Friday 22 September 2017

Vincent Hogan: Driven by the tears of Seoul

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Billy Walsh is the secret fundamentalist. He has to be. Just now his world is carpeted with egg-shells and trip-wires and a thousand little traps set to hijack hyper-sensitive minds.

So Billy goes to work like a kindly curate, all care and human warmth and gentle nurturing. He keeps a mother-hen's eye on his boxers, endlessly dissecting the puzzles behind their eyes.

Billy is an old hand here, a veteran of Olympia. His first experience of the Games was Seoul, and that story has become the parable driving everything he represents. He blew it, you see, and the grief ran through him like a poison for two whole decades. That's the Olympics, he will tell you.

You get a shot at something and there's no knowing where it will take you.

The good thing is he's stopped crying. In the early days of the High Performance programme, Gary Keegan would invite Walsh to recycle his '88 experience, knowing that Billy could never go there without that bottom lip beginning to quiver and his eyes turning glassy as a millpond. Keegan reckoned if a man was seen to carry that pain for as long as Billy Walsh carried it, no kid in his company would ever require an Olympic education.

Six months before those Games, Billy flew to Seoul for a test tournament and knocked Korea's Song Kyung-Sup out cold. No count required, no corner-men flouncing about to buy their fighter time. The local kid was toast.

Then he glimpsed that familiar face again at the opening ceremony, a smiling, suited boy in a 500-strong delegation and, somehow, the knot in his stomach told him to expect trouble.

Sure enough, they were drawn together and Billy's Olympics ended with blood pouring from gashes above and below his left eye and a doctor's shaking head. He was captain of the team and the only one not to win his opening fight. The grief made him want to run away.

"I was ashamed of myself," he says simply. "I cried and cried for days on end. One week later, I got a telegram from my mother saying 'Please ring home!' I hadn't been able to face doing it. I was devastated.

"You get your one shot in life and I'd blown mine. I'm not sure you get over that disappointment. And I probably never will."

But Billy Walsh is a good deal more than husky wisdoms and salty tears. He is a restless student and disciplinarian who could never abide the old, cartoonish ways of Irish boxing teams bringing their fecklessness and bad habits into foreign gyms. Even before High Performance became a badge of honour on the South Circular Road, Billy was fighting that war.

His history with Kenny Egan captures the paradox between the gentle corner-man the boxers now instinctively throw their arms around and a born leader allergic to compromise.

In 2003, Walsh was team manager of an Irish team sent to box Poland in a town called Wisla. Billy, at the time, ran a milk round and had paid someone out of his own pocket to look after it in his absence. Pretty soon, he realised the boxers did not share his respect for a green singlet.

Some of them, Egan included, struck out on the beer.

"They weren't too interested in boxing," he remembers now. "They just went on the batter and I was absolutely disgusted. Sickened by it. They were supposed to fight twice, but four or five of them decided they wouldn't bother with the second fight."

Walsh was 38 at the time, still reasonably fit and pointedly togged out to box Kenny's would-be light-heavyweight opponent. This was one year before High Performance put down roots in Irish boxing.

When he arrived home, Billy reported the drinkers to the IABA, costing Egan a six-month suspension and the temporary suspension of his Sports Council funding.

"I was so disgusted that anybody would not give their best when representing their country," Walsh remembers now.

"I felt completely disillusioned with the sport and wrote a strong letter to the association. I knew things like this had been brushed under the carpet by managers before. They were never reported, but I just couldn't allow that to happen to the sport I loved.

"I had to go to a hearing with the team, so you can imagine the way my relationship with Kenny started. He was suspended on the back of the report I had written. I'm an easy-going fella, but I think it told Kenny there's only so far you go. We go into the ring and we leave everything there.

"I did say it to him the day he guaranteed himself a medal in Beijing. 'Kenny, if I hadn't done that in 2003, you wouldn't be here now!'"

It took hope. It took forgiveness. It took an open mind. But they eventually built a friendship from the beery betrayal of Wisla.

THE SON OF A BUTCHER, the only man in a working-class Wexford street with a job at the time, Billy's childhood dreams were largely blighted by a stripey neighbour.

There was more GAA than boxing in the family DNA and Walsh was decent in both codes. He once hurled wing-back in a Leinster minor final against Kilkenny. Five points up with six minutes to go, Wexford lost by a point. Billy made a decision that evening. As far as he knew, Kilkenny could break no hearts in boxing.

He had won his first Irish title at 14 and if, sporadically, he would return to hurl with Faythe Harriers and play football with Sarsfields (representing Wexford at U-21 in both codes) Walsh made the Olympics his life's ambition.

To this day, he feels cheated that he wasn't selected for Los Angeles in '84. He had the second best record of all the amateurs available, but he was a country boy and nobody in the corridors of power was inclined to push his case. "I was left behind because of where I was from," he says now. "There's no doubt in my mind about that".

In preparation for Seoul, they were bussed to Castlecove on the Ring of Kerry, staying in the Staigue Fort House B&B, training in the ballroom. There were six of them: Walsh, Michael Carruth, Wayne McCullough, John Lowey, Kieran Joyce and Sammy Storey. Innocents being guided by the blind.

One of the instructions given was not to drink water because it might give them stomach cramps! An old wives' tale.

"Crazy stuff," Billy chuckles now. "We went to Kerry to prepare for 80pc humidity, a 13-hour flight and nine-hour time difference, with only ourselves as sparring partners. There was a shop there and a pub. The highlight of our day was walking down to the shop to get an ice-cream.

"Looking back, we did so many things that were counter-productive to performance back then."

