up to bantamweight and was beaten in the European Youth final the following year,” said Walker, now a long-time member of the Canal Boxing club in his native Lisburn.

Five years ago, he remembers exactly where he was when news came through of Michael Conlan’s controversial loss in Rio.

“I was skint at the time because I wasn’t been funded. So, I was working in a factory in Lisburn. I remember hearing it on the factory radio that Mick had been robbed.”

Of the 16 Irish boxers who have won 17 Olympics medals since 1952, eight have hailed from Northern Ireland.

Fellow Ulster man John McNally (1952, silver), Freddie Gilroy (1956, bronze) and Wayne McCullough (1992, silver) all medalled in the bantamweight division

This weight division has been incorporated into the featherweight class at the Tokyo Games. Walker wants to join that unique band of boxers.

“100 per cent I’m going for a medal. I don’t think it would be a shock if I got one. I was one win away from medalling at the last World Championships.

“I have won two European gold medals. So, I can definitely get on the podium,” he predicted.

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