Tuesday 17 September 2019

'I just wasted a lot of energy and time putting horrible substances into my body' - Orla Walsh

‘I became addicted to cycling through commuting,’ says Orla Walsh, who hopes to be part of Ireland’s team pursuit squad for the European Games. Photo: Gerry Mooney
‘I became addicted to cycling through commuting,’ says Orla Walsh, who hopes to be part of Ireland’s team pursuit squad for the European Games. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Ciarán Lennon

'Five years ago I looked down on sport, I didn't see the point. Now I'm riding around in a circle with four people. I'm like, 'This is the best thing ever'. I didn't appreciate it, I didn't understand it, but now I'm all in."

Orla Walsh is on a roll now. Her coffee is getting cold as she runs through the many junctures on her unlikely journey. They still catch her, prompting laughter that fills her local Castleknock coffee shop.

The grungy, heavy-drinking 'party girl' transformed into an elite athlete in about as much time as it takes to fix a puncture. Behind the tattoos and busy social-life, she says her old life was unhappy and unfulfilled.

"Five years ago, I'd have been drinking quite heavily, regularly, and I smoked for 10 years. I just wasted a lot of energy and time putting horrible substances into my body. I guess now I'm using my body like a machine and just really enjoying it," explains Walsh.

In February, she put that machine into action on the boards in Poland. Alongside Alice Sharpe, Kelly Murphy and Mia Griffin, her team pursuit squad broke the Irish record while placing 10th at the Track World Championships.

It was a credible performance for a quartet that Cycling Ireland pieced together 24 months earlier and Walsh admits just looking at the event during the last Olympics left her puzzled.

"I remember thinking, 'What in the name of God is going on, why is that person going up the bankings'? I'd no idea at all."

The velodrome in Pruszkow was the latest stop on a winding road for the 29-year-old, who has a psychology degree from Trinity, worked in a women's health centre in the States with survivors of domestic abuse, before returning to Dublin to do Master's in Creative Digital Media and start a new career path in User Experience design. All along the way, she drank too much, partied too late and never as much as owned a gym membership.

She's travelled a long way.

"I'm definitely happier in terms of what I'm doing. Mostly the lifestyle choices I was making at the time, they're not good for your mind or your body.

"I wasn't getting anything out of partying, I did it for long enough, it's kinda sad that I wasted so much time, but I was just in a bad cycle, and I didn't really see a way out of it," she says. "It wasn't like I was a train-wreck, but it was very unhealthy and I wasn't happy."

There was no rock-bottom moment to spark a moment of clarity. Her transition came in two parts; one by chance, the other by Cycling Ireland's design.

Back in Dublin and tight for cash as she started her Master's, Walsh, weary of a meandering commute, decided to ditch the Leap Card and cover the 10km on an old Lapierre road bike she borrowed from her father. He escorted her into the city on that first morning ride and her parents have been at her side for every part of the journey since.

"I started to commute and yes, I became addicted to cycling through commuting," she says, smiling again. Possibilities as wide as the Phoenix Park opened up before her.

Within a year, she joined Dublin club Orwell Wheelers and quickly went from group spins to weekend races, even though there was no time for training. The Des Hanlon Memorial, featuring some of the best riders in the country, was Walsh's second race and ended with predictable results.

"I kept trying and failing," she says. The following winter, though, she sharpened her focus and, working with A1 coaching to improve her training and racing knowledge, saw an dramatic upturn in results.

Walsh's improvement coincided with the launch of Cycling Ireland's talent transfer programme. The web link she was emailed in those early months of 2017 started with a two-word question: 'Olympic Games?'

A now-transformed Walsh, encouraged by some podium results on the road, put herself forward despite not having another 'national or high level' sport to transfer from. She was surprised to get an invite, but after two rounds of testing, Walsh was still standing, part of a group of eight, later whittled down to four, including athletes that had never ridden a bike before.

"So I was the 'experienced cyclist'," she says, delivering the phrase lightly. "I was the one who was like, 'So these are gears' ..."

From their first brutal training camp in Mallorca, it's been a learning curve as steep as the velodrome banks they learned to master. It's brought them around the world to tracks in London, Berlin, and Hong Kong for World Cup meetings, European Championships and, most recently, to the World Championships.

Inevitably, there's been stumbles along the way. Even on their first Dublin camp at the Sundrive track in Crumlin, Walsh snapped a collarbone as her track-bike turned into a catapult as she tried to free-wheel over the finish line. She was back on her indoor turbo two days after surgery, determined to be ready for their first Mallorca training camp a month later.

"I had seen that there was an opportunity here that I didn't want (to let it slip)," she adds.

And after very public difficulties at last year's European Championship, when the team of four fractured into two groups of two, the performance in Poland was affirmation that they deserved to be among elite company.

Walsh has documented her transformation in considered detail on her @pedalingheroine Instagram feed, drawing a considerable following - almost 150,000 - and with it some sponsors.

It's not quite the financial rewards a UX designer could hope to earn, but it helps to cover a modest rental in Mallorca, and her daily coffee expenses, and she's found her personal story has struck a chord.

"I would get people messaging me, telling me they've similar stories, or a few people have said, 'I am where you were five years, so how do I change'? And it's hard, because I don't have an answer for them, 'Well, I fell in love with cycling, can you do that?' ... I wish I did, but they have to find their own answer."

She returns to their Mallorca base soon to focus on her next objective, selection for June's European Games, but inevitably for someone in her discipline, conversation turns to the five-ring circus.

"But it's not like that's what I need to do to enjoy the whole journey. I'm happy to see just how fast I can get and if it's not fast enough for the Olympics, that's ok with me, I'll live with that."

Irish Independent

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