His friendship with Carruth was strong and lasting, the Dubliner's mother, Joan, becoming his "Dublin mammy". And, when Austin Carruth coached Irish teams, he'd put Billy and Michael rooming together. In '91, circumstance even tossed them into a ring.

Billy had decided to move down to welterweight for the National Championships just as Michael was moving up from light-welter. Another Irish champion, Eddie Fisher, also went into the draw. Sparks were going to fly.

The first fight out of the hat was Carruth v Walsh. Billy won and went on to take the title. But a year later the hand raised was Michael's, a victory it was assumed that secured Carruth's place at the Barcelona Games. But five box-offs were called for by the IABA, among them one for welterweight.

"I was a stone overweight when they rang me," recalls Walsh. "I had retired, was playing a bit of football with my mates, drinking a few pints. The box-off was set for a Friday night in January and the Saturday before it I was in Rosslare, at the Wexford Sports Star of the Year award. Couldn't even eat the meal."

Michael won the box-off comfortably and Billy would be in the Carruths' house on St Peter's Road six months later as his best friend became Ireland's first Olympic gold medallist in 36 years. Ever think it could have been him?

"Oh without a doubt," he smiles.

Soon after, they changed the age-limit for amateur boxing from 32 to 35 and, in '96, Billy Walsh made a comeback.

He'd been looking after a few kids in St Joseph's Gym and running the roads with a young light-fly, Tom Connors, who was hoping to make the Nationals. Billy's legs seemed to lighten with each run and soon young Tom was struggling to avoid being left behind.

So, from September to January, Walsh trained with an eye on the seniors. Just one problem. He couldn't get a fight. Eventually his namesake, Billy Walsh from Cork, obliged by coming to Wexford and the two of them promptly went to war.

"I broke his nose, but damaged my hand as well," recalls Wexford Billy. There were two weeks to go to the seniors.

He was beaten well by Sydney Olympian Michael Roche, with whom he would develop a firm friendship. Noel Andrews interviewed Billy in the ring afterwards, opening live on RTE television by declaring it the "end of the road".

Billy is still laughing at the memory. "Fair play to RTE, they retired me," he chuckles. "I cried a lot after that as well!"

THERE IS SO MUCH THEY GOT RIGHT, himself, Gary Keegan, Zaur Antia and all the other original component personalities of the High Performance unit.

The medals that came home from Beijing became the high arc of a story building for some time. They changed a culture. They flushed away the palsied diffidence of Irish boxers stepping into rings they presumed would be just holding-pens for disappointment.

They dragged the programme up the mountain. But then realised they'd forgotten something.

The boxers came home to a sense of Mardi Gras and were, essentially, cut adrift. There was no plan for their success, no debrief for their emotions. Just functions and media and people making eyes at them who, three weeks earlier, wouldn't have known their names.

Kenny's troubles have been well chronicled, and he and his mother recently made presentations to the London-bound boxers and their families about the difficulty of readjustment after life in the Olympic bubble.

They will all be brought in for a 'psychological review' when they come home now. There will be no emotional abandonment.

Medal or no medal, a returned Olympian needs guidance.

Walsh himself was back at his job in a Wexford foundry within 48 hours of returning from Seoul.

Back in overalls and a welding hat after three weeks of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Carl Lewis, Daley Thompson, Steffi Graf, Gabriella Sabatini and Ed Moses.

"My God, it's some comedown," he remembers. "You feel you're nearly becoming acquaintances with all these top stars and, next thing, you're back wearing the welding goggles as if you'd never been away.

"I mean we used go into this pub in Seoul that was called 'The Twilight Zone' and it was just the perfect description of where we were at. That's exactly what it felt like, a twilight zone.

"So it's very difficult to get on with your normal life after being at an Olympic Games. It's your life's ambition to get there, but what's after it? What happens you? Where's your goal when you stop? Luckily, I eventually found mine in coaching."

Beijing seems a lifetime ago. They've kept winning medals since, but a little light has slipped from their lives too. While he was on the Programme, Darren Sutherland used get a daily text from Billy. Just a 'checking-in' routine that he knew Darren appreciated.

Ask him his favourite memory of the last Games and Billy chooses Sutherland's bronze medal destruction of Venezuela's Alfonso Blanco.

"Such a masterclass," he remembers. But his medal secured, Darren's mind was instantly transported to the pro ranks and he barely threw a punch in his semi-final loss to Britain's James DeGale, a boxer he'd defeated four times previously.

Any pictures of Darren's corner that day show Billy staring daggers. He misses him. They all do.

But the drumroll rises again now and Billy finds himself spending a lot of time trying to drown the sound out. Expectation flies at a silly altitude.

"It's absurd in a lot of ways, scary actually," he says. "It's a constant fight to try to control that with the team. Obviously, they hear everything.

"But this is a very tough game and they've all been knocked off their perches at some stage throughout their campaigns.

"So the Olympic circus is on my mind quite a bit. London has so many benefits for us, but also a lot of negativity. Everyone and their granny is here, so we're trying to control that. Look, without these people, those kids would not be where they are. But one wrong word in the wrong place at the wrong time can put fear in fellas' heads.

"You don't realise the impact just being at an Olympics can have on an individual.

"You're in that village with the best athletes in the world, passing them every day, getting your picture taken with them, collecting autographs. I like to describe the village as 'Fantasy Island'. Everything you've dreamed of is there.

"The easiest thing is to get carried away by it all. To forget the reason you've come to the Games."

He knows this gig is a psychological high-wire act. The trick is never to look down.

Irish Independent

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