Friday 15 December 2017

Walsh: Football is never going to get you what athletics can

'Last summer Michaela Walsh finished 11th at the World U-20 championships in Poland, and in recent weeks she smashed her Irish U-20 hammer record in Germany.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Last summer Michaela Walsh finished 11th at the World U-20 championships in Poland, and in recent weeks she smashed her Irish U-20 hammer record in Germany.' Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

If adulation was the goal, Michaela Walsh would never have gone down this path. The 18-year-old from Swinford was once one of Mayo's most promising footballers, and out her way that's the kind of currency that gets you noticed.

Being able to hurl a 4kg metal ball more than 60 metres? Not so much.

But in 2014, when she came to a crossroads, she couldn't resist the road less travelled. She could be a good footballer, she thought, maybe play in Croke Park some day, but the great unknown was where athletics might take her.

"When you're in second or third year in school and everybody is talking about football, you would love to play it," she says. "But now I've gone past that, I realised it's never going to get you what athletics can."

The decision was made, football was jettisoned, and later that summer Walsh finished sixth in the shot put at the Youth Olympics in China. A year later, she cracked the top 10 in the shot put and hammer throw at the World Youth Championships in Colombia.

Last summer she finished 11th at the World U-20 championships in Poland, and in recent weeks she smashed her Irish U-20 hammer record in Germany.

This weekend, she'll be in a more familiar setting: the Irish Schools Championships in Tullamore. With school out for summer - Walsh just finished fifth year at Scoil Muire Agus Padraig in Swinford - training has been upped to seven days a week, with her grandmother taxi-ing her on the 30-minute journey to Castlebar.

Unlike sprinters or middle distance runners, competing in a fringe event offers scant recognition, with hammer events usually held outside the main stadium for safety reasons, usually with a handful watching.

But Walsh is unbowed. After all, Ireland has a rich history in the event. It accounts for half of our Olympic gold medals in athletics, courtesy of Pat O'Callaghan at the 1928 and 1932 Games.

We also invented it, the earliest traces dating to the Tailteann Games in Tara in 2000 BC.

More recently, Walsh had another trail blazer to follow in Eileen O'Keeffe, who finished sixth at the World Championships in 2007.

"She was an inspiration to all," says Walsh. "She showed Irish people can do it as well."

Walsh has broken some of O'Keeffe's underage records, and though she knows there's a vast chasm separating junior and senior success, she hopes to someday emulate the Kilkenny woman's achievements.

In July, she will compete at the European Junior Championships in Italy and her rankings - fourth in the hammer and sixth in the shot put - suggest a medal could be on the cards.

In recent months, a number of US colleges have been in touch, looking to draw her talent Stateside. Walsh always felt she would stay in Ireland, but the interest of Harvard, in particular, is forcing her to re-consider.

Wherever she goes, she wants to continue being the flag-bearer for Ireland's 4,000-year history with the hammer throw. It's an event too few pay attention to, but maybe she can change that.

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