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Olympic dream is alive for boxer Dean Walsh after a stint in prison
Less than two months after celebrating his 21st birthday, Dean Walsh won a bronze medal at the 2015 European Boxing championships in Samokov, Bulgaria.
The Rio Olympics were just a year away and Walsh looked on target to be there – but failed to qualify. This ignited a chain of events which saw his life temporarily spiral out of control.
Within two years of the biggest win in his career, he hit rock bottom and was facing a prison sentence for assault. “I went down the wrong road and made bad choices,” he admits.
Significantly, by the time he began his sentence he had confronted the demons, which nearly ruined his life. However, his once promising boxing career was in ruins.
Now, 16 months out from the 2024 Olympics in Paris, Walsh is back in the hunt for a place on the Irish team. He caused a sensation at the IABA Elite championships last month when he defeated Tokyo bronze medallist Aidan Walsh in the semi-final of the light-middleweight division.
The Wexford native went on to claim the title and for a record third time he was named Boxer of the Championship.
The fight game is littered with stories of redemption, but in an Irish context, few match the tale of Walsh’s rise, fall and resurrection.
His family links to boxing are inter-generational. His great grandfather was a boxer, as was his grandfather, Liam; his father Donal – who is now his coach – also fought.
His uncle Billy was an Olympian in 1988, and in his former role as Head Coach of the IABA’s High Performance Unit was in his nephew’s corner when he won his European bronze medal.
In 2014, at the age of 19, Dean was crowned Irish light-welterweight champion.
But it was a bittersweet time for the Walsh family. His grandfather and best friend Liam was too ill to attend the semi-finals. He promised Dean that if won he would be in the Stadium for the final.
On finals night Liam was the recipient of a special award from the IABA, recognising his long service to boxing. Two weeks later he passed away.
“He did an interview with the Wexford Peoplebefore the final, saying he would die a happy man if I won the elite title. His words meant a lot to me. The title was for him and I put the medal in his coffin.”
Under the watchful eye of his uncle, Walsh’s international career initially blossomed, culminating in him securing a bronze medal – he was beaten by the eventual gold medallist Vitaly Dunaytsen – at the 2015 European Championships.
Walsh won his first fight at the 2016 European Olympic qualifier in Samsun, Turkey but lost in the next round on a split decision to Cuban-born Lorenzo Sotomajor, who was boxing in the colours of his adopted country Azerbaijan. Sotomajor went on win a bronze medal in Rio.
Worse was to follow when he was sent home from Turkey for a breach of team discipline and fined €5,000 – later reduced to the cost of their flight home.
Walsh doesn’t dispute that an empty bottle was thrown out of the window of his room but is adamant he wasn’t the culprit. “I wasn’t even drinking but I wouldn’t open my mouth and say who did it, so I was sent home.”
He won a box off against Ray Moylette to secure a second chance of Olympic qualification at a tournament in Baku but was beaten in his first fight.
“Then it hit me that I wouldn’t be going to Rio. I didn’t let it go and it kind of festered on my mind for a long, long time. I just went in a lot on myself. Watching guys I had beaten competing in the Olympics made it worse.”
Boxing was no longer the centre of his life and he began to socialise a lot more at the weekends . “I started going down a slippery slope,” he says.
Even though he won a fourth Elite title in a row in 2017 at welterweight, his life outside the ring was becoming chaotic.
On July 1, 2017, and again on November 5, he was involved in two assaults in Wexford Town, causing serious injuries to two men.
At a sentencing hearing in December 2020 Judge Martin Nolan said: “Walsh was a hard-working and ambitious man but, when intoxicated, he became belligerent and his inhibitions were gone.”
Walsh received a four-year jail term, with the final 18 months suspended.
Even though his family and friends repeatedly pointed out the error of his ways, it took him some time to accept that he needed to change his behaviour.
“I suppose I was only listening to them with one ear. Two or three weeks later I would go out again and pretend to myself it would be different this time.
“I take full responsibility for the way I acted. I went down a very bad road.
“I am very remorseful about the assault incidents. They wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t drinking.
“Everything happened so quickly. In the space of a couple of years I genuinely nearly lost everything. And now things are one hundred per cent better than before I started drinking.
“I didn’t do this on my own. This took my family, my fiancée Rachel, her family, my boxing club St Ibars/St Joseph’s and some close friends. They didn’t give up on me. But you have to be willing to be open and seek help.”
He weighed 86kgs on his release from prison in October 2021.
However, he shed 15kgs (nearly two- and-a-half stone) within five months, which enabled him to compete in the light-middleweight category in the prestigious Eindhoven Cup tournament in Holland.
Though he lost on a split 3-2 decision to two time Mauritius’ Olympian Merven Clair – who had lost to Aidan Walsh in the bronze medal fight at the Tokyo Games – it convinced the Wexford native that his dream of being an Olympian was still flickering.
“From then on I knew I could compete with the best,” he recalls.
Seven years after his failed attempt to qualify for the Olympics, the mission is back on schedule.
“My biggest goal is to go to Paris. But there are so many small targets you have to hit before you go but the end goal is the Olympic Games,” he says.
There is no guarantee his story will have a fairytale finale.
But at least he never gave up on his dream.