Walsh guides team to glory
Five U.S. boxers Rio-bound
Last Thursday the majority of sporting fans in the country were celebrating St. Patrick's Day by indulging in the G.A.A. Club championship finals, racing at Cheltenham, and Liverpool v. Man United in the Europa League clash.
On the same day over 7,000 miles away in South America, a boxing tournament was taking place in the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires, that had more than a passing interest for Irish sports fans but in particular for Wexford people.
Our own Billy Walsh was making his debut in his first major tournament as head coach to the U.S.A. boxing team. Since his appointment and subsequent arrival in Colorado last November as women's coach, a hectic schedule and equally hectic workload has seen the Wexford man also assume responsibility for the preparation of the male boxers.
The Americas Qualifier tournament was the first opportunity for members of the U.S. boxing team to book their places on the plane to Rio. The team is unrecognisable towards the boxers that represented their country in London, as not one of the male team remains in the squad.
The only female boxer remaining is golden girl Claressa Shields, who is the reigning Olympic champion, so an inexperienced squad with a new coaching set-up headed into their most important tournament so far in a new era for all involved.
A hectic week of competition resulted in a haul of four gold medals, one silver and four bronze, but most importantly five athletes qualified for the Olympic Games. The medal haul is something we normally associate with tournaments of this nature involving Irish boxing teams.
That might seem a strange statement to make but you must realise that U.S. boxing is at its lowest ebb in the history of its existence, while in the last twelve years Irish boxing has seen unprecedented success.
The U.S.A. holds the record for the highest number of boxing medals won in the history of the Olympics, but this powerful nation won no medals in London and just one bronze in Beijing. Similar under-achieving statistics exist for recent world championship tournaments, so there is blatant evidence of the difficult task facing Billy Walsh as he tries to return his adopted nation to the highest level.
Last week's tournament was the first step on the road to redemption, but as usual the Wexford man did not get carried away with the team's achievement and expressed disappointment that some of them did not perform to expectations when it really mattered. He insisted they are a long way from where they want to be and there is still an enormous challenge ahead.
One interesting statistic to emerge from last week is that Billy Walsh has now been involved in qualifying two boxers for two different counties in two different weights for the same Olympics!
Paddy Barnes and Nico Hernandez (light-flyweight), and Michael Conlan and Shakur Stevenson (bantamweight) are the fighters in question; surely this is some sort of record.
Billy recalls that in all the major tournaments he has been involved with while coaching Irish teams, they have never been drawn against an American boxer. With the world championships and Olympic Games coming up in the next five months, you can bet your bottom dollar that the gods of the draw will conspire to redress that imbalance as soon as possible. As the pragmatic coach says himself, he may deal with that scenario when it arises. By any standards the tournament in Buenos Aires has been very successful for our Wexford export, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that they only qualified because of the intervention of the new coach. It would be equally outrageous to say that his influence has not had a major impact on their qualification for Rio.
When a new foreign coach arrives to a country, it is human nature for association members, boxers, officials and coaches to treat the new arrival with an air of suspicion and apprehension (Billy was used to that after his previous job anyway).
The hardest task is to convince all involved that his ideas, coaching and training methods, which in some cases were alien to their previous methods, would result in better performances at a high level. It has taken a few months but he seems to have earned their trust and respect, and they are buying in to his way of thinking and preparing.
Last week would have reinforced their belief in the former Irish coach. There is still a lot of work to do but there is a willingness from all concerned to do whatever it takes to get to the top of the sport.
Billy has stressed how welcoming, supportive and helpful all at U.S.A. Boxing have been to the Wexford native, which can only help get the best out of their new employee. One wonders if his previous employers were taking any notice of the results.
The American squad arrived in Buenos Aires one week before the start of the tournament. Staying in the same hotel was former Grease star Olivia Newton-John, who was performing in a venue nearby.
Being the shy, retiring type, Billy Walsh introduced himself and some of the team to one of his boyhood heroines. He also had to give the young team members a history lesson as to who the singing star actually was.
That evening some of the staff including Billy decided to go to the concert, allegedly minus their leather jackets and grease back hairstyles. While at the back of the queue for tickets, the singing star passed by on her way in to the venue.
She recognised our ambassador and his coaches and promptly instructed the security guys to bring them up to the front and bring them in as her guests. That Walsh fella would get in anywhere!