THIS time final 12 months Kurt Walker may by no means have imagined himself inside Tokyo’s Olympic Village, counting down the times till a lifelong dream could be fulfilled.
Certainly, boxing and the Olympic Video games had been the furthest factor from his thoughts. There have been a few runs right here and there, however not a single punch had been thrown in anger since March 16, 2020.
That was the dramatic ultimate evening of the European qualifier in London – delayed after that session – when Walker knew all he needed to do was beat Hamsat Shadalov to seal his spot at Tokyo 2020.
Whether or not it was nerves or the uncertainty surrounding the competitors and the Olympics themselves because the world discovered itself within the grip of a pandemic, the fancied Walker underperformed, Shadalov flying out of the blocks and leaving the Lisburn man an excessive amount of to do.
A European Video games gold medallist the earlier summer season, Walker was thought-about one among Eire’s main medal hopes, but now there have been doubts whether or not he could be in Japan in any respect. It was a big physique blow.
Inside a matter of months, none of that mattered any extra.
Earlier than it was cancelled, Walker had been as a result of enter the final probability saloon on the World Olympic qualifier in Paris from Could 13-24. As an alternative it was new child daughter Layla, born three months early on Could 17 and weighing simply 800 grams, who was doing the combating.
Due on August 14, the identical day Walker would have arrived again from Tokyo, he had already imagined returning residence to his younger household with a medal round his neck, however as an alternative he and girlfriend Ria discovered themselves residing a nightmare.
On account of Covid-19 restrictions, Walker wasn’t even allowed into the Antrim Space Hospital within the early phases. When that relaxed, he was granted 20 minutes earlier than having to go away once more.
At one level, when Layla was two weeks outdated, a health care provider informed the couple she had six hours to enhance or she wouldn’t make it. He was crying, so had been they. They’d the infant christened in her incubator however had solely hope to hold onto.
Inside a few hours, although, Layla began to enhance – and from that time on would by no means look again. On August 10, after virtually three months in hospital, the couple had been in a position to carry her residence.
“That was all we had been ready for. For some time it was as if I wasn’t even a boxer as a result of I didn’t give it some thought as soon as. You’re simply in a bubble.
“I used to be in all probability 74 kilos. I didn’t know what was going to occur with boxing or the Olympics, I didn’t actually care both. Some issues are way more essential.”
Quick ahead to final month, and the County Antrim Boxing Board is holding a reception for the 4 Ulster fighters certain for Tokyo at Belfast’s Balmoral Lodge.
By advantage of a rejig within the qualification course of, Walker booked his place with out having one other struggle – the spectacular performances of the pre-Covid years racking up the rating factors and sealing his spot.
Layla is all smiles and giggles as she finds herself the centre of consideration. Irish coach John Conlan is holding her at one level when Walker is known as away for a photograph, but it surely isn’t lengthy earlier than she desires again into her daddy’s arms.
A bond constructed by way of probably the most attempting of instances, it has modified him in each side of life.
“It’s bizarre,” says the 26-year-old, who seems to be set to start his featherweight marketing campaign on Saturday, topic to at this time’s draw.
“I’ve by no means skilled something like that earlier than… it has modified the best way I have a look at issues, undoubtedly. It’s bizarre considering I’m a dad – I nonetheless consider myself like I’m 21. I feel everybody else thinks it’s bizarre as a result of I’d have been messing about on a regular basis.
“However she’s the very first thing on my thoughts after I get up and the very last thing earlier than I’m going to mattress, whereas earlier than there was a lot different stuff… silly stuff, adverse stuff that may’ve drained your vitality. Pondering you couldn’t wait to get again and exit or go on the drink, the place now it’s totally different.
“You already know who’s sitting at residence ready for you, so that you’re not worrying about what else you’re going to do. That’s the one factor that issues and I do know after I come again, I’ll simply wish to see her.
“I feel that’s why I’m not placing any stress on myself right here, as a result of there’s worse issues in life that may very well be taking place. I see this as a celebration – I’ve been coaching my entire life to get right here.
“Now it’s nearly going there and performing, and performing ought to get me very far.”
Whether or not it’s in coaching camp or within the village, although, Layla and Ria are by no means removed from his ideas. Leaving for Japan three weeks in the past, saying goodbye in Belfast earlier than heading for Dublin airport, it was totally different from the joy, the sense of anticipation he usually feels.
“Ah it was robust… very robust.
“She hadn’t a clue like, clearly she’ll know I’m not there however she doesn’t know the way lengthy I’m away. It’s robust on Ria too however she’s used to it with me away in Dublin Monday to Friday. It’s simply one thing we’ve all needed to work round.”
Having travelled from their coaching base in Miyazaki final weekend, Walker is now prepared for the massive present, his endurance paid off.
5 years in the past, he was quantity two to Michael Conlan in Eire, simply ready for his shot. Would the day ever come? He hoped so however, in boxing, you may by no means make certain of something.
“I keep in mind sitting watching Rio final time. I had been out on the Euros in France that summer season too, and other people would ask you concerning the Olympics and also you’d say ‘I’ll hopefully go to the subsequent ones’, however you by no means actually know.
“Those self same individuals are asking you that once you’re sitting having a pint beside them, so that you’re not doing your self too many favours, are you?
“However I really feel like I’ve made a number of progress since then. I’ve masses extra studying to do however I’m in a very good place – I’m stronger than I ever was, fitter, working quicker than I ever have…
“I feel I carry out so much higher in Video games conditions as a result of all of the stress is getting right here. The one stress I’ve now could be what I placed on myself, I don’t actually care what anyone else says – this was a lifetime objective and I’ve achieved it.
“Now I’ve set myself one other objective of getting a medal… there’s no purpose why I can’t.